Trump shrug

Image source: RenewAmerica

“New world order” is a phrase mostly associated with the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when America and the Soviet Union decided to put their differences aside and cooperate rather than constantly menace each other. Together, the 2 superpowers were supposed to police the globe, punishing wrongdoers and promoting open societies and peaceful international relations. When the USSR collapsed, it was America alone who ended up playing this role, facing almost no resistance in its quest to shape the world in its own image and promote its own ideals.

We are once again living through a seismic shift in the world order like the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the most part, American “hyperpower” lent predictability to international affairs. No other country can seriously challenge the US, so none really try to. The benefits of free trade, open borders, democracy, human rights and peaceful diplomacy are obvious, so no one really worked against them. America was reduced to playing a police role, punishing countries like Iraq and Yugoslavia that transgressed international norms, mediating international disputes like the Arab-Israeli conflict to keep them from erupting, and ignoring problems like Rwanda or Zaïre that “didn’t matter.”

There are other contenders for seismic shifts in the world order since then. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 gave America (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the West) a new sense of purpose. Terrorism moved from the back burner to the front of the agenda, and counterterrorism efforts have dominated American foreign policy ever since. The Iraq War seemed to presage a new era of American imperialism, but as time passes it seems less and less like it started a real trend. The global economic collapse in 2008 seriously discredited capitalism and empowered China and other emerging markets over a floundering West, but the world has slowly recovered from that chaotic time.

But now, America is challenging the very underpinnings of the world order. So much of international relations is shaped by America, whether other countries like it or not (and many of them are accustomed to it and take it for granted). It bankrolls giant organizations like the UN and the World Bank. Its military protects Europe, East Asia, and (to some extent) West Asia. The dollar is the international reserve currency. Its economy is the global powerhouse, both through its huge domestic market and its role in trade. Its political system is a model, conscious or otherwise, and its values are exported both through overt evangelists and more subtle messages in its pop culture.

Yet it seems that America is now losing interest in this. Military intervention leads to prolonged war and occupation, and Americans have been tired of it for a decade already. The military and financial contribution to NATO, the Western alliance, is no longer seen as worth it. Deep cuts to the federal government and bureaucracy have reverberations in its diplomacy, as the foreign service is suddenly understaffed, underfunded and mismanaged. Protectionism is back with a vengeance, no longer just an alternative economic theory or something to fall back on to score quick political points but the outright credo of the country. America now takes a realistic approach to foreign relations, no longer judging countries by their domestic situation but evaluating them in terms of straight-up strategic value. International commitments like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, a trade pact linking America with East Asia, Oceania and Latin America) and Paris Agreement (a climate change accord) have been discarded.

Some foreigners are freaking out about this, since America is the guarantor of global stability. Without that underlying guarantee, international relations enter a more unpredictable phase, where rising powers are more likely to challenge the status quo and bring about a different world order. Since the American-led world order has mostly worked out well — who doesn’t like peace, prosperity and freedom? — there is discomfort and uncertainty about what could replace it. The ongoing rise of China, in particular, is thought to indicate a new emphasis on nationalism and narrow-minded economic interests over democracy promotion or human rights. Russia is outright challenging the American-led order, and even though many of them have been reluctant to stand up to it before, European countries have been aghast at how unwilling America now is to confront Russian transgressions. Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, lamented that America’s new disregard for human rights would bring the world “to the verge of darkness.”

Other foreigners are shrugging the whole thing off or even smugly rejoicing. Any superpower is resented, and China in particular sees America as hogging the spotlight and getting in the way of its own influence. Free trade in particular is an issue with wide global appeal (especially among the business elite), and China has deftly positioned itself as the new champion of globalization. The TPP is now being resurrected by the original member countries, led by Japan, without American involvement. Others look to Germany and its stodgy but level-headed chancellor, Angela Merkel, as the new “Leader of the Free World” (China being too suspicious to trust).

