Winter 2016

The “grandmaster” logic behind Obama's audacious foreign policy

– Francis A. Kornegay, Jr.

Like a chess master, Obama may have a hidden logic to his foreign policy — one that is apparent only now, at the end of his presidency.

After the final congressional elections of the Obama administration, when Republicans held onto their House majority and won control of the Senate, it seemed that the curtain was falling on one of the most contentious presidencies in recent American history.

But President Obama refused to play by the script. Instead, his hope manifested in a new audacity, from normalizing relations with Cuba to confronting the Israeli Likud-Republican Party-Saudi Wahhabi alliance in the Iran nuclear negotiations. In spite of resistance from Republicans and Democrats alike, Obama has continued on this streak ever since.

By rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline in the build-up to the 2015 Paris climate summit, Obama did more than polish his climate change credentials: he reinforced a much-contested policy of energy security with a monumental geo-economic strategy, shifting the center of the global economy away from East-West feuding and toward greater international integration, bolstered by his Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Add in normalizing relations with Cuba at a time when Brazil’s economy is in the doldrums, and the prospect of revisiting President Bill Clinton’s Free Trade Area of the Americas has come back into play — provided, of course, that the bipartisan lobby for ending the Cuban embargo eventually prevails.

Despite the president’s advocacy, major Democratic constituencies are pushing so hard for an anti-trade agenda that the notion that re-centering the global order around a rejuvenated American economy would be in America's best interests simply fails to register with them. Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state originally supported TPP and TTIP, has had to awkwardly distance herself from Obama’s trade integration strategy, if only to consolidate her base ahead of the 2016 elections. The Obama administration, of course, has hardly made Clinton’s challenge on this issue any easier. So far, they have failed to coherently make a case to the public explaining the contentious issues at hand.

Skepticism of Barack Obama is a veritable cottage industry.

Skepticism of Obama is a veritable cottage industry. To some degree, this is the result of unrealistic expectations of what America’s first black president, given his youthful charisma and oratorical genius, could deliver.

There are, nevertheless, those who see Obama as very much ahead of his time. Noted University of Wisconsin history professor Alfred W. McCoy has called Obama the “Grandmaster of the Great Game” — quite the superlative coming from a peer of the original architects of America’s rise to global power, Elihu Root and Zbigniew Brzezinski. “Moving from repair to revival, from past to future, President Obama has been using America’s status as the planet’s number one consumer nation to create a new version of dollar diplomacy,” wrote McCoy in a September 2015 analysis. “His strategy is aimed at drawing China’s Eurasian trading partners back into Washington’s orbit. While Beijing has been moving to bring parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe into a unified ‘world island’ with China at its epicenter, Obama has countered with a bold geopolitics that would trisect that vast land mass by redirecting its trade towards the United States.”

McCoy's notion is that there's a grand unified theory behind the Obama foreign policy. Obama’s orderly plan within a disorderly world? Integration of the global economy, with the United States as its epicenter. For McCoy, it's the lodestar that has guided much of the president's foreign policy — even the process of normalizing relations with Iran and Cuba fall neatly into this framework.

Obama’s orderly plan for a disorderly world? Integration of the global economy, with America at its center.

Yet, McCoy’s verdict is at least partially premature.

Africa’s absence from the TPP-TTIP equation leaves a gaping hole in what could be a strategic convergence in transatlantic-Pacific initiatives. A trading area along Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline could potentially converge with the economic community that was launched in December by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Regional economic communities on the African side of the Indian Ocean could integrate into an American-led Afro-Asian TPP. In the process, such a pact could prevent regional instability in Africa's fragile states, including South Sudan and Burundi.

Missed opportunities abound. Insofar as TTIP is concerned, Africa and post-Cuba normalization Latin America could merge into a north-south ‘whole of Atlantic’ economic community. Obama’s trisection strategy, then, may not be going far enough, though it may well trump China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ trans-Eurasian gambit.

Africa’s absence from the TPP-TTIP equation leaves a gaping hole in what could be a strategic convergence.

And what of Obama’s military restraint? His grand strategy seems to favor a shift from geopolitics to geoeconomics. Amid massive migration-inducing “nation-building” crises and other instabilities across the global south, there is a discernible shift toward strategic devolution: the notion that regional powers and stakeholders must themselves address the challenges these disorders are throwing up. The logic of multipolarity leads to what is, essentially, a loosely federalist world order.

While there is considerable resistance to this idea among America's liberals and conservatives, the nation-building vehicle of last resort must take the form of a reinvigorated, perhaps regionally reconfigured, United Nations — not the United States.

Again, this seems to be the logic of Obama’s foreign policy: transitioning America from an era when it is the sole global hegemon into a new era with several great competing powers, where America maintains its centrality by leading global integration.

Obama’s foreign policy logic: moving into an era of competing superpowers, where America retains centrality by leading global integration.

This strategy demands a transition in U.S. foreign policy thinking, wherein the country shifts away from the “Pax Americana” model, and towards a more UN-centric power-sharing order within which Washington’s global leadership is embedded. And why not? After all, the UN is an American creation, and Washington’s friends and foes alike feel beholden to it in terms of global credibility. In following up on the logic of Obamaism, Washington needs to invest more in strengthening and expanding the capacity of the UN as the default multilateral governing regime.

In what amounts to an evolution toward global economic federalism, the outlines of such an era, depending on how America’s domestic politics unfold, could mean an America-centric global economic order, accompanied by American strategic leadership embedded in a reformed and regionalized United Nations.

In spite of Obama’s limitations and the understandable shortcomings of his administration, all that Washington, America, and the world may be left with when he leaves office in 2017 is a running start.

It seems like a reasonably good down payment on a prosperous century.

In the aftermath of Obama’s presidency, the legacy of the Obamas will continue as a “work in progress” against the backdrop of a nation and world in transition. Both from a domestic and international standpoint, the possible outcomes seem endless.

This could well be the Obama Century. America and the world would be the better for it.

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Francis A. Kornegay, Jr. is an alumnus of the Wilson Center and resides in South Africa, where he is a senior associate at the Institute of Global Dialogue at the University of South Africa.

Photo courtesy of the White House/Pete Souza