THE BLOG
12/02/2016 02:41 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2017

Obama foreign policy: significant success and notable missteps

Barack Obama took office as president with confidence that he could dramatically improve America's relationships with nations around the world. Eight years later, his foreign policy successes have been significant and his failures apparent. Not surprisingly, he has found campaigning and governing are two very different activities.

He inherited a tough set of difficult, even unprecedented, international challenges, including an unraveling in the Middle East, Russian aggression, the rise of China and North Korea's nuclear advances, among others. To expect any president to resolve all of these challenges is asking a lot, probably too much.

Obama's critics claim he has been weak toward Russia, China and ISIS; they fault him for "leading from behind." These criticisms, however, have been marked by a lack of specific alternative policies.

Obama has made modest progress on global nuclear security and climate change, with plenty more to do in both. He has engaged with longtime adversaries Cuba and Iran, producing positive results.

His trip to Cuba in March 2016 brought dramatic changes in U.S. policy. It signaled the end of America's 55-year-long Cold War with Cuba, a development that was punctuated last week by the death of Fidel Castro.

The visit was widely praised throughout Latin America. Obama criticized Cuba's human rights record, but he connected with its people. His premise in opening relations with Cuba was that engagement would bring about more change than decades of isolation.

The nuclear agreement that the U.S. and five allies reached with Iran in 2015 was a solid arms control achievement. Critics argued we shouldn't deal with Iran, but the Obama administration attacked the most critical problem -- Iran's march toward nuclear weapons -- and negotiated terms that paused Iran's quest to develop a nuclear strike capability.

By design, the agreement did not solve many other problems with Iran, including its support for the Syrian government and for insurgents in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Efforts to improve our overall relationship with Iran have proven to be disappointing.

Obama also made progress on the environment. The 2015 Paris agreement on climate change has been signed by over 100 nations, including the United States, China and India, the three largest producers of greenhouse gases. If fully implemented, it should substantially curb greenhouse emissions over the next 15 years.

The president has had some notable missteps, however. He did not clearly, forcefully and patiently articulate America's role in the world to the American people. His surge of 60,000 troops in Afghanistan has not worked, with the Taliban resurgent and controlling more territory, and with no end in sight to the fighting. His initiatives in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq and his efforts to counter the rise of the Islamic State have fallen short.

Philip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations points out that no one has developed a winning formula for dealing with the Middle East and Northern Africa. We have tried to intervene and occupy, as in Iraq; to intervene and not occupy, as in Libya; and to neither intervene nor occupy, as in Syria. And in all cases, the result has been a disaster.

So, the U.S. policy Obama inherited in the Middle East was a muddle and remains a muddle. The region is no better off now than at the beginning of the president's term, and may well be more turbulent and conflicted.

In our relations with Russia, which Obama tried to reset, tensions have escalated. Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and began providing military support to separatists in eastern Ukraine. Our response has been a rather porous sanction regime based on Obama's view that these areas are a core interest for Russia but marginal for the U.S.

Obama's approach to foreign policy has been marked by restraint, notably his reluctance to use force. He has used drones for surveillance, targeted terrorists with airstrikes and imposed sanctions on nations and individuals, but he has ruled out large-scale intervention.

To his credit, he has tried to ensure that our resources matched our goals. He has struggled to avoid "mission creep" and being sucked into conflicts. He has recognized there are problems we just can't solve -- that we should be helpful when we can but that we can't fix everything. He has insisted that indigenous leadership step up to its responsibilities.

By and large, Obama has supported the network of laws, institutions and agreements that have created a more connected, interdependent world. With some stops and starts, he has tried to make America a force for good so people can live, as he has often said, with the peace and dignity they deserve.

My impression is that, during his presidency, the United States has become stronger, safer and more prosperous. We remain the guarantor of global order and security. We are far from perfect, but America is unquestionably the world's leading power, with unrivaled military, technological and economic strength. The U.S. is still the indispensable nation, and our position in the world is paramount.