So how much is all this for real? It’s far too soon to say, but it seems fair to underline how much all of these recent developments rest on 1 man: Donald Trump. Although observers have predicted America’s decline for a while now, the idea that it would suddenly give up on “leading the Free World” and lose interest in upholding international alliances would’ve seemed strange only 2 years ago. Within America, and especially its foreign policy establishment, resistance to Trump’s agenda is severe. Although Trump has certainly started a movement and has many devoted followers at home, foreign policy always takes a back seat in American politics, and it’s unclear how much shrugging off global commitments is part of Trump’s appeal. There are certainly elements of Trump’s team that back his hostility to allies and disregard for international commitments (Steve Bannon being foremost), but even among his administration there are personalities pushing for a more traditional foreign policy approach (like James Mattis, the secretary of defense, and Rex Tillerson, secretary of state). Given how chaotic Trump’s time in office has been so far, it’s fair to ask how durable his policies will be. Earlier this year editorials often asked whether Trump’s election heralded a new wave of right-wing populism across the West, but after centrist, pro-EU candidates won the elections in France and the Netherlands, these concerns have diminished.

There’s also the small problem that despite America’s eclipse, no other countries really want to step up to the plate. Britain is a more obviously declining power consumed with its controversial decision last year to exit the EU. Germany has been reluctant to shoulder the burdens of power since 1945 and is a shadow of its former self militarily. Japan, similarly, has a declining population and a tradition of pacifism and consensus. Russia may be reasserting itself and has pretensions of re-forming an alternative power center, but lacks the allies and international clout and reach it once had. China is the most obvious candidate, with its growing roster of clients all over the world, hegemonic status in East Asia, massive population, and assertive military posture…. but it remains inwardly focused and unwilling to engage in messy interventions in far-flung countries.

Ian Bremmer, an American political risk consultant, calls this state of affairs “G-Zero,” since no country really wants to take the lead and dominate the world. Having decried imperialism for so long, most countries can’t exactly assume the mantle of empire themselves. Economic growth remains the imperative for most countries, and that means pursuing narrow self-interest, not monitoring international agreements or intervening in faraway disputes of no immediate concern. Countries like Germany or Brazil have mostly narrow, regional focuses. International cooperation is hard, messy, tiresome and protracted. Military intervention, as America well knows, is bloody, expensive, frustrating and also protracted.

Thus, despite Trump’s antics, it seems most likely that America will continue to uphold global order for the time being. 1 erratic president can’t bring down a durable, popular international system all by himself. America remains the hub of world power. But Trump’s election, and later, his actions, have delivered an unmistakable jolt to the world. They have shown that all that talk about American decline was on to something. They have shown just how much other countries rely on America to get things moving. And they have shown that Americans aren’t necessarily fond of playing the role of global policemen, and that 1 successful agitator can push them away from embracing the role.


Old City from the Mount of the Olives

Jerusalem, with Zion (the historic core) in the foreground. Image source: My Jewish Learning

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to Israeli forces. It was the climax of the 6-Day War and 1 of the pivotal events in West Asian history — for Israelis, the moment when Jews could once again enter their holy city, and for Arabs, the beginning of a long period of occupation and bitterness.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the world’s most intractable and ferocious. No other topic incites such animosity and flame wars, online or in the real world. It has almost become a symbol of ethnic hatred, religious fervor and complicated international crises. Why is it so intractable, and what can be done to get past it?

Like pretty much any long-running conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict has a long history. In this case, though, it’s an especially long history, and that in itself keeps many people from studying it in depth. Never fear! I am here to help.

1 of the main reasons that Israel is fought over so much is that it’s the most fertile, livable area in the “Fertile Crescent” between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. It may be a narrow sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but it can support agriculture, it has pleasant weather, and it’s along the ancient trade routes of West Asia. This meant that people have lived there since prehistoric times — the world’s oldest still-inhabited city (probably), Jericho, is there, and boasts of an 11,000-year history.

The Jews believe that 4,000 years ago, God promised Israel as a land for a man from Mesopotamia, Abraham, and his descendants. These descendants ended up as slaves in Egypt, but eventually they were freed by Moses and led out of captivity northeast to their Promised Land. Awkwardly, there were other people living there, and the Jews had to settle among them and fight a series of wars to assert their supremacy. In the 900s BCE, they were powerful enough to form a kingdom, then an empire stretching north to Syria — a golden age taking advantage of a mysterious collapse of civilization in that part of the world.

Like all empires, the Israelite Empire went into decline. First it splintered into 2 rival kingdoms. The larger 1, Israel, was conquered by Assyria (in what is now the Islamic State) in 722 BCE, and its people were exiled to other parts of the Assyrian Empire and lost their ethnic identity. The other kingdom, Judah, which had the Jewish holy city, Jerusalem, was conquered by Babylonia (in Mesopotamia) in 586 BCE, and its people were also sent into exile in Babylon.

