International credibility is to foreign affairs what political capital is to domestic matters. Without it, an American president can exert little influence and thus can get little done.
President Obama has used up nearly all of his political capital. He began his administration with 69 percent approval and 12 percent disapproval. Today, he is underwater at 40-54 according to the latest Gallup poll.
This presents a problem for Obama, but not for his successor. The next president will begin his or term with a strong approval rating, though almost certainly not as strong as Obama’s historically high mark.
Obama has also used up nearly all of his international credibility. Michael Rubin writes:
In 1994, the United States (and the United Kingdom and Russia) signed an agreement with Ukraine as part of its forfeiture of nuclear weaponry: Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the United States and Great Britain agreed to help protect it. That Budapest Memorandum, it turns out, has become meaningless.
So too were American promises to Georgia in 2008. And American promises to Poland and the Czech Republic with regard to missile defense.
The Obama administration’s decision to slash American assistance to Israel’s missile defense—while at the same time enabling between $7 billion and $20 billion in sanctions relief and new investment into Iran—likewise undercuts any lingering hope in Israel or among Israel’s defenders in the United States that Obama would lift a finger if Iranian leaders act on their promise to annihilate the Jewish state.
The world could hardly fail to notice:
Saudi Arabia and Egypt are furious with Obama. And Kuwaiti and Emirati leaders suggest that they can no longer trust American commitments.
I spent the last week in Baghdad, and Iraqis too express dismay that the United States doesn’t keep its side of the bargain it struck in the Strategic Framework Agreement. That is a sentiment growing in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Colombia, and Estonia as well.
Unlike political capital, international credibility is not automatically restored once a new president takes office. Political capital belongs to the politician who has obtained it. International credibility belongs to the nation. At the outset of a new administration, it is the product of (1) firm leadership by past presidents and (2) sacrifices by our armed forces.
Barack Obama’s successor will have to live with the consequences of Obama’s failure to keep America’s promises. This will be especially true of Hillary Clinton, who helped Obama run American foreign policy for four years.
But it will also be true of whomever we elect in 2016. No matter how firmly that president acts — and he or she will want to avoid taking tough action just for the sake changing our image (the reverse of Obama’s mistake) — foreign leaders will be wary. They will believe, justifiably, that Obama’s approach to international relations has currency in the United States and can always be revived. Thus, they will be most reluctant to rely on our promises or follow our lead.
Obama’s squandering of American credibility has been so persistent and multi-faceted that it becomes difficult to resist concluding that he has intended to impair his successors’ ability to exert influence in foreign affairs. Given Obama’s deep distrust of America, we shouldn’t be surprised.