The Foreign Policy Legacy of the Obama Administration

Friday, September 9, 2016
Pete Souza
Daniel W. Drezner

Professor of International Politics, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Michael Mandelbaum

Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; Author, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era

David Milne

Senior Lecturer in Modern History, University of East Anglia;
Author, Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy

Amy S. Davidson

Staff Writer, New Yorker

Tufts University's Daniel W. Drezner, Johns Hopkins University's Michael Mandelbaum, and University of East Anglia's David Milne join Amy S. Davidson, staff writer and senior editor at The New Yorker, to discuss the foreign policy initiatives of the Obama administration, its successes and failures, and the issues that will become President Obama's lasting legacy.

The Lessons from History series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.

DAVIDSON: Good afternoon. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Lessons from History Series meeting on the foreign policy legacy of the Obama administration. I’d like to just very briefly introduce our participants. Since you have their bios in your packets I’ll just keep it very short. Immediately to my left we have Daniel Drezner, of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Then Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins, and David Milne of the University of East Anglia. And they’ve both written a library of books, all three of them. And our—

DREZNER: I notice they’re available in the back, just a—(laughter)—

DAVIDSON: And they are. Thank you. They’ve written some excellent books that are available right behind you. And I’ll just end my introductions by saying we’re really, really lucky to have all three of them.

So this meeting is about legacy. Legacy, what lasts. And I thought we might begin—since it’s a big world and we can jump all over the place, by just talking about what we mean by legacy. One way to think of it is what the Obama administration has already done, or failed to do, and the lives that have already been effected, shaped, ended as the result of what’s happened in the Obama administration. The other way to think about it, obviously, is the forces that the Obama administration may have set in motion that will continue to shape the world, perhaps for generations. That might be thought of as what can’t be undone, what even a Trump administration couldn’t undo, what lasts.

So, Dan, do you want to start with—

DREZNER: Sure, but I’ll be a conscientious objector, since I think David’s the historian and I’m not. So talking about legacy is tricky. I suppose if I was going to think about it, I think are three things that call out to mind in terms of things that Obama has done that will probably have some degree of legacy.

The first and—well, yeah—the first and most significant one is at least the reduction of the threat from al-Qaida. Obviously the one thing that everyone thinks about is the fact that Osama bin Laden is no longer and al-Qaida has, at best, been somewhat muted and, indeed, now seems to be at an ideological conflict with ISIS in terms of trying to lead radical jihadism. So that can’t be undone. That bell can’t be un-rung.

The second for generations, potentially, is the climate change deal. It’s worth remembering that, you know, in 2008 there was no evidence that there was going to be any forward momentum on this. And the fact that the deal was signed—assuming that it then is not only implemented but you see follow on from it—you know, you are talking about something that matters not just for the next generation but for many future generations.

The third thing, though, is more of a process thing. And this is where Obama’s legacy crucially depends on who wins in November, which is in his sort of battles with Congress increasingly you’ve seen Obama, the president, use the executive branch and bypass Congress to get what he wants on a whole variety of things—whether it’s the Iran deal, or the opening to Cuba, or the climate change agreement. On all of these things, he’s essentially done so with either minimal or no support from Congress.

Now, there are ways in which those deals will be tough to undo—particularly, you know, Iran, and the opening of Cuba. Probably even a President Trump would be unlikely to reduce them, although they might sabotage them. But it does suggest the degree to which the next president might wield, you know, an awesome degree of power because, essentially, Obama, rather than trying to defuse the sort of degree of executive action the Bush administration has taken, has if anything doubled down on the ability of executive to act in a way that doesn’t necessarily really show that much concern for Congress.

Now, to be fair, if you asked who started it, Congress has been somewhat obstreperous on a variety of these issues. So I think this wasn’t necessarily the president’s first move. But it was his last move. And I think on that process side, that’s a significant legacy we’ll see going forward.

DAVIDSON: That’s interesting. And yet, do you think Obama will be happy to think of that as his legacy, in terms of coming in as a constitutional law professor who had very different ideas than you’re describing about executive power?

DREZNER: No, I think if you had talked to the Barack Obama of 2008 and told him what he would be doing in 2016 in terms of his biggest legacy moments, I think he would be somewhat surprised, both in a sense of that he’s known primarily for killing terrorists and for agglomerating power within the executive branch. So those are neither things—I mean, those are not necessarily, you know, things that Obama was talking about with all that much enthusiasm in 2008.

DAVIDSON: Michael, why don’t you pick up on that, just also this idea that we don’t always know what a president’s legacy is going to be, and a president doesn’t always know what his legacy is going to look like, from a historian’s perspective.

MANDELBAUM: Well, that’s quite right. The Obama legacy is a work in progress, and always will be, because events in the past tend to change shape as history unfolds. Some things that seem trivial when they happened turn out to be very important. And that will surely be true of the Obama foreign policy, as it is about every historical event. History, as the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl once said is an argument without end. And so 50 years from now, if this panel is reconvened—not with the same—not with all of its members—

DREZNER: No, I like your optimism there. Keep going. (Laughter.)