The Jewish story might have ended there, but in a fantastic stroke of luck for them, the Babylonians were conquered themselves only 47 years later. The Jews were allowed to go back home, rebuild Jerusalem, and practice their unique religion. But they were now under Persian rule, and they had to coexist with another ethnic group north of Judah, the Samaritans. The new Judah, Judea, was only a shell of its former self, and Jews rankled at the injustice.

They revolted against Seleucid rule (the Seleucids being the replacement for the Persians) in 167 BCE and set up an independent kingdom again, but this was conquered by the Romans about 100 years later. The Jews gained a reputation for rebelliousness and pride in their unique culture and kept rising up in riots against Roman rule. After 3 full-scale revolts in the 60s, 110s and 130s CE, the Romans took drastic measures. Jerusalem, including its temple, was destroyed, and Jews were resettled outside of their homeland to break up their ethnic identity and ability to cause trouble. They became a diaspora community, scattered over the Mediterranean and later Europe, estranged from Israel but clinging staunchly to their religion, language, and culture. (Meanwhile, Christianity also emerged in Judea during this period, but it has always been a minority religion in the area and has played a marginal role in its history, except for the Crusades in the Middle Ages.)

Judea — now renamed Palestine — became home to other ethnicities: Greeks, Aramaeans, Samaritans. There were probably also Arabs, given how close the region is to Arabia. The main Arab influx, though, came in the 600s, when they conquered most of West Asia and converted the local people to Islam and introduced Arabic culture. Jerusalem is a holy city in Islam too: it was the original city that Muslims prayed towards, and even after Makkah and Madinah were elevated in importance, Jerusalem remained the 3rd-holiest city in Islam, since it was the place where Muhammad ascended to Heaven. On the site of the old Jewish temple, Palestine’s new Umayyad rulers built the al-Aqsa Mosque — something that would become a massive headache later.

The Jews had a rough time of it outside of their homeland. They faced discrimination, distrust, and suspicion from the communities they lived in. Pressure to convert to Christianity or Islam and give up Jewish culture was constant. Some places had pogroms (anti-Jewish riots). Even as Jews became more secular and assimilated more into European life in the 1800s, anti-Jewish prejudice remained strong. In despair, a group of Jews founded the Zionist movement in the 1890s, which had the goal of recreating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. (“Zion” is the hill in Jerusalem that makes up the city’s historic core and holiest sites.)

While some Jews had remained in Palestine or immigrated there earlier, the major influx really started in the 1880s. Since there were already people living there — Arabs — this caused conflict. Since many Jews were farmers or were interested in farming, they bought up arable land, dispossessing Arab farmers and sparking further resentment. Ethnic animosity and small-scale violence began, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is usually dated to 1917, when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring that it “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” See, at the time Palestine was under Osmanli rule, but the Osmanlis sternly refused to grant the Jews their own country. With World War I raging and the Osmanli Empire on its last legs, Britain wanted to draft the Jews on its side — and it worked.

The problem is, Britain had already promised the Arabs that they would have a new empire in West Asia, again as a means of enlisting support against the Osmanlis. Britain took a 3rd option altogether: ruling over Palestine itself as a colonial power. It tried to foster governments among both Arabs and Jews (a minority at the time) and only ended up getting hated by both sides. Ethnic riots and an Arab revolt broke out; Britain struggled to keep the peace. It ended up addressing the issue by walking back its pro-Jewish stance a bit and restricting further Jewish immigration… just in time for Nazi Germany’s vicious persecution of Jews and, later, the Holocaust. Desperate Jewish refugees were turned away and were forced to be smuggled into Palestine.

UN Palestine

The UN’s plan for partitioning Palestine. It never actually happened.

After World War II, a 3-way war broke out: Jews against Arabs and Jews against Britons. Britain, exasperated, asked the new UN to fix the situation. It chose the same solution India was taking to its religious conflict: partition. The Arabs would get a strip along the Egyptian border and most of the west bank of the Jordan River and a chunk in the north; the Jews would get most of the coast, the southern desert, and the area around Lake Galilee. The Jews accepted the plan, which was quite generous given that they only made up ⅓ of the population: they would get 56% of the land. The Arabs were outraged that they would have to partition their country at all and rejected the plan. Not wanting to deal with the situation anymore, the Brits just packed up and left in 1948, leaving the locals to sort things out.

