Halifax — At an annual gathering of government, business, academic, and civil-society leaders from democratic nations here, one theme emerged clearly: The world has moved beyond Barack Obama. Whereas debate over Obama and his policies figured heavily in previous gatherings of the Halifax International Security Forum (full disclosure: I am on the Forum’s agenda committee), this year’s sessions were notable for the absence of any real discussion or passion about the American president.
Indeed, a plenary session featuring Senators John McCain and Tim Kaine debating whether America remained the “indispensable superpower” opened with a stark video collage of clips of Obama’s statements implying an American withdrawal from the world, along with his flip-flopping on the reintroduction of U.S. combat troops to Iraq. The president came across as irresolute, overtaken by events, and unrealistically academic about the role that America should play on the world stage.
Yet it was in session after session, on cyber issues, jihadism, Africa, propaganda, energy, and the like, where the dismissal of Obama was stark. There was no hope entertained that Obama had solutions to any of the myriad problems facing the world, no presumption of any new initiatives coming from the Obama White House, nor much interest in supposedly on-going priorities, such as the pivot to Asia or trade pacts such as TTIP or TPP. No one, it seemed, had much interest in the U.S. president, nor much anticipation that he would do anything of note over the next two years.
The only area where Obama-administration policies played any real role was in discussion on the Islamic State. Retired Marine General John Allen, now Obama’s special envoy for a global coalition against the Islamic State, spoke off-the-record on Sunday morning. And, during much of the conference, there was continued discussion about what Obama would do next in the Middle East. Other than that, this participant felt an uncharacteristic vacuum where in past years, the White House would have figured prominently.
Underlying this absence was a palpable sense of resignation on the part of many who once had high hopes for Obama, and a regretful sense of vindication for those who never expected much in the first place. The collective feeling of the 300 participants seemed to be that he had his shot, messed it up, and will be lucky to get out of office without a major catastrophe occurring. Other actors, from Vladimir Putin to Turkey’s Erdogan, emerged as the key global shapers to watch. Given that Halifax was a gathering of representatives from the world’s democracies (or democratic groups within non-free states), that was a sobering realization. Only India’s Narendra Modi was held up as a democratic leader who might make his mark on the global scene. Obama, on the other hand, was now a global lame-duck. In the court of democratic world opinion, it seems, Barack Obama’s time on the world stage is over.