MANDELBAUM: The discussion will take a different tack. I also think that there are three important features of the Obama foreign policy, at least as I look at it now. And I’m happy to say that they’re completely different from the ones that Dan mentioned. (Laughter.) It wouldn’t be all that interesting a meeting if we agreed. The first is that Obama has been what our Council colleague and friend Steve Sestanovich calls in his history of American foreign policy, “Maximalist,” a retrenchment president. He was elected to get the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s basically what he campaigned on. And he did, to the best of his ability. Of course, there’s still American forces in both places, but not very many, and the level of casualties has been dramatically reduced. And that’s really what the American public cares about.

Now, these policies are already controversial. And if there were a more orthodox Republican presidential nominee, I suspect that they would both be more central to the campaign than they are now. And they’re controversial because of the aftermath. In the wake of the American all-but-complete departure, we have the Islamic State in Iraq and the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. So people will be debating that. They are debating it now, will continue to debate it. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that Obama made the right decision, despite the unhappy consequences of that decisions.

And I say that really for two reasons. One is that I don’t think either Afghanistan or Iraq in the greater scheme of things is all that important to the United States. Certainly neither of them is worth the blood and treasure that were expended on them. Iraq is not a trivial country, but it really doesn’t matter to the United States whether there’s one Iraq, or two, or three, or none. And second, I think it was the right decision because in order to forestall the adverse consequences that ensued, I believe—and this is just—this is my judgement—it would have required a substantial American garrison—closer to 100,00 troops than to 10,000. And a substantial garrison which would inevitably have taken casualties I think was simply not politically acceptable to the American public. I doubt that any president could have kept that many troops in either place.

The second legacy that I see is that Obama, like many presidents, came into office with a number of—to put it in as neutral a way as I can—personal ideas about the world and how he could change it. He announced that he was interested in the abolition of nuclear weapons. I don’t think we’re any closer to that. He thought that his personal charms, whatever they are, could do away with the adversarial relations that the United States had with Russia, China, Iran, and so on. And he also thought, believed, and said I think in his Cairo speech in his first year, that he could improve the American image in the Arab world.

Now, none of these things came to pass, which was predictable. Presidents always overrate their own personal efficacy. Obama’s certainly not alone in that, although he—I would say he was a little more extreme than most of them. The one thing that he did manage to do was, of course, make a deal on nuclear weapons with Iran. And the verdict on that, of course, will have to wait until we see how it all plays out. Certainly it has not realigned Iran politically. At times he spoke about Iran as if he thought this was going to be his version of President Nixon’s dealings with China. Of course, the overture to China was possibly because of the common threat of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, or the analogue, doesn’t exist for this relationship. And the Islamic Republic is just as hostile as ever.

I would say two things about the deal. It may do some good. It certainly has some holes, but anything that complicated is bound to. But it is a failure at least in one sense, and that is that in making the deal President Obama abandoned what had been the central pillar—or a central pillar of American nonproliferation policy for four decades, since the mid-1970s. And that was the principle that countries such as Iran would not be allowed to obtain the complete nuclear fuel cycle, because once you do that you can make bomb material. And Obama held to that position through 2012. And in 2013, he came out with the first interim deal, which permitted the Iranians to have this capacity, thereby breaking with four decades of American foreign policy.

Third, and finally, what seems to me to be important about the Obama administration, perhaps the most important feature, is that he presided over a sea change in international politics and in American foreign policy without really being aware of it. He presided over the end of the post-Cold War era. This, by the way, is the subject of the last chapter of my book “Mission Failure,” which you’re all encouraged—

DAVIDSON: Which is in the back.

MANDELBAUM: —to buy, and I’d be happy to sign a copy if you do.

The post-Cold War era, which is really the subject of this book, was characterized fundamentally by the absence of serious security competition, the suspension of power politics, the disappearance of serious threats to the United States. By 2014, that had changed. Security challenges had returned in Eurasia in the form of the Russian attack on Ukraine, security competition had returned in East Asia through China’s maritime policies in the Western Pacific, and had returned in the Middle East with Iran’s efforts to dominate the region and its policies in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.

Now, if we are in a new age—and I believe we are—that requires a different policy for the United States. And it’s not entirely clear what that policy should be, although I have my own views about it, and it’s far from clear that the American public is willing to support the kind of policy that I think is appropriate. But what strikes me about Obama is that he’s really unaware of this.

Obama is, uniquely, a man who spent I would say almost his entire adult life and certainly his entire political career in the unique circumstances of the post-Cold War era, when the normal business of foreign policy and international relations had just vanished. And that’s what he regards as normal. He and his team have often said that they think that the Iraq War was the crucial event in American foreign policy, and the lesson is don’t do it. And when the Russians and the Chinese and the Iranians conduct what I think can only be described as relatively aggressive policies, the Obama administration, including the president, seems to regard this as kind of uncool. You know, the attitude could be summed up—with some exaggeration, but not I think total exaggeration—as, oh, that’s so 20th century. It’s as if these benighted countries are still using flip phones. Where do they think they are?