The Jews proclaimed the state of Israel, finally realizing their millennia-old dream. But the neighboring Arab countries — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt — invaded at once to squash it like a bug. But they were too disorganized, uncoordinated, and ill-trained, and Israel fought them off — and grabbed extra territory while it was at it. In an ethnic cleansing campaign, 700,000 Arabs were dispossessed, massacred, and forced into exile in nearby countries, and Arab parts of major cities like Jaffa were destroyed. What was supposed to be an Arab state became part of Jordan (the “West Bank”) and Egypt (the “Gaza Strip”).

Israel now entered an uneasy relationship with its neighbors. It was now surrounded by independent Arab countries who hated it and plotted to wipe it out. To ensure its security, it entered into alliance with America, which had been converted to the Zionist cause by Jewish lobbying. To counter this, the Soviet Union allied with Arabs and armed them. American influence proved to be much more decisive, and American weapons were a crucial factor in Israel’s victory in the 6-Day War of 1967, when it invaded and occupied the Sinai Peninsula between it and the Nile Valley, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in southern Syria. 3 countries were defeated and humiliated in less than a week. The Arab world sank into a deep depression while Israel was filled with jubilation at getting its holy city and the namesake of Zionism back.

It became obvious that Arab countries wouldn’t be able to take over Israel. Egypt and Syria fought 2 more wars with Israel in the 1970s, and while they were ties, Israel had done better. A new Egyptian dictator, Anwar es-Sadat, replaced the passionately nationalist Gamal Abden Nasser and made peace with Israel, concluding that the conflict was a waste of time and resources and eager to improve relations with America. The peace agreement was hugely controversial at the time and denounced by Arabs everywhere — it even cost Sadat his life, since he was assassinated for it. But Egypt had been Israel’s primary antagonist, and Arab countries haven’t invaded Israel since 1973, suggesting a tacit realization that steadfast belligerence hadn’t gone anywhere.

Meanwhile, the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli military occupation. Israel didn’t really know what to do with them. The West Bank had too many places important to Judaism — not the least of which was Jerusalem — for Israel to relinquish willingly. Yet Israel didn’t want to outright annex them either — that would bring a bunch of Arabs into what is supposed to be a Jewish state. So instead, Israel let the “Palestinian territories” (the name “Palestine” being associated with an older, Arab-dominated era) remain in a twilight zone of Israeli control without local sovereignty. This did not go over well with the local Arabs. To make matters worse, Israel began a policy of settling Jews in technically illegal housing projects (“settlements”) within Palestine in the 1970s to start slowly nudging the local demographics to be more Jewish.

Bereft of any outside sponsorship, the Palestinians had to take matters into their own hands, and since they had no government or army, they resorted to terrorism. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fought Israel with terrorist attacks from a secure base in Lebanon. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to stamp out PLO bases there, the PLO just moved to Tunisia and went right on agitating Israel. An uprising (intifada) in Palestine in the late ’80s made it clear to Israelis that 20 years of occupation hadn’t made Arabs any more willing to accept the situation. By the ’90s, Israel was beginning to realize that something would have to be done.

The solution, agreed to in 1993 after American-backed negotiations, allowed the Arabs to have their own government at last, the Palestinian Authority. It was even under the control of Israel’s archnemesis, Yasir Arafat. In return, the PLO gave up terrorism and recognized Israel. Palestine became a semi-state partially under Arab control, although Israel held on to rural areas and Jewish settlements (see map). Jordan also concluded a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. It seemed like the train was moving toward the destination commonly agreed on by the rest of the world: a “two-state solution,” with the West Bank and Gaza Strip becoming a country, Palestine, in their own right, under Arab control.

West Bank map

Image source: The Economist

But it was not to be. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who pushed through the peace accords, met Sadat’s fate in 1995. Iraq and Syria stubbornly refused to make peace with Israel. Israel held on to the Golan Heights. Content with Palestine’s semi-state status, Israel never pushed on to create a full-fledged state. A second intifada in the early ’00s went a long way in justifying this. Israel did pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005… but then Hamas, an extremist Arab faction, took over instead, and used the land as a base to blast Israel with rockets.

