President Obama’s final State of the Union address comes at a time when, for the first time in his administration, the public believes that the nation’s most serious problems involve foreign policy rather than domestic issues, the majority disapproves of the President’s handling of foreign affairs, and 73 percent say they want the next President to take a “different approach” to foreign policy. President Obama, for his part, remains deeply committed to his approach to foreign affairs, is determined to continue on his current course through the end of his mandate, and wants a new kind of foreign policy to be part of the political legacy of his administration.
This will be an uphill battle. Even Hillary Clinton, the President’s former Secretary of State, has moved to distance herself from some of the President’s signature policies. (She would have been more interventionist in Syria, more patient with Israel, less forthcoming with Russia.) As for the Republicans, Senator Rand Paul was the candidate whose foreign policy views most resemble those of the President, and in large part because of the changes in public sentiment that the President is struggling with, Senator Paul has now been relegated to the second, insignificant tier of Republican hopefuls and dropped from the principal debates.
President Obama and Senator Paul both stand within the Jeffersonian tradition of American foreign policy. This school of thought believes that the principles of the American Revolution fare best when American foreign policy is least active. To actively seek America’s Manifest Destiny through the expansion of America’s global role, Jeffersonians believe, exposes the United States to foreign hostility, endangers civil liberties at home, and entangles the United States with untrustworthy powers who are fundamentally hostile to American ideals. America can best change the world, Jeffersonians believe, by cultivating its own garden and setting an example of democratic prosperity that others will emulate.
President Obama’s approach to Iran, the lynchpin of his Middle Eastern strategy, is a classic example of Jeffersonian statecraft through which Obama hopes to stabilize and ultimately democratize the Middle East while reducing America’s profile in the region. By achieving a nuclear agreement and reopening Iran’s economy to the world, Obama hopes to reduce the chances for war (and the need for close American alliances with difficult allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia) while accelerating the democratic transition of a modernizing Iran by integrating that country into international markets.
The original ‘grand design’ of the Obama global strategy was loosely modeled on the Nixon/Kissinger foreign policy: a mix of détente, withdrawal and engagement. Where Nixon and Kissinger pursued détente with the Soviet Union, withdrawal from Indochina and outreach to China, Obama proposed détente with Russia, Sunni Islam, and Iran; withdrawal from Iraq; and the ‘pivot to Asia’ as a new kind of American engagement in Asia.
Parts of the Obama policy are less controversial than others. In particular, the pursuit of closer ties with Asian nations concerned about a rising China is likely to remain a feature in American foreign policy no matter who occupies the White House in January of next year. Other elements of his foreign strategy are generally considered to have failed. The next White House, Democratic or Republican, is likely to take a harder line with Moscow and to take a hard and skeptical look at the President’s counterterrorism strategy.
The most important open question remains the fate of President Obama’s outreach to Iran. The nuclear agreement, slated to go into effect the same week as the State of the Union address, was the most important diplomatic agreement reached under President Obama and remains highly controversial in the United States. The controversy is less over the specific terms of the agreement than about whether détente with Iran can be achieved on terms that reduce rather than exacerbate the chaotic situation in the Middle East as a whole. The logic of President Obama’s Iran and Russia policies, for example, strongly suggests an ultimate American acquiescence in the continued presence of the Assad government in Damascus as part of an overall political settlement in Syria. For President Obama, acquiescing in a de facto Iranian sphere of influence extending from Basra in southern Iraq to Beirut, even if Iran and Russia remain aligned, can potentially be seen as the first step in stabilizing the Middle East while reducing America’s profile there. It is not at all clear that any of the current contenders for the presidency, Hillary Clinton not excluded, would agree with that assessment.
Ultimately, the future of President Obama’s Iran policy will be decided by events on the ground. Traditional American allies in the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and now increasingly Turkey are pushing against the outreach to Iran; the President remains committed to his policy but as President Obama approaches the end of his term, both in Iran and elsewhere policymakers will increasingly discount him as a factor in future American policy and it is impossible to predict how the regional environment will evolve.
Jihadi violence is another wild card. Sensational attacks, like the one in Paris, or ‘lone wolf’ attacks like the one in San Bernardino are deeply unsettling to American public opinion. The President is committed to the argument that overreaction leads to counterproductive policy decisions; he has so far failed to bring the public with him. If the pace and/or the intensity of such attacks increases during 2016, the impact on public opinion and even on the election could be decisive, with major consequences for the President’s legacy.
Many observers at home and abroad misunderstand President Obama’s foreign policy, seeing him as skeptical of American claims to a unique global role. On the contrary, President Obama’s Jeffersionian minimalism is animated by an overwhelming faith in the unstoppable power of American ideals. Iran in particular, the President believes, is moving America’s way. The young, educated population of the Islamic Republic will push the country irresistibly toward some kind of accommodation with western ideas in ways that the less advanced Gulf monarchies cannot hope to emulate. The President has repeatedly declared that the tide of history will carry everyone to liberal democratic shores. He dismisses challenges to American power as mere short-term concerns; Putin, the mullahs and the terrorists are incapable of reversing the march of history or of destabilizing the world system.
The next President is unlikely to be as optimistic; what that means for American foreign policy remains to be seen.
Walter Russell Mead is the Distinguished Scholar in American Strategy and Statesmanship at the Hudson Institute, the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest.