In this context, Barack Obama will likely be viewed by posterity as a status quo President who sought to maintain continuity with U.S. grand strategy and alliance partnerships, even if he tried to do so on the cheap. Perceiving a rising China as the greatest challenge to the United States, in his first term he reduced military assets in Europe and attempted to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; both moves were intended to shift scarce resources to Asia. But Putin’s assault on Ukraine and the explosive emergence of ISIS forced him to reengage in both Europe and the Middle East. Whipsawed by events, Obama has been justly criticized for misreading Putin, underestimating ISIS, and damaging U.S. credibility thanks to his feckless posturing with respect to Assad.
However, these assessments often fail to account for the global perspective that a U.S. President responsible for sustaining American primacy in all theaters of the globe must constantly bear in mind. For Obama this meant putting a premium on husbanding strength and avoiding military entanglements while relying on the panoply of instruments within the U.S. diplomatic toolbox—what Kennan referred to as “measures short of war.” But such is the mismatch between U.S. resources and global commitments that Obama arguably ended up overstretching the U.S. military anyway, while still under-resourcing his de facto containment strategy toward China.
The hard part seems to be that there is no coherent vision that is also a feasible vision. What's sad is no one seems interested in feasible visions at all.
Sorry this is all over the place. The simple part of this election is coming to an end. The hard part has just begun.
Obama, in short, has attempted to execute a balance of power strategy that in principle is well suited to a multipolar global system. Whether such cold, Nixonian realism in foreign policy is suited to the American temperament is another question altogether. Since the radical break with isolationist tradition in the wake of World War II, public support for U.S. global leadership has been sustained by a romantic faith in America’s overseas mission—a kind of internationalized Manifest Destiny. Obama’s challenge to the myth of omnipotence, although based on a realistic appraisal of the changing balance of power in the world, has been psychologically deflating. The risk over time is that the American people will choose to recoil from a world that readily bends neither to America’s power nor its moral vision. In the meantime, especially when feelings of vulnerability run high due to recurrent terrorist attacks in Europe and on U.S. soil, the public nostalgically hankers for leadership that projects confidence in America’s capacity to defeat all comers: thus the attraction throughout 2016 of candidates who promised a restoration of American primacy—an America that wins again.