In the aftermath of the 2014 mid-term Congressional elections in the United States, there was a widespread perception among the American chattering classes that the Obama administration, confronted by Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, would become a lame duck in its final two years. Instead, the Republicans in recent weeks have had to confront a relaxed and reinvigorated President very focused upon ensuring that his legacy as a change agent in American politics would be solidified in American history.
His election victory in 2008 as the first African American President provided a symbol of the search for an escape from the descent into international calumny and economic crisis that overtook the Bush-Cheney administration as it waged an illegal war in Iraq and a misguided American-led occupation of Afghanistan. For much of his first term from 2008 to 2012, facing the open challenge from mainstream Republicans, and their Tea Party derivatives, to ensure that he was a one-term President, Barack Obama focused upon revitalizing the American economy and repairing some of the damage done by his predecessors – Bill Clinton and George Bush. By 2007-2008, their policies had facilitated the loosening of the regulatory regime for the financial sector and encouraged a level of recklessness by Wall Street that provoked the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Obama administration’s effort to rein in some of the more egregious excesses of the financial institutions which precipitated the financial crisis has proven to be a major challenge for the US at home and in the wider global environment. Like wayward adolescents, Wall Street appears unrepentant about its risky behavior and continues to pose a major challenge to efforts to ensure that its excesses do not further undermine America’s ability to create a climate conducive to maintenance of America’s status as a global financial power.
However, it is increasingly evident that the People’s Republic of China’s relative economic stability and its continued growth since 2007 has laid the basis for it to play a larger role in managing the international economy to the disadvantage of Wall Street. The latter is desperate for a return to the laxity that governed its operations in a futile effort to recover lost ground, but it is now evident that the enormous liquidity of the People’s Republic of China’s banking system has eroded Wall Street’s international influence. The recent decision by Russia and China to establish a second major pipeline for gas exports to China, following American efforts to renew its Cold War strategy of containment of Russia in Europe through NATO, has been a striking demonstration of China’s ability to leverage its economic clout to influence the economic and strategic future of the Eurasian landmass and its constituent states.
Closer economic integration based upon Russian energy and China’s enormous productive capacity and capital will have a decisive impact upon the growth and volume of international trade through the use of land-based routes to expand trade and migration among European and Asian countries. In addition, the new pipeline will play an important role in strengthening the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a counterweight to NATO’s efforts to extend its influence in Central Asia through its military intervention in Afghanistan and its plans to retain forces in the country after the declaration of an official end to its post-2001 occupation. Just as important, this Russia-China economic integration process will open opportunities for the development of transport technologies and infrastructure to build the new “Silk Road” – an allusion to the Silk Road that had historically linked the Middle Kingdom to other societies across Asia and into Europe.
The rise of post-1492 Europe – through its development of naval and military technologies which had boosted the Atlantic trading/imperial states through their exclusive control and exploitation of the mineral and agricultural resources of the Americas – had laid the basis for the development of an Atlantic-dominated international system which had contributed to the erosion of China’s international influence over the centuries. The current generation of Chinese leaders are acutely aware that technological innovation has been central to the processes of social, economic and political transformation that have rebuilt China’s image as a global power over the course of the last century – since the collapse of Imperial rule and the establishment of Chinese Republic in 1912. For China, the new Silk Road offers both historical and contemporary vindication of China as a major power. It is this ongoing transformation and revitalization of China that has evoked the spirit of change in the new Millennium and forced a profound re-evaluation of the US role in the international system.
This was the challenge that the Obama administration inherited after the strategic blunders that defined the Bush-Cheney administration’s search for “Full Spectrum Dominance” across the globe – a foolhardy pursuit based upon the assumption that the American military could reshape the world to American preferences. Like Wall Street, the American military and its NATO allies have discovered in the Middle East and Afghanistan that excesses are counter-productive and result in unanticipated and catastrophic losses. American-led efforts to promote wars for regime change in the Middle East, Libya and Afghanistan, have served to intensify inter-state conflict and civil war – outcomes which have provoked profound questions about American leadership in the international system. Those questions have led to several very dramatic developments over the course of the Obama administration.