Depressingly little has changed since then. The Israeli governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert in the ’00s seemed interested in continuing “peace” negotiations (really government negotiations at this point), but in 2009 a more conservative prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was voted in. He has steadily continued the settlement-building policy despite almost universal international condemnation, creating Jewish communities in land earmarked for a Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip remains implacably hostile to Israel and occasionally gets into wars with it, which the international community freaks out about momentarily, only for it to settle down once the wars end. The West Bank is much poorer and less developed than Israel, while the Gaza Strip is almost at African levels thanks to an Israeli blockade. Israeli public opinion grows more and more conservative, and Netanyahu is now almost a centrist figure, with politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett pushing for no more concessions to Arabs.

For their part, Arabs have generally been stubborn and implacably hostile to Israel. This history should show that this policy has not worked out well for them — the UN partition plan in 1948 gave them more land than is under negotiation today, and West Bank leader Mahmud Abbas only admitted in 2011 that rejecting it was a mistake. Hamas, Iran, and zealous elements in the Arab world are still unreconciled to Israel’s existence after 69 years and boycott anything having to do with it; heck, they can’t even bring themselves to call it “Israel,” preferring to go with “the Zionist entity.” On the other hand, the Arab refugees from 1948 remain in Lebanon and Jordan all these years later, and discrimination of Arabs within Israel bolster claims that Jews will never treat them as equals.

Although the political entanglements are knotted enough, it’s the deep-rooted ethnic animosity that really drives the conflict. Arabs and Jews live separate lives, imbibe biased accounts of the conflict, nourish their own senses of victimhood, and see each other with distrust and even hatred. Religious differences add fuel to this fire — I have never read a convincing plan for what to do with Jerusalem, where Jewish and Muslim holy sites are literally on top of each other and both sides have long histories and sentimental attachments. The most that can be said is that it’s now a low-level conflict, with only occasional riots and wars instead of prolonged bloodbaths. But in a sense that makes it even more dangerous: Jews are lulled into a sense of complacency and contentment with the status quo, which largely benefits them, while Arabs smolder in resentment, convinced that violence is the only way for them to get what they want.




Image source: Nadav Kander for TIME

On January 20, the Obama Era of American history will come to a close. Like many of his predecessors, he leaves behind a contentious legacy that is sure to occupy the attentions of historians and biographers for decades to come. His supporters make him seem like a paragon of virtue and liberal ideals, while his opponents portray him as a socialist demagogue determined to destroy America. Now that his administration is passing into history, it seems fair and obvious that neither description really fits. So what kind of leader was he?

While some of Obama’s most contentious and consequential policies, like his signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), are beyond the scope of this blog, his foreign policy was important, and it’s worth taking a look back at what he managed to accomplish — and whether his policy will have an enduring impact.

Obama’s foreign policy was shaped above all by the legacy of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush started 2 wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq — and created an enduring image of America as an oppressive bully, especially in the Muslim world. Obama — capitalizing on a growing war-weariness among the American public, even among Republicans — sought to put an end to this and project an image of a nicer, gentler, more reasonable America. Always a critic of the Iraq War, which had been a personal project of Bush and his oil industry buddies anyway, he wasted little time in pulling American troops out, which was finished in 2011. He made a concerted effort to reassure ordinary Muslims that America wasn’t Islamophobic and thuggish, for instance by giving a speech with these themes at Egypt’s prestigious Cairo University in 2009. He made some efforts to distance America from Israel’s right-wing policies like building settlements in the West Bank and launching repeated wars against the Gaza Strip.

While Obama successfully differentiated himself from Bush (he is beloved in Europe and even received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009), it’s hard to discern how pacifist America has really become. He never really ended the war in Afghanistan; after an ineffectual “surge” (sudden increase in troops) in 2009, he pulled troop numbers down to 10,000, which remain in Afghanistan in an advisory role to support the fragile government there. It remains unstable, violent and messy.

America was caught off-guard by the turbulence of the Arab Spring of 2011, and Obama had to play a delicate balancing act, pressuring Arab dictators to step down or at least heed the protesters’ demands without really withdrawing support or taking the protesters’ side. As a result, he alienated both sides. When Egypt lapsed back into dictatorship in 2013, he reaffirmed America’s old support for the Egyptian military. He supported Saudi Arabia’s war against a Shi’ite uprising in Yemen. He went to war in the air over Libya to ensure a rebel victory there.