Well, I’m afraid we have returned in some important ways to the 20th century, and the next president, in my view, will have to figure out how to deal with that fact.

DAVIDSON: The next president, obviously, interestingly, will in either event have come of age in that earlier period that you spoke about. In that sense, it may be a reversion in both senses in terms of worldview. David, I wonder if you could pick up—

MANDELBAUM: Excuse me, just to—sorry to interrupt you—just say, in that particular sense, although perhaps in that sense only, one could say that these two candidates are better qualified to deal with this world.

DAVIDSON: Interesting. (Laughter.) Both—and perhaps we would put them both of them in that—in that category.

MANDELBAUM: I said in that respect only. It’s a—(laughter)—an accident of chronology. (Laughter.)

DAVIDSON: (Laughs.) David, I wonder if you—if you want to engage with that idea, or one of the many ideas there. Should we just take it for granted what we often hear, that America is weaker than it was eight years ago? And maybe you could talk about what weakness means. Are we necessarily weaker if we’re less of a leader? Is leadership and strength and security, are those all in some foreign policy sense synonymous? Or can America in some sense be stronger if it has drawn back? And what kind of world leader has Obama been might be a way to put it.

MILNE: Well, I mean, I would say the United States is stronger now than it was eight years ago. It was—eight years ago, the U.S. was in the midst of a financial crisis. It was engaged in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 170,000 U.S. troops deployed overseas. Obama, in terms of his style, his approach to foreign policy, seems to me—as Michael suggested, he’s a retrenchment president. And he reminds me, as he has many others, of Dwight Eisenhower, someone who was careful, was deliberative, is perhaps best remembered for the paths not taken.

And I think if we were to convene a meeting—you know, think about what a meeting on Eisenhower’s foreign policy legacy might discuss in 1960. Essentially, it would look at the armistice in Korea, negotiated soon afterwards. It may focus on the path not taken in regards to Suez, 1956. It may look and think about and contemplate if Eisenhower could have been stronger in responding to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. And indeed, in 1960, Eisenhower was lambasted by John F. Kennedy for being passive, for being inattentive in some ways to the potential of U.S. power, and Kennedy’s inaugural address repudiated in many respects that caution, that pragmatism, that careful approach, particularly when it came to deploying U.S. forces overseas.

So, even today, if we think about Eisenhower’s legacy, it’s hard to really pin something down in substantive terms. He’s remembered fondly, I think, now in many respects for this careful, judicious approach. Certainly there were interventions in Iran and Guatemala in 1953, with seriously negative repercussions further down the line.

But my sense is that Obama has been careful. He has focused on the economy, principally. He’s done a very effective job in that respect. China, in 2008/2009, was extremely confident that its model was the appropriate one, and that the U.S. model—its economic model—was in disarray. That’s not something that’s talked about in the same way today as it was then.

And then, finally, I would say, reputationally—this is something I know that Dan has written on—the United States, amongst its allies—well, to put it another way, there’s been a lot of reputational damage that has been attended to through the course of the Obama presidency. He is widely popular across the world. And so I think the United States actually now is in a stronger position in many ways than it was in 2008.

DAVIDSON: Dan, do you want to pick up on that?

DREZNER: Yes. I appreciate the plug from David. In fact, there’s a book I wrote that’s back there, that—(laughter)—I also, too, would be happy to autograph, that raises this point, which is that Pew does these surveys annually asking people across the globe: Who do you think is the most important economic power in the world? And immediately after post-2008, you saw most publics switch. That is, it used to be that everyone said the U.S. was the most powerful economy in the world, and then it became China in 2009 and 2010. This year was the first time where it then crossed back—where you actually now have not only more Americans, but also larger amounts of the global population agreeing that the United States is the most powerful economy, in contrast to China. Now, part of that might be due to China’s own difficulties, but you have to remember what things were like in the fall of 2008 to realize, you know, it could have been so much worse.

DAVIDSON: What about foreign policy legacy in terms of getting Americans to engage with the world, inspiring America to care about that which is foreign? We seem to be at a moment where there’s a certain trend in our politics towards isolation, towards xenophobia in certain forms. How much of that has Obama had any control over? And is that likely to be part of his legacy?

DREZNER: I mean, I would say to some extent—obviously, Obama projects himself as a cosmopolitan. But it’s worth remembering in some ways Obama enables this kind of turn inward, because when Obama took over one of his favorite lines was to talk about we need to do nation-building at home before we do nation-building overseas. So I—you know, and this goes in line with Michael’s point about retrenchment, which was Obama’s general theory was we need to get our own house in order before we need to worry about global challenges. And that also reflected the way the public felt about all of this as it sort of shifted, which is generally during downturns the public wants a focus inward rather than focusing outward.

So, I mean, it’s not that Obama, obviously, encouraged a more, you know, nationalist view of the rest of the world, or a more bigoted view of the rest of the world, however you want to put it. But the notion that we need to focus inwards rather than outwards I do think was something that is part of the Obama legacy.

