Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Obama's legacy: The world is more dangerous for Australia

The probability of intense conflict that may involve Australia is as high as it has been since 1945, and probably higher.

Obama-Turnbull Oval Office meeting January 2016 (Photo Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Obama-Turnbull Oval Office meeting January 2016 (Photo Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Published 16 Jan 2017   Follow @Jim_Molan

President Obama’s personal attributes, shown to great effect in his farewell speech in Chicago, may not be enough to carry his reputation through the consequences of his Administration. For Australia, Obama’s presidency has resulted in challenges to the world order not seen for decades. There may be many reasons for Obama’s ineffectiveness, particularly in international affairs, but Obama’s legacy of ineffectiveness remains his, and his alone.

During the recent election campaign Obama stressed to Democrats that his legacy would be a President Hillary Clinton, meaning that she would guard his achievements. Given that did not happen, there may be some truth in the claim that Obama’s legacy now is that he gave the world President Trump. Obama’s domestic failures exacerbated US discontent about income disparity, globalisation, trade and immigration, all of which contributed to Trump’s success. And if Trump is Obama’s legacy, then for Australia and others, Trump brings a far more dangerous level of unpredictability to a world that was already dangerously unpredictable.

To be fair, not all the unpredictability Trump is likely to exacerbate had its origins entirely in Obama’s policies. Many of these challenges are intractable, but on almost every issue that impacts Australia, the Obama Administration was less than decisive. A major cause of Obama’s failure was that he could not see that weakness is provocative in international relations, whereas strength deters.

Prevarication over Syria exacerbated the conflict, particularly early when Assad was vulnerable. This created massive casualties, social dislocation, the refugee flow to Europe and the destruction of infrastructure, while allowing Russia to play a decisive role in the Middle East. Syria will be Obama’s war, just as Iraq was Bush’s war.

Obama failed to force PM Maliki to accept a US residual force in Iraq after 2011. If just one single battalion of US troops had been in Mosul in 2014, it is more than possible that ISIS would not exist today. President Obama and his Administration had an appalling relationship with the US military, whose advice he rejected on too many occasions. He was proven wrong to do so. Ironically, some of those he sacked or sidelined will now work for Trump.

Only time will tell if Obama’s achievement in slowing the nuclearisation of Iran will be successful, but regardless, the lifting of sanctions and repaying of withheld funds to Iran has coincided with Iran becoming the Middle East’s largest purveyor of state violence. And of course, Obama’s attitude to Iran has impacted on the US-Israel relationship, with Israel and many others believing that Obama merely kicked the nuclear can down the road to the detriment of long-term peace in the region.

The rise of China is a long-running process that is critical to the relationship between the US and Australia. A short-term assessment of the Obama Administration is that America’s friends in Asia do not trust it, and its enemies do not fear it. The transitory presence of small numbers of US Marines in Darwin reflects a tendency by the Obama Administration towards appearance rather than reality. The US Marines make little contribution to regional security whereas the permanent location of US ships and planes across Australia’s north, something spoken about but still not accomplished, is more likely to have real meaning.

It seems that what drove Obama over eight years was a belief that the limits of US power had been reached by his predecessor in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. It can be argued that US power in those wars was never exercised to anywhere near its limits, which was a major reason for the poor results. As a result, Obama took the US from an ineffective use of US power by Bush to a reluctance to use US power at all. Only in the last 18 months has US power been used effectively in Iraq and parts of Syria.

President Obama’s Secretary of Defense says the threat to world order is four countries and an ideology: Russia, Iran, China, North Korea and Islamic extremism. Into Obama’s power vacuum has stepped those five threats:

  • Russia is claiming a sphere of influence on its near borders, in Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltics, facing only a confused NATO, and is most effectively using involvement in the Middle East as a bargaining chip.
  • China has achieved everything it wants in the South China Sea and will not be budged short of serious conflict, while increasing its influence with ASEAN members who have lost faith in the US.
  • Iran, directly or indirectly, is involved in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and with its own Kurds, looking to establish influence from the Gulf to the Mediterranean while Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are not the strong US allies they once were.
  • North Korea is working on long-range missiles to carry its nuclear weapons.
  • Terrorism in the US and across Europe is driving the civilised world past centrist and centre-right governments to more extreme political solutions despite some tactical success in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Mali and some Sub-Saharan countries.

The relevance to Australia of this uncertain world, exacerbated if not created by the Obama Administration, is that the probability of some wider and more intense conflict that may involve Australia is as high as it has been since 1945, and probably higher. The US still possesses military power sufficient to resolve conflict with any one of the four listed nations, but our major ally’s military dominance of the world has gone, and will take years to regain.

Australia cannot ignore the probability that if for any reason conflict occurs between the US and any one of the four, another will see opportunity in simultaneously taking military action. Or a formal or informal opportunistic alliance may occur between two or more of the four (there are signs of it already) to at least reduce US military effectiveness and the world order this has built.

Given the dramatic cuts to US military power during the Obama Administration, the result is that there is not enough US cavalry to come to everyone’s rescue. Australia would be wise to think through the very basics of its US alliance arrangements, not in order to withdraw but so that it is much more self-sufficient and able to contribute seriously to sustaining world order or at least managing change from within the alliance.

How ironic if Obama’s actual legacy was to force US allies to be less dependent on the US.

You may also be interested in