Obama's Foreign Policy of Reconciliation
In late December, U.S. President Barack Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Pearl Harbor -- a visit that fell shortly after the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The meeting between the two leaders goes to the heart of one of President Obama’s key foreign policy goals over the last eight years: moving the United States past historical hang-ups that have hindered American interests and handling long-untouchable topics in U.S. foreign policy.
President-elect Donald Trump would be wise to build on the path-breaking progress Obama has made.
The Pearl Harbor meeting is a fitting show of the “power of reconciliation” and proves how much the United States can achieve when we put the past behind us. The trade in visits between Obama and Abe -- Obama visited Hiroshima earlier this year, making him the first sitting American president to do so -- serves as a vivid reminder of how the two countries put history behind them to forge one of the world’s strongest alliances.
Even the bitterest of enemies can become the closest of friends.
President Obama expressed an interest in the power of reconciliation on the first day of his presidency. In Obama’s 2009 inaugural address, the president offered: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent …we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Since then, Obama’s willingness to set aside decades of animosity with Cuba, Myanmar, and Iran has defied years of conventional wisdom in order to advance U.S. interests. In charting new courses even when it was politically difficult to do so, Obama has stood apart as a bold, principled foreign-policy dealmaker, greatly enhancing America’s global leadership in the process.
However, Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his criticism of President Obama’s diplomatic achievements threaten to take the United States backward. In Asia, for example, Trump’s criticism of Japan during the campaign and his threats to weaken the alliance may gravely harm American interests in the region, and could throw away decades of progress.
The choice between a mindless move backward or seeking to build on success is perhaps starkest in the case of Cuba. After 54 years of attempted isolation yielded no tangible result for either the Cuban people or the United States, Obama broke with convention to move toward normalization with Cuba. Particularly with the recent death of Fidel Castro, change is afoot in Cuba -- the United States must continue engaging Cuba to support that evolution. President-elect Trump can either maintain Obama’s embrace of a different future in which the U.S. government reaches out to the Cuban people and promotes far greater connectivity between the two nations, or he can return to five decades of failed policy.
With Iran, the situation is more complicated, but the need to build on progress is equally clear. The nuclear deal with Iran was an effective strategy to freeze Iran’s nuclear program, and to do so without war.
To be sure, the rest of the U.S.-Iran relationship remains seriously strained and often dangerous. But the Obama administration’s willingness to engage with Iran on the nuclear issue and then defend the deal against vigorous domestic and international opposition enabled the United States to secure a vital national interest by moving past outdated wisdom that demonized talking to Iran. There are enough difficult issues with Iran as it is, and the United States must do more to push back against Tehran elsewhere; adding the nuclear issue back into the picture would be a disaster.
In Myanmar, President Obama was willing to engage when the generals running that country initiated a series of transformative reforms opening up the political process. After years of repression in Myanmar, to which the United States and other countries had responded with pressure and isolation, Obama showed that the United States would meet progress in Myanmar by lifting sanctions and enhancing engagement. Despite voices criticizing the president’s willingness to engage with the military government, a genuine democratic process has now begun in that country. Progress is moving in fits and starts in Myanmar, but pulling support for the new government for not doing enough would harm its chances of success.
Trump ran a campaign ignoring conventional wisdom, and the president-elect prides himself on being a dealmaker. Surely Trump can respect the bold achievements of President Obama that have safeguarded U.S. interests. Reopening these issues would take us backward and damage U.S. national security.