Looming over all of this in Obama’s foreign policy legacy is the disastrous war in Syria, born out of Bashar al-Assad’s repression of the protests there. Amidst international clamor for the US to get involved there, he dithered. The one time he did threaten to attack Syria was in retaliation for a poison gas attack in Damascus in 2013, and that ended peacefully with the removal and destruction of Syria’s sarin gas stockpile. Instead, America’s attention has been fixated on the Islamic State, a jihadist rebel group in east Syria and northern Iraq. Ever since its dramatic expansion and declaration of a caliphate (transnational Islamic empire) in 2014, America has been bombing it relentlessly in concert with other concerned Western and regional countries. Given repeated Islamic State terrorist attacks in Europe and America, it’s hard to say that the policy is succeeding so far.

In other words, Obama has had to reconcile his desire for a more dovish foreign policy with the demands of national security. Mindful of domestic concerns about terrorism, he’s fought jihadists as hard as Bush did, but with an emphasis on drone strikes and commando operations to take them out. The former is how he killed Anwar al-Awlaqi, an American propagandist for suicide terrorism living in Yemen; the latter is how Usama bin Ladin, the head of al-Qaeda and mastermind behind the devastating terrorist attack of 2001, met his fate. He is as hard-nosed and ruthless as Bush when it comes to killing terrorists, but with a marked preference for methods other than full-on war and the messy and difficult state-building that comes with it. Whether his strategy actually makes America safer remains to be seen; it seems hard to imagine a real reduction in terrorism without a serious change in Muslim attitudes, since many of them have marked America and the West in general as the enemy and will persist in fighting it until something changes their minds.

The other aspect of Obama’s nicer foreign policy was a willingness to accommodate rogue and unfriendly regimes. Here he has had more obvious success. First came Myanmar, an isolated and repressive dictatorship long subject to international sanctions and criticism. In response to increasing Chinese encroachment, it offered to open up its political system in the hopes that America would then lift its sanctions and let it open up its economic system. It did, and Obama even visited Myanmar to celebrate its new international posture in 2012 and 2014. Several ongoing conflicts notwithstanding, Myanmar now seems headed on a more successful and promising path. Then came Iran, a vital player in West Asian politics isolated by its strident anti-Americanism, threats against Israel and nuclear program. Although Obama’s initial overtures toward the Iranian regime were rebuffed, a punishing round of international sanctions brought it to the negotiating table after a more accommodating president was elected in 2013. The resulting deal on its nuclear program forced Iran to make real concessions at relatively little cost to the US. Finally, there was Cuba, a Communist country embargoed by America for decades. America’s rigid isolation of it seemed outdated and ineffective long before Obama came to power, and he seized upon opening diplomatic relations with it as an easy way to score a political victory and appease annoyed Latinos. Tourism has picked up and momentum is building for increasing commercial and personal ties with the island.

But in all of these cases, it’s unclear if the progress America has made will be sustained after Obama leaves office. His replacement, Donald Trump, has a much more sour view of the world, and Republicans in general tend to view good relations with sketchy regimes as a sign of weakness and/or appeasement. Myanmar might be playing the outside world for quick and easy money, and the much-loathed military still has effective veto power. Iran still supports Shi’ite militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and remains deeply skeptical of American intentions. Cuba remains under an embargo with an anti-American Communist dictator. There are a few anti-American countries Obama wasn’t able to woo, like Venezuela and North Korea; Trump will have to deal with them.

Another one is Russia. Although Russia wasn’t quite an enemy state or rogue regime, relations with America had suffered in the later years of the Bush presidency. Obama hoped to “reset” relations and be more cooperative. It didn’t work: Russia got freaked out by the unrest of the Arab Spring and American support for anti-government protests in Russia in 2011-12, seeing America’s relations with dictatorships as a way for it to undermine them. In 2014 Russia stopped the pretense that it is a “normal” country and annexed Crimea in retaliation for a popular uprising in Ukraine. Since then it has upped the ante with an insurgency in east Ukraine, anti-Western propaganda, ominous military exercises, bellicose rhetoric and electoral shenanigans in the West (including America). Obama has responded with international sanctions and increased (financial) support for Ukraine. While Republicans at first thundered that these strategies were way too soft, they’ve since flipped (thanks to Trump) and complain that Obama is unfairly and ineffectually isolating Russia. Trump seems to want to be friends with Russia, or at least reach some sort of accord, so Obama’s relations with Russia may go down in history as his most ineffective and inconsequential foreign initiative.

