Why Barack Obama's Legacy Lies in Foreign Policy Despite Key Failures

Obama Kerry Iran
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on "implementation day," the day the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran met all conditions under the nuclear deal, in Vienna on January 16. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the Obama administration's detailed vision for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on December 28. His speech provoked a negative response from Israel for the criticisms of Netanyahu's government, but the central point of Kerry's speech was his concern over the peace process. Kerry declared that the two-state solution is in serious jeopardy almost a quarter of a century after the Oslo Process began, and forcefully argued that it offers the only path to peace.

The potentially landmark speech comes as the relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations is—not for the first time—under great stress, especially following Washington's decision to abstain last month from a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Kerry defended that decision asserting that the Obama team has done more for Israel than any other administration, yet acted as it did to try to preserve the viability of the two-state solution.

The roadmap of principles outlined by Kerry, which President-elect Donald Trump condemned, comes shortly before he leaves office on January 20. Despite this coming at the end of his tenure, he hopes to put a marker in the ground that helps shape the debate, internationally, about the peace process, and consolidates the Obama administration's foreign policy legacy.

Like Obama, previous presidents have often seen foreign policy as a fundamental part of the legacy they wish to build. For instance, after the trauma of the 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush sought to spread his democracy and freedom agenda across the Middle East, which included the toppling of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime.

President Bill Clinton was the last president to devote significant time to securing a comprehensive peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. And he came relatively close to securing a breakthrough deal in 2000 at the Camp David Summit, but compromise ultimately proved elusive.

That Obama is looking to foreign policy to establish a legacy reflects, in part, the fact that since his re-election in 2012, he has achieved relatively little high profile domestic policy success. For instance, his gun control bill and immigration reform were defeated by the Senate and Supreme Court, and a long-term federal budgetary "grand bargain" with Congress collapsed.

Many re-elected presidents in the post-war era, just like Obama, have found it difficult to acquire momentum behind a significant new domestic agenda. In part, this is because the party of re-elected presidents, as with the Democrats now, often holds a weaker position in Congress in second terms of office.

Thus Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972 and Bill Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside Congresses where both the House of Representatives and Senate were controlled by their partisan opponents. This dynamic means domestic policy initiative in Washington—if it exists at all—can edge back to Congress.

This overall political context means Obama has placed ever increasing emphasis on foreign policy (which Congress has less latitude over), as Tuesday's Arab-Israeli speech by Kerry exemplified. This international orientation has been especially marked as the U.S. economic recovery has built up steam.

Laying down the potential foundations for a future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is only one key area in which Obama is looking to define his legacy. Also in the Middle East, among his key—if intensely controversial—foreign policy accomplishments is the final, historic nuclear deal with Iran. The agreement between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 (United States, China, Russia, United Kingdom, France plus Germany) was a major victory for Kerry and Obama, albeit one that the incoming Trump administration may now seek to unwind in 2017.

The landmark deal has long-term potential not only in forging a lasting rapprochement with Iran. It also holds possibility, ultimately, to help transform the wider geopolitics of the Middle East, and help consolidate Obama's broader desire to enhance global nuclear security. In this policy area, as well as pushing inter-state nuclear diplomacy with countries such as Iran and Russia, Obama has created the Nuclear Security Summit process to counter nuclear terrorism, which he has described as the "most immediate and extreme threat to global security."

Turning to the Americas, the Obama team has sought to reset relations with Cuba whose revolutionary leader Fidel Castro died in November 2016. In December 2014, the two countries announced they would restore diplomatic relations, and Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country in almost 90 years in March, announcing a new suite of measures that further eroded the bilateral sanctions regime introduced during the Cold War era.

Perhaps Obama's biggest regret on the foreign front will be the lack of progress in his plans to pivot U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific. Particularly notable is the failure of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement between the United States and 11 countries in the Americas and Asia-Pacific (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam) that collectively account for about 40 percent of global gross domestic product. With this agreement, Obama had wanted to "lock-in" his re-orientation of U.S. international policy toward the region and other markets in the Americas, allowing the country to help write what U.S. officials have called "the rules of the road" for the 21st century world economy.

Yet, with Donald Trump's election, the deal now looks dead in the water, and the Obama team has not even tried to secure congressional approval for the deal this year. Most likely, the initiative is now over and Chinese-led trade deals such as the proposed Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific may now emerge into the vacuum, as well as the planned Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Taken overall, Obama's legacy will rest heavily on foreign affairs given that he has struggled to secure major domestic policy momentum in his second term. He scored important international successes with the Iran deal and his Cuba initiative, but this is tempered by failure to advance the Asia-Pacific pivot more fully. Moreover, much of his legacy now risks being rolled back, at least partially, by the incoming Trump team with its potentially very different agenda to Obama's.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.