Barack Obama is set to leave the presidency on a wave of international popularity nearly as high as the one he rode into office. In an April 2015 Gallup poll, President Obama’s administration won the highest approval rating of any world leader among non-U.S. citizens.
Views on Obama’ foreign policy vary widely. To some, he is a “first do no harm” foreign policy pragmatist. He came in office with the U.S. in a hole internationally and with the intention not to dig the hole deeper.
To others, his worldview is opaque or incoherent. Having faced near-continual intransigence at home and criticism of his conduct of foreign policy from both sides of the aisle, Obama’s current international popularity is a bit ironic.
It is also an asset. At 54, Obama will be one of the youngest former presidents in American history. He is leaving office at a time when internationally active post-presidencies are the norm among his predecessors. Just as Obama is gaining in popularity near the end of his tenure, former presidents often rise in stature as their administrations are re-assessed over time. Obama’s popularity may prove such a growing asset in his post-presidency. If it does, why not deploy it?
In their book The President’s Club, authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy chronicled the diplomatic careers of former presidents. Whether serving as counselors, or deployed as special envoys on sensitive security issues, former presidents have served sitting commanders-in-chief regularly over the past several decades. At times, the tradition has extended to a former president serving a sitting one of the opposite party. Of course, a parallel tradition has emerged of former presidents pursing their own humanitarian agendas under their own steam.
Whether called by his successor or of his own initiative, numerous issues would be credible targets for President Obama’s sustained attention during his post-presidency. Three are international priorities he established in office that he could do much to further as a former commander-in-chief.
It is the major environmental issue of our time, and the partisan divisions surrounding response to it predated Obama’s presidency. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration oversaw both a major bilateral emissions reduction agreement with China (2014), and the negotiation of a multi-lateral emissions reduction agreement (2015).
President Obama’s personal stake in the issue, therefore, is high. Now that the headlines have faded, the lasting value of these agreements will be determined in their continued implementation. Carrying out the agreements–and tweaking them where necessary to meet their objectives–will require the same multi-lateral approach as their negotiation.
Large-scale geopolitical problems have attracted the leadership of former heads of state before; former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair served as Quartet (EU, UN, US, Russia) Representative on Middle East peace issues from 2007-2015. A permanent representative for climate change is one way of helping assure a consistent forward motion on an issue that is often buffeted by national politics. President Obama’s legacy is tied to the issue, and his popularity internationally could serve it well.
The UN’s role in climate change exemplifies the organization’s ability, as a recognized international forum, to take on challenges outside its original mandate. The UN and other international institutions America fostered–most notably NATO–need reform. As America led their creation, it should lead their reform. The Atlantic Alliance dominated the original composition of the UN Security Council, dreamed up as the Cold War was just beginning and before the EU existed.
Now its Euro-centricity makes little sense. Major economies, population centers, and nations large enough to bear a portion of the responsibility for global security are left out of permanent membership (Japan, India, South Korea, Brazil–the list is long). The Atlantic Alliance had just won a war when it cast the Security Council; re-casting it in peacetime without such a mandate is a thorny and possible intractable political problem.
Still, re-casting U.S. relations abroad has been one of the signature themes of Obama’s foreign policy. Re-opening relations with Cuba, fostering closer ties to Vietnam, and most recently visiting Hiroshima all signaled a desire to move America past outdated international relationships and into more productive ones. That same spirit could drive reform of the post-WWII institutions America helped to build.
The June 12 mass shooting in Orlando by a self-identified ISIS supporter is a tragically redundant reminder that America’s lax gun laws are a threat to its security. America is an outlier among developed nations in its legal and cultural stance towards firearms. In an age of international terrorism, that has very real implications.
Those seeking to cause harm have a far easier time arming themselves in the United States, making Americans more vulnerable to an attack like the one Paris suffered last November, and Orlando endured just days ago. Gun control is an issue that has elicited some of President Obama’s most impassioned appeals (most recently at a June 3 PBS town hall meeting.)
Chillingly, during that town hall, President Obama pointed angrily to his inability to prevent those on terror watch lists from buying assault weapons legally (the Orlando gunman, a subject of FBI investigations for possible links to terrorism, bought his weapons legally days before the shooting.) The 9/11 attacks sparked a series of effective border and transport security measures; last November’s Paris attacks prompted similar efforts in France. The potential for a coordinated shooting attack on a scale we have not yet seen is too real to ignore and also maintain the bipartisan commitment to fighting terror.
Other countries share, and are responding to, this very real challenge. Who better than a former president to use established relations with other national leaders to coordinate the legal efforts needed to prevent such attacks. President Obama’s passion on gun control need not go to waste in his post-presidency; if anything it can be amplified.
The list of issues needing attention is exhaustive, and President Obama of course has his own personal priorities. However, the power of the presidency extends beyond the office, and President Obama has the potential to have one of the most impactful post-presidencies in history on the international stage.