DAVIDSON: And let me pick up on that also, to ask what—and we’re going to very quickly move to questions from members, so I’ll just as this one quickly—but it seems to be the essential foreign policy question that’s been asked this week, which is, “What is Aleppo?” (Laughter.) And I mean that in sort of the—in the “Jeopardy” panel version of this meeting, where what is the statement about Obama’s foreign policy legacy, that “what is Aleppo” is the question or the answer to? What is Aleppo in terms of his legacy?

DREZNER: The “Jeopardy” question answer to that would be, “What will be the biggest stain on Obama’s legacy when we talk about him a generation from now?” Which is the humanitarian disaster that has befallen Syria.

DAVIDSON: Do you guys want to give your versions of that?

MANDELBAUM: Yes. I’m happy to say that Dan and I disagree again, so. I do not see any policy the United States could follow or could have followed at any time since the beginning of the Syrian civil war that would have served American interests and American values, and would have been consistent with what the American public was willing to pay for. We could have had a no-fly zone. We probably still could, even though the Russians have been active there. But they’re very much outgunned in the air. But if we had a no-fly zone, it wouldn’t necessarily stop the fighting, and then we’d have to worry about what was happening on the ground in the no-fly zone.

DAVIDSON: So let me—let me ask you, so is what you’re saying that “what is Aleppo” is the question to which the answer is “a reminder of why Syria is such a—such a mess that it’s not a place for America to be present”?

MANDELBAUM: Well, that’s a—not only a shorter, but probably a better answer than I was on the way to giving. (Laughter.) But it’s an example of the intractability of Syria for the United States. Not intractable for Russia. They have a clear—a very clear objective. They’re meeting their objective. They don’t care how many refugees there are. They don’t feel as threatened by Islamic fundamentalism as we do, which is—they may be miscalculating—and given the American experience in Iraq.

DAVIDSON: All right. David, how about your version? Because we’ve got two very different ones.

MILNE: Well, one thing that I find troubling in some ways is talk that there was a window of opportunity at some point in regards to Syria to fund moderate aspects of the rebellion and that window of opportunity was lost. I’m not sure that that period, that time really existed. And so I tend probably rather more in Michael’s direction than Dan’s, although in terms of a stain on the conscience of the world—not just the United States, but of the world; I think that’s important—Syria clearly, you know, fits that—fits that description.

DREZNER: I just want to amend. I actually don’t disagree with what either of you said. It’s more of the question of how we judge history, which is it’s easy to say the counterfactual is nothing could have been done. But the problem will be, with the sands of time, that’s not what people are going to talk about, in the same way that Rwanda ends up being part of the Clinton legacy, even though at the time politically there was not much Clinton could have done. So that’s—I mean, I think that’s partly why I don’t think the answer can be—the answers are not contradictory.

DAVIDSON: All right. Since we’re going to move to questions, let me just give you a lightning other one. We’ve all heard with George W. Bush, his worst enemies will say he still did something terms for—in terms of AIDS in Africa. You know, that—we’ve all heard some version of that—of that sentence. What’s that sentence with Obama, the thing that even his—even his enemies would say, but I like what he did in this—maybe this country that’s not even on the mental landscape of most Americans? Is there such a thing? (Laughter.)

MILNE: I mean, I know Bin Laden would be one area.

I mean, the other that seems to—in terms of attracting bipartisan support, or at least bringing Republicans along, TPP is clearly one area where he’s brought along some Republicans, although of course this policy, the centerpiece in some ways of the pivot or the rebalance, is in grave doubt/uncertainty at the moment due to the political landscape. So I think, in terms of legacy, the two things I would identify—I agree with Dan—climate change, Copenhagen, Paris, I mean, this is—these are significant achievements. I think the pivot or rebalance is a very important policy. Obama is often criticized for lacking a grand strategy, for failing to announce a doctrine. I think perhaps the pivot may be considered in some respects the Obama doctrine in 10-20 years hence. But yeah, I think in terms of the—TPP seems to be one area where Republicans, some anyway, have come along.

DAVIDSON: Do you have really quick answers, and then we’re going to move to—

DREZNER: My one quick and obscure answer would be the degree to which the Obama administration has refined the tool of economic sanctions, to be able to use financial sanctions in way that seem to be simultaneously more potent and slightly more precise. And, you know, so Washington has gone from a town that used to disparage that tool to being very, very enthusiastic about it.

DAVIDSON: Interesting. Michael, did you want to throw something out?

MANDELBAUM: Well, that question is directed at somebody who thinks that the foreign policy of the president involved in a total failure. So people who say, oh, AIDS in Africa are people who think that Bush failed in every other way. And I suppose for people who think that Obama has failed in every other way—what David said—the bin Laden business is probably what they would come up with.