First, the international effort to constrain the emergence of Iran as a militarized nuclear power has become the focus of extended negotiations among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany and Iran. These negotiations have made evident that the future of Iran as a regional power in the Persian Gulf and the wider international system will reflect a consensus among the major powers about the future of the region. Iran’s strategic weight upon the geopolitics of Eurasia has become simply too important to be left to American policymakers. The long-standing hopes for a Pax Americana in a region of global importance have been dashed by the failure of the Bush-Cheney administration’s abortive attempt to create a satellite state in Iraq that would have the capacity to contain Iran.
Second, there is a growing recognition that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond the capacity of Israel and the Palestinian leaders to negotiate a durable solution and American support for Israel has compromised its ability to serve as an “honest” broker. In effect, as in the case of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the United Nations will play a much larger role in resolving a conflict that has been an important trigger for the political instability and military conflict that has defined the Middle East for nearly five decades.
Further, the recent American-endorsed campaign to accomplish regime change in Syria by way of civil war has illustrated the continuing failures of American strategic thinking and military operations in the Middle East under the Obama administration. The weakening of the Syrian regime through the promotion of civil war in that country has exacerbated the problem posed by the sectarian fragmentation of communities in Iraq. Both countries had adopted authoritarian secular approaches to governance in multi-confessional societies. Unfortunately, the lessons to be drawn from the descent into ethnic/sectarian cleansing in Iraq under the American military occupation seems to have been ignored by those who rushed into a campaign to destroy the Baath regime in Syria.
The recent rise of the radical Sunni military-political movement – the Islamic State – within Iraq and Syria has multiplied the opportunities for both state fragmentation and the destruction and dispersal of ethnic and religious communities across the region. The Middle East was the incubator of Christianity and it remains the home of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. The sectarian conflict that has been unleashed by the weakening of state structures in Syria and Iraq is an ominous portent of a return to the instability triggered by the decline and collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The death throes of the multi-ethnic/multi-confessional Ottoman Empire and the genesis of the Turkish Republic during the First World War remains a pointed reminder about the vulnerability of Christian communities in the region. More recently, the Iraqi Kurdish experience – where that community was the target of military oppression, attacks using chemical weapons, and other measures designed to limit their political rights within Iraq – under Saddam Hussein’s regime, again speaks to the relationship between warfare and the adverse experience of minority communities in a region under constant threat of ethnic/religious polarization and fragmentation. The Balfour Declaration issued by the British Foreign Secretary in 1917 offered the promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine which would ultimately lead to the establishment of Israel was also a product of the First World War. However, Israel’s establishment as a response to the Nazi genocide against “untermenschen” in Europe has not resolved the problem of effective governance of a region where ethnic and religious pluralism has constrained the development of nation-states. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is but another manifestation of the failures of the region’s nationalist elites to rise to the challenge of fashioning effective systems of governance for pluralistic societies in the wake of the collapse of Ottoman and European colonial rule – a problem that had also been exemplified by the tragedy unleashed in the former Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War.
The legacies of Ottoman imperial disintegration in the 19th and 20th centuries continue to overshadow the search for effective governance in the volatile regions of the Balkans and the Middle East. In the century since the eruption of the First World War – as a result of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, by Serbian nationalists – the tensions that have triggered the politics of religious, confessional, and ethnic conflict emerging out of Central Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East have been at the core of major conflicts that have shaken the international system. The First World War, the Second World War, the Cold War, the Israeli wars against the Arab states and the Palestinian Territories, the Iran-Iraq War, and US-led wars against Iraq, and a variety of other lower-level conflicts have yet to resolve the problems of governance endemic to the Ottoman’s successors.
As President Obama prepares to serve his final two years as President, he has learnt from his experiences with Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan that American military power cannot overcome the legacies of history – a lesson that every American President has had to learn since Woodrow Wilson’s launched the effort to project American power on the global stage at Versailles. Obama has demonstrated the perspicacity to engage President Xi Jinping of China in developing a platform for establishing a global strategy for dealing with fossil fuels and climate change; he has cut the Gordian Knot of the US-Cuban Cold War, and he has recognized the need for the involvement of the major powers in redefining the parameters within which the legacies of Ottoman and European imperial dissolution in the Middle East can be managed.
Modest – in terms of the exaggerated expectations that were laid at his feet after his electoral victory in 2008 – but it is the measure of the man.