Barack Obama was a prominent president
Why Barack Obama wasn't a great president
The US president was too lonely, too hesitant, and too isolationist to have a significant place in the history books.
Barack Obama wanted to keep the US out of wars and no longer play the world policeman. Instead, he tried to solve conflicts with soft power. This strategy failed, for example in Syria. Obama's path led from hard power to soft power to no power.
Obviously, Obama is not without merit. It will go down in the history books. As the first African American president, he is certain of this. He deserves it for other things too. In his lifestyle, he was an exemplary president. Barack and Michelle represented the United States with dignity and elegance. You will soon be missed. Neither the shady, shimmering Clintons nor the vulgar Trump can stand comparison.
Obama also has successes in foreign policy, the greatest with Iran, but also with Cuba or in multilateral negotiations. He managed to involve the USA in the Paris climate agreement. But the failures predominate.
After the show of strength of George W. Bush in the Middle East, Obama recognized that the USA can no longer face the fate of the world on its own. Instead of working alone, he relied on partnerships. His problem, however, was that he was unable to find partners.
Obama failed to develop personal relationships with even a single world leader.
During his presidency, American relations with almost the whole world deteriorated: with the Arabs, with Turkey, with Israel, with China, with the Asean states and of course, for everyone to see, with Russia. Obama, who was celebrated frenetically on his first visit to Berlin, has not made any friends in Europe either. He was a lonely, an isolated president.
What was that? First and foremost, Obama himself. He gave great speeches. But nothing more followed afterwards. In Cairo, he encouraged Arab youth to become more democratic. But when the autocratic clubs struck, he was silent. Obama spoke like an idealist but acted like an isolationist. The two things didn't go together.
Obama had an additional problem: he couldn't listen. When he spoke in public, his intonation betrayed that he would not tolerate contradiction. Likewise his sign language. Not infrequently he lectured with an outstretched forefinger. This is how a general speaks to soldiers. But Obama was not dealing with soldiers, but with politicians and presidents of sovereign states. They want to be treated differently.
Even the Capitol Democrats struggled with the style of government of the Lord in the White House, not to mention the Republicans or other heads of state. Obama didn't have the communication skills to execute his strategy. He was a good speaker but a bad listener. So he had no one to talk to.
But friendly relations among heads of state are important in international relations. I don't mean clumsy pats on the back and kisses on the cheek à la Juncker, but rather mutual sympathy based on respect. The world would look different today if it hadn't clicked between Reagan and Gorbachev. What would Reagan have been without the enduring friendship with Maggie Thatcher? What would Roosevelt without Churchill, Kohl without Mitterrand, Helmut Schmidt without Giscard d'Estaing?
But Obama failed to develop personal relationships with even a single world leader. That had an impact. Not just in Syria. Because the following still applies: Certain problems can only be solved together and only at the highest level. Little has happened under Obama - too little to immortalize the 44th President in the pantheon of the great.
Paul Widmer is a former ambassador and teaches at the University of St. Gallen.
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