DAVIDSON: All right. That’s great. Yeah, that’s a good place to turn to our members. I have a couple of reminders. I’d like to invite you all to join the conversations with questions. Just to remember that this meeting is on the record. When you get the microphone, speak directly into it, stand, state your name and affiliation. And, as always, I’m meant to remind you to limit yourself to one question, and to keep it as short as possible to allow as many questions as possible. And with that, maybe we’ll get started.

Right here.

Q: Hi. Sarah Stern, Hudson Institute.

Great discussion. Most of it at 30,000 feet. Would you—and thank you for the Syria bit. What about the refugee crisis in Europe, Brexit, South China Sea? Talk about some of the things that maybe some of us would see as failures.

DAVIDSON: Let’s zero in on that. How about—David, do you want to talk about Brexit, and what America’s role in that might have been. Did we—is it our fault? (Laughter.)

MILNE: It’s not. (Laughs.) Well, OK, you know, Brexit. Obama visited the U.K. And he said, the U.K. will be at the back of the queue if Brexit happens when it comes to negotiating a trade deal. Now, that was a misstep, absolutely. I think the threats were not well-appreciated. I think even on the remain side, there was a sense that actually that might rile up people more than encourage them along. But nonetheless, the U.S. role in the EU referendum, to my mind, was largely peripheral. I mean—

DAVIDSON: How about in what you were talking about a little bit, in the sense that the U.S. didn’t take an active role in helping to manage things like the refugee and immigration questions that influenced a lot of British voters?

MILNE: Well, then I think, you know, say—if we go back to the foreign policy intervention in Libya, and the—you know, which is where some of the refugee crisis stems from. David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were the principal figures on the international stage calling for that intervention. Within the Obama administration, as we know, there was a heated debate. Hillary Clinton was supportive, as were Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter. But many others thought that this would be a disaster. Now, Obama made the decision to intervene. It seems that he now views that as his greatest mistake.

Again, I think it’s—there are some problems that were certainly created by the intervention in Libya, clearly. But also, the United States is not in a position to navigate, control, stem, prevent calamities such as the refugee crisis from occurring. I think oftentimes in the discussion about U.S. power there’s a sense that—and you hear this on the left, say, critiques of U.S. power. So Noam Chomsky would say, or would argue, that most of the ills of the world stem from U.S. interventionism. On the other side of the spectrum Paul Wolfowitz I think, for example, would argue most of the problems of the world can be solved by the application of U.S. power.

So failures, absolutely, are sort of clear and are present. But it’s hard to pin everything on—or even a lot—on decisions—


MILNE: On the U.S., yeah.

DAVIDSON: Michael, how about specifically the question of the South China Sea and U.S. power there?

MANDELBAUM: South China Sea is a serious challenge, not just to the United States but to the international order, since China’s claims are in violation of international law. And it’s a challenge, and regarded as a threat, to the other countries of the region, which is why you see a kind of tacit formation of a tighter anti-Chinese coalition revolving around the United States, a kind of revival of the so-called hub and spokes arrangements of the Cold War.

This has not been something to which this administration has attended publicly. Apparently there has been disagreement within the government between the Pentagon, which wants to be much more forceful in asserting international law and so-called freedom of navigation operations, and the White House, which doesn’t want to do it. It’s also the case that while in some ways what’s happening in the South China Sea, and therefore in East Asia, resembles the Cold War—that is, what is called for is American-led deterrence.

On the other hand, the extraordinary role that China plays in the global economy—including the economic interdependence between China and the United States, means that the kind of full-fledged military deterrence and political deterrence and declaratory deterrence that the United States practiced against the Soviet Union in Europe and in Asia during the Cold War—is not feasible against China, even though in some military sense it does seem appropriate.

It’s not feasible because China is too important economically, and because other countries in the region—although petrified of China—do not want to say so explicitly because they are so deeply involved with China economically. So what we have is a kind of tacit deterrence building with real reluctance—or some reluctance by this administration. And that’s one of the things that I think the next administration is going to have to attend to.

DAVIDSON: All right. Let’s get another question. Right.

Q: I’m Donald Shriver from Union Theological Seminary.

I certainly have no more than an ordinary citizen’s understanding of nuclear strategy, but I’m impressed by the recent issues of Foreign Affairs, and their answer in that issue to the question how much is enough, and especially by Fred Kaplan’s claim that 3(00) or 400 nuclear bombs at current levels of their technical capacity is quite enough to enforce mutually assured destruction, especially given the efficiency of delivery by our submarines. And yet, as I understand it, there’s a movement now to spend several trillion dollars on upgrading our nuclear weapons system. And how little I may understand how much a trillion dollars is, I think that’s quite a legacy if that’s one of the things that we’re now being pushed through. So is that upgrading of our nuclear weapons system really a help to world order and world peace? Or is it a kind of burden that we, in the American public, should not think is necessary.

DAVIDSON: Dan, why don’t you take that. You raise this question of what Obama’s nuclear legacy is in terms—and what—of where the world is on those questions.