Another 1 of Obama’s goals was to “pivot to Asia.” With fond memories of a childhood spent in Indonesia, he saw East Asia as a golden opportunity for spreading American influence, business and cultural norms in a region intimidated by the rise of China and with rapidly fading memories of the brutish America that ruined Vietnam. Despite the unending stream of crises coming out of West Asia, he saw East Asia as the true fulcrum of global power in the 2000s. He deployed American troops to the Philippines and Australia, cozied up to Vietnam and India, hosted leaders from ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations), sent naval patrols through the South China Sea, and quietly encouraged better relations between the crucial allies of Japan and South Korea.

The linchpin of this pivot was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation grouping of Asian, Oceanian, North and Latin American countries eager for free trade, transparent business practices, and standardization of goods and services. After years of expecting the agreement to be just around the corner, especially after the normally globalist Republicans took both houses of Congress in 2014, the initiative faced a stunning defeat when Trump got elected, since he hates globalization. Despite continued interest in the deal from Japan (the other dominant partner), the future of the partnership without America looks uncertain. This defeat, combined with China’s renewed diplomatic, economic, and military overtures in East Asia, makes the importance of the pivot dubious. Asians always doubted how committed America was to their region, and betting too much on American influence seemed risky given that it’s not an Asian country. With Trump’s election, the Philippines’ new president caustically spurning America, and a chill in Thai-American relations after a coup there in 2014, it’s more common now to read dismissive evaluations of the pivot.

With ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq, a bloody mess in Syria, aggressive counter-terrorism operations, a newly hostile Russia, and a China apparently determined to gradually shove America out of East Asia, it might seem that Obama’s foreign policy record is bleak. There is certainly plenty of ammo for his critics to harp on and the rosy evaluations of his fans seem far-fetched or out of touch with reality. But Obama’s greatest success was in projecting a certain image of America, of reminding the world that the Texan “cowboy” caricature embodied by Bush is only 1 side of America’s identity. For all the cynical politicians who saw him as a naive weakling ripe for manipulation, there were an equal or greater number who appreciated his diplomatic, reasonable, nuanced approach and easygoing style. His interest in issues like regulating carbon emissions to limit the effects of climate change or promoting a bigger electricity grid in Africa won him many admirers, as did his willingness to engage with “ordinary” people in townhall events in India, China and Vietnam. His warm relations with other world leaders made it much easier to throw together international efforts like the sanctions against Iran and Russia, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the coalitions against Libya and the Islamic State.

Obama is often described as a “cool” president, both because he’s a pretty chill guy who relates well to ordinary people and because he takes a levelheaded, pragmatic approach to policy. He embraced Bill Clinton’s worldview — an America ready to use military force when (it feels that it’s) needed but more inclined toward soft power, like diplomacy, commercial pressure and foreign aid. He also took cues from Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush (“First Bush”), who used America’s formidable military power but opted for restraint and deft diplomacy in more delicate situations. And if I may indulge in a personal opinion here, I believe that his background — a mixed-race man with a father of a different nationality and a childhood spent partially overseas — has shaped his worldview somewhat. Traditional American foreign policy credos like “America must be the world’s policeman, intervening in trouble spots to uphold international law & order” or “America is a liberal bastion of the best political, economic, and ideological systems ever invented and we should spread them wherever we can” are favored by the white, Protestant “Eastern Establishment” that has long dominated American politics and especially foreign policy. Obama is probably better able to see the world and its issues from a different perspective — that of the browner parts of the globe, who regard America with at least a little apprehension given its overwhelming power and influence.

Obama’s foreign policy was only a partial success. Too often people went easy on him for just Not Being Bush instead of what he actually did. In cases like Russia and Syria (which combined to horrifying effect near the end of his 2nd term), he didn’t always seem to know what to do. The world may now face yet another side of the American identity as Trump revises American foreign policy along his own lines. But Obama’s foreign policy may yet prove to be as inspirational to those who care about this stuff as his domestic policy was to young, liberal Americans. It suggests an America that’s not overbearing, loud, or obnoxious, that knows how to rub elbows and build careful strategic relationships and project a positive image to the world, yet also willing to strike hard and fast when world order or its own security is at threat. Most likely, more people will regret Obama’s departure than cheer it.