President Obama will seek to consolidate his foreign-policy legacy this year by traveling widely and working with allies to combat extremism and foster the rise of emerging democracies, according to his deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
But whatever his success in promoting democracy in the final year of his presidency, Obama’s legacy will be seen as one of foreign policy retrenchment, argues Stephen Sestanovich, the author of Maximalist: America in the World From Truman to Obama.
“In fact, strong policy control is characteristic of all retrenchment presidents,” he contends. “Elected to clean up a mess, they tend (with some justice) to view the bureaucracies they inherit as prisoners of old ideas and aims.”
Kissinger liked to portray his critics as isolationists or militarists—the left- and right-wing fringes of serious debate, notes Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:
He claimed to be the prudent centrist, to have the only long-term strategy for advancing the national interest. No setbacks shook this conviction. In an otherwise conciliatory letter he wrote to Daniel Patrick Moynihan shortly after leaving office, Kissinger tried to take the edge off their earlier clashes. As ambassador to the United Nations, Moynihan had seen human rights as a way to retake the ideological high ground of the Cold War. The secretary of state, his nominal boss, would have none of it. “I had to position our policy for a long haul,” Kissinger explained, “while you were concerned with the immediate crisis.”
It was a telling inversion of the truth. Kissinger’s position as chief steward of American foreign policy obliged him to focus on a large portfolio of endless pressing concerns. Yet in managing them on a daily basis, he failed to elaborate a strategy that could command support from one administration to the next. He missed, in fact, exactly what Eisenhower—and later, Obama—missed. He had lost the center.
America’s retrenchment presidents teach an ironic lesson, says Sestanovich, the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University:
Coming in to manage a disaster, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama all hoped to devise a foreign policy for the United States that would avoid big swings between over- and undercommitment. What they came up with, however, turned out to command support only as an interim measure. Once it became clear that the world was still a confusing and tumultuous place, the acclaim they had enjoyed was soon forgotten. The resurgence of heated policy debate didn’t just disappoint them—it infuriated them. They found their second terms a bumpy ride, full of criticisms they felt were unfair and unconstructive.