DREZNER: And in some ways, this goes back to a point that Michael raised, which is the degree to which Obama came into office with one set of ideas, and is now exiting with a somewhat different one in terms of how he’s constrained. I mean, there are ways in which he actually has tried to implement that legacy, both in the sort of New START treaty with Russia, as well as—and this might be one of the more under-the-radar accomplishments of Obama, which is the nuclear safety summits that he instituted as a way to guarantee against an accidental nuclear attack.

That said, I strongly suspect that the speaker is right, that whoever the next president is will probably engage in more robust nuclear modernization, although I don’t—if the figure is a trillion dollars, I think you also have to talk about time length. I don’t think it’s a trillion dollars right now. I think we’re talking about more than a generation worth. So I don’t mean to minimize $100 billion, but—or lessen that, but still I’m not quite sure it’s going to be quite that expenditure of resources.

MANDELBAUM: I would like to say something about this, because this is in effect where I came in. I began my academic career working on nuclear weapons issues. And in fact, I was thinking back. I think the first time I ever gave a presentation at the Council was 40 years ago, when I was one of the authors of a book—part of the now-forgotten 1980s project that Dick Ullman presided over on nuclear futures. And it’s been a while since I’ve worked on nuclear issues, although when the nuclear debate about Iran began in earnest, I thought this makes me feel young again.

And what I say to people—and therefore I will say to you—about nuclear weapons in general, after quite a lot of study of the subject, is the problem in the world is not nuclear weapons. The problem in the world is other people’s nuclear weapons. Our nuclear weapons are just fine. And they’re just fine for a couple of reasons. One is—other than the fact that we are trustworthy power, no matter what Noam Chomsky may think, and other people, are not. First of all, the American nuclear force, combined with America’s treaties and nuclear guarantees is by far the most potent and successful anti-nuclear proliferation measure in the world. It’s much more important than the Nonproliferation Treaty. And the credibility of those American guarantees does depend on having a fairly large nuclear arsenal.

Second, the Nonproliferation Treaty does commit the nuclear weapons states to negotiate seriously and to move seriously toward denuclearization. So to the extent that the United States does not do that, we might be said to be in some kind of violation of a treaty. However, there is no evidence whatsoever, and no reason to think that the United States reducing its nuclear weapons would cause either other nuclear weapons states to reduce theirs, or countries that want nuclear weapons to give up their ambitions. So we get something for having a large nuclear force and, in my judgment, we don’t get anything by reducing to a few hundred—although you could certainly make the argument, and serious people have made it and do make it, that that’s all we need. So that—this modernization, as Dan says, you have to amortize it out over however many years it’s going to be, does not worry me.

DAVIDSON: All the way in the back there.

Q: Gary Sick, Columbia University.

I wondered, in thinking about the 50-year gap, and sort of 50 years from what would this panel be talking about, there are two factors that you haven’t mentioned, which could be viewed as part of an Obama doctrine. And that is the drone doctrine and the other is cyber, and the more active use of cyber, or at least thinking about ways in which cyber could be used. And my impression is that we don’t know very much about the drone policy. And we know event less about cyber. But that in 50 years we might look back and say the ground was laid for something that was actually the most significant thing that we—that was going on in the world at that time.

DAVIDSON: Dan, do you want to grab that? And maybe with a—

DREZNER: Why do I get the tough questions? (Laughter.)

DAVIDSON: I could give it to someone else.

DREZNER: No, no, no, I’m happy to answer.

DAVIDSON: I’ll tell you why I turned to you, because it seemed that question was sort of—went back to what you said about executive power. And I’m not sure if your emphasis there was on the technological change or the constitutional change that the drone policy implied.

DREZNER: I’ll talk about the cyber part more, because it’s the part that I’m more comfortable on. I would say two things on this. The first is, one of the best articles that I think Foreign Affairs has published in the last five years was one by Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore, talking about U.S. hypocritical power, which is that one of the advantages of the United States has always been to be able to say one thing and occasionally do something else which is not really talked about publicly, and that one of the aspects of the Snowden revelations was that it sort of exposed the U.S. hypocrisy on these issues. And what it did was it put a lot of our allies in an extremely uncomfortable position. You know, the fact that we had bugged Angela Merkel’s phone, the fact that we had, you know, similar operations on Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, forced these leaders to actually have to adopt more anti-American positions than I think they originally wanted. And so that was in some ways a significant dent to U.S. power when the revelations happened, and so I think that is certainly one part of the legacy.

The other part of the legacy, on the cyber side, I would argue in some ways is a missed opportunity, because I think you’re right: we have no concept whatsoever of how to think about this. You know, I’ve got students coming into Fletcher all the time saying they want to study cyber, and there is no conceptual apparatus that we have of how you regulate this space, how you distinguish between state and non-state actors, how you, you know, potentially create any kind of international regime that would respect certain norms. And part of the reason for this, I think, is in some ways cyber is very similar to trying to have an international regime governing espionage. The problem with it is that, to do it, you would have to say, OK, these are the rules, and if the rules are broken you will be punished. The problems is, is that to show that the rules have been broken you have to show your hand in terms of what you know.

And I think that’s one of the issues with cyber as well. The U.S. has tremendous cyber capabilities, but the U.S. is also extremely reticent about revealing them, particularly on the offensive side, precisely because it does show your hand.

And so I think on the one hand we have significant capabilities, but we have no thought whatsoever about is there any way we can talk to China or Russia about these things. You can argue that maybe the administration in the bilateral—the S&ED with China at least has initiated the notion of this has to be a topic of conversation. But this is not going to be a good part of Obama’s legacy, I would say.

DAVIDSON: David, do you want to add something there?

MILNE: Yeah. I mean, certainly on drones, I mean, I absolutely agree this is a very, very important part of Obama’s legacy, particularly because the United States is the first nation in the world to use this technology. Precedents get set. And in Obama’s first term, he ordered drone strikes—I think there was maybe 400 in the first term? Compared to George W. Bush, I think who ordered about 48. So in terms of frequency and also in terms of this being behind the curtain, not admitting to these strikes, the deniability aspect.

Now, of course, Harold Koh was invited to deliver a speech on this and to dispense advice on this issue in 2010. I think it was 2013, Obama delivered a major speech on his drone policy. And this has been attended to recently in a very fine essay by David Cole in The New York Review of Books, where he focuses very much on the drone issue as being a major legacy issue for Obama. And he calls on Obama to set down much, much clearer guidance that already exists on this policy, and also to have it entirely in the Department of Defense—to take it away from the CIA. Currently, it’s a combination of the two.

So I absolutely agree this is a substantial aspect of Obama’s presidency. And it’s one that will have repercussions further down the line because the U.S. is the first to use this technology.

DAVIDSON: Right here.

Q: Thank you. Laetitia Garriott, Entrepreneurs for Hillary.

Could we come back on the U.S.-China relation you see? And South China Sea was mentioned. Asia Infrastructure Bank, we tried to dissuade our European allies to get on board; they did. There will be many more episodes of that nature in the years to come. China is planning to build a space station. Already we have a number of European allies deciding to get on board. What type of legacies are there? And what does that sort of teach us in terms of learning for the next administration?

DAVIDSON: Michael, you’re—

DREZNER: Oh. No, no, go ahead.

MANDELBAUM: Sure. China is a rapidly growing country, as we all know. With wealth comes potential power. The Chinese do not seem shy about trying to translate their wealth into power. They were doctrinally shy when the—when Deng Xiaoping’s adage “hide your brightness” obtained, but Xi Jinping doesn’t seem to see things that way. So I think certainly as a first approximation we ought to distinguish between China’s muscle-flexing that is either positive or at least harmless and China’s muscle-flexing that threatens American interests.

DAVIDSON: And if I could just throw in, and also how—back to our theme of how Obama has shaped that or not shaped that.

MANDELBAUM: Well, I never quite understood why an Asian Infrastructure Bank was a bad thing. I mean, yeah, it might have lower—I’m sure it does have lower human rights standards, but human rights tend to get more attention the richer a country is. So we have an interest in countries getting richer. That is a political as well as an economic one. This “one belt, one road” project, which seems to me rather overambitious, but to the extent that it helps economic growth in Central Asia, why not? You know, people worry about the Chinese footprint in Africa. Why should we worry about that? You know, if they’re willing to build railroads and dams there, fine. On the other hand, trying to turn the entire Western Pacific into a Chinese lake in which the Chinese get to set the rules and exercise a kind of droit du seigneur is not in our interest and should be resisted.


DREZNER: I think in some ways you got to focus on the dog that didn’t bark during the Obama years, which is—and this goes back to a point David made—which is China really thought, I think, in early 2009 that this was finally their moment, and that the United States was genuinely on their way out as a great power. And you can argue that over the last eight years there’s no doubt that China has obviously exercised its power in the South China Sea; on the other hand, they’ve also chosen to exercise their power considerably less in the Senkakus, in the East China Sea, after the United States made extremely clear that that was considered to be part of the Japanese security commitment. And I do think that China has begun to realize that the United States has a lot more staying power than they had originally thought. And so, in that sense, Chinese—you can argue that one of Obama’s greater accomplishments was that Chinese perceptions of American power are—more closely correspond to reality now than they did before.

With respect to AIIB, I agree with Mike. I don’t think it’s quite the götterdämmerung that a lot of—that Larry Summers, among others, has made it out to be. That said, it’s also a whole-of-government policy failure, because part of the reason we got to this point was because the—China and the BRICS more generally felt underrepresented in places like the IMF and the World Bank. The Obama administration, to its credit, had actually negotiated a process by which those countries should have gotten much larger quota shares in the IMF and the World Bank. That was negotiated in 2010. It took six years for Congress to finally vote on it. And even someone like Jeff Sessions actually admitted that this might have had a small role to play in terms of the creation of the AIIB.

DAVIDSON: All right. Right there.

Q: Lukas Haynes, David Rockefeller Fund.

So it’s clear from this week’s retrospective in The New York Times that the president himself considers climate change an enormous, critical part of his legacy. Beyond Paris and Copenhagen, which are significant, how do you even think about the long-term legacy of a—of a problem of this nature? Is it possible to project forward on the policies, the public education, relations with Congress in how future administrations will tackle this problem?

DREZNER: I mean, I would just quickly say in some ways the most important part of Obama’s legacy on climate change is that, again, it’s worth remembering that in 2008, neither China nor India saw themselves as needing to do anything about climate change; that they saw this as a Western-created problem, that the West had been responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore the West had to solve it.

Now, I don’t think Obama persuaded them to do something. I think partly they’ve learned on their own. But you can argue that the bilateral deal between the United States and China on climate change was really the fundamental shift in terms of how collectively Paris goes forward. And so the fact that this is now thought of as a collective responsibility is, in and of itself, a significant achievement.

Now, whether anything actually gets done as a result of this or whether we’re going to be talking about evacuating New York come 2050, that I’m going to leave to those future historians.

DAVIDSON: All right. Right here.

Q: Nicholas Brandt (sp).

Is one of the—this administration’s legacies the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear power?

DAVIDSON: That’s a great question. And, David, also perhaps in connection with the news this morning about the latest test.

MILNE: So, again, I suppose in response to this question I would—I would ask what might have been done instead along the way to prevent this outcome from developing. And again, I would struggle to come up with serious countermeasures—

DAVIDSON: You mean we can’t do everything? (Laughs.)

MILNE: Yeah, well, I mean, I think it’s often something that—perhaps from my perspective in the U.K., I’m not, you know, as engaged in sort of the U.S. think-tank/policymaking discussions. But often this does happen, that there’s a—there’s a sense of, OK, well, something bad has happened; the United States has clearly erred in doing so. And, you know, North Korea, the attendant dangers here, I mean, China is clearly the major issue, as North Korea’s principal sponsor and so on.

DAVIDSON: I see you both have things to say about this.

MANDELBAUM: Yeah. Well, North Korea is, if not THE problem from hell, one of them, because there are no—there are no good options. The Chinese could shut North Korea down tomorrow if they wanted to stop the flow of food and fuel, but they don’t, for their own reasons. We could bomb the North Korean nuclear facilities, but the South Koreans are dead set against that because the North Koreans have however many—100,000 artillery tubes near the DMZ and could devastate Seoul. And anyway, the South Koreans, no matter what they say, do not want a North Korean collapse because then they’d be responsible for it, and they don’t want to be responsible for it. And we cannot launch a military attack against North Korea if our democratic ally South Korea is against it. So we’re stuck. And, in fact, we have different interests because we—we’re mostly concerned about the nukes and about proliferation. The South Koreans are concerned about the conventional forces and refugees.

But let me make one other point. The North Koreans are not technical whizzes, but they have made steady, slow progress in nuclear—in their nuclear program. There will come a point—I don’t know when it is; I’m sure there’s—there are a lot of people at Langley looking hard at this—there will come a point, it nothing changes, in which North Korea will be able to weaponize a ballistic missile and will have a ballistic missile of intercontinental range. They can already probably hit Japan, although maybe not reliably. They’ll be able to—they’ll be able to reach Hawaii, and ultimately the United States, and they’ll have the technology to place a nuclear warhead on a missile that can strike the continental United States. And at that point, the president of the United States, whoever it is, will have a very difficult decision to make. And I would call your attention to an op-ed piece written in The Washington Post in 2005, and it’s—I have a section of that in my book—which said that if the North Koreans were to deploy, to mount a missile capable of striking the United States with nuclear weapons, the United States should launch a preemptive attack against it. And that article had two co-authors. One was Bill Perry, former secretary of defense; and the other was Ash Carter, the current secretary of defense.

DAVIDSON: I want to make sure that we end on time. I’ll just quickly—I know you want to say something, but I’ll quickly note that we spoke about Korea earlier in the meeting when we talked about Eisenhower’s legacy. So perhaps that’s just the place to end in thinking about how long and unpredictable a president’s decisions and their repercussions can be.

Dan I feel like you have one really quick thing you want to say.

DREZNER: Yeah. So the person who hired me at Fletcher was Steve Bosworth, who was ambassador to South Korea and Obama’s first representative to North Korea on the proliferation. He passed away earlier this year.

The one thing I learned very carefully from Steve Bosworth was that there’s a—there’s things called rightness. There are times where you can act, and times where trying to act isn’t going to do anything because all the alternatives are awful and you have to wait for your moment. There were times during the Obama administration—there was never a moment of rightness on North Korea, and I think that was one of the lessons you have to draw on. Sometimes that’s on—you know, it’ll be easy to blame him for that, but sometimes it’s just the situation, and there was nothing better he could have done.

DAVIDSON: That’s also a great place to end, with the idea of what this time is right for. And it’s time. So thanks to everyone for taking part today. I will remind you that there are some lovely books available at the—at the back of the room. And thanks so much. (Applause.)


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