With President Barack Obama about to leave office, HISTORY spoke with Deputy National Security Advisor Benjamin Rhodes about some of the administration's greatest foreign policy challenges and achievements, and the president's unique approach to forging new relationships with old adversaries.
How has President Obama’s background and personal experiences, which in many ways are unique and unlike any previous president, helped shape both his world view and approach to foreign policy.
As someone who has lived abroad as a child and has family from the developing world, President Obama has a unique understanding of America’s role in the world and what America represents to be around the world. I have consistently been struck by the fact that people around the world see him as a figure who represents not just the United States but also their aspirations, given his status as a minority within the United States, and given his background.
How has that background affected how President Obama is perceived around the world?
One of the strangest aspects of our political debate over the last 8 years is that he was constantly accused of diminishing America’s standing in the world at the same time that every metric of public opinion around the world showed enormous respect for his leadership. How has international opinion of both the president and the United States changed over the course of the last eight years, for better or for worse.
If you had to describe President Obama (and the administration’s) approach to foreign policy in one word, what would it be?
Engagement. Engagement with foreign governments, including former adversaries; engagement with foreign publics, especially young people.
You were personally involved in getting the Cuba negotiations off the ground. How did the Obama administration approach the negotiation process?
We tested whether we could start a conversation with the Cubans that could reshape relations. It took many meetings to build trust, and we consistently tried to elevate our ambition so that we weren’t just resolving minor issues but were also transforming the nature of our relationship. That ultimately resulted in the agreement, witnessed by the Vatican, to restore diplomatic relations and begin the process of normalizing relations.
Why Cuba, and why now? What were the new realities or conditions on the ground that made the possibility of engagement with Cuba possible?
First, because our past approach was not working. We also had seen positive developments following the changes allowing Cuban Americans to travel and send remittances to the island, which helped restore some connections between Cuban Americans and Cubans on the island, while also providing support for Cubans who were starting small businesses and pursuing self-employment on the island.
How was the Obama administration able to convince Cuba that America’s intentions were sincere, and what were the most pivotal moments of that process?
We were able to convince them that our motivations were sincere because we persisted in the negotiations, we listened as well as talked, and we engaged Cuba with a spirit of mutual respect – including President Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. It was a major leap for the Cubans to restore diplomatic relations with the Embargo still in place. The fact that they saw President Obama as a different kind of U.S. President unencumbered by the baggage of history, together with the significant time that we spent in talking to them, made an enormous difference.
What surprised you the most about how Cubans viewed the normalization of relations with the United States when it was formally announced in 2015?
Cubans were filled with hope about the future, which was inspiring given how difficult the circumstances are in Cuba, and given the fact that U.S. policy has contributed to the dire circumstances on the island.
President Obama made history when he became the first sitting president to visit countries like Myanmar and Laos. What have those experiences been like, and what are some of your most memorable moments about those groundbreaking visits?
I will never forget the motorcade in from the airport the first time we went to Burma. In a country where any gatherings of people used to be prohibited by law, tens of thousands of people lined to motorcade route. You could tell in the faces of all the people that they felt things were going to change for the better in their lives just because of the visit. It’s been remarkable to travel back to Yangon each year since, and to see rapid development there, along with the political transition. In Laos, the most profound experience was meeting with victims of U.S. unexploded ordnance in Laos, including people who had lost limbs and been badly burned. It was a stark reminder of the enduring and unintended consequences of U.S. military action overseas.
What was the administration hoping to achieve with the so-called “pivot” towards Asia, and why did President Obama feel that a policy reassessment in this region was necessary?
The Asia Pacific is the most important emerging region in the world. We have tried to significantly ramp up our engagement in the region – including our diplomatic engagement, including joining the EAS Summit process; our relationships with emerging powers like Vietnam; our opening to Burma; our military posture; and our economic and commercial efforts to open new markets for U.S. goods. We have succeeded in dramatically increasing U.S. engagement in the world, though the failure to follow through on TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) will make it harder for the US to shape the future of the region.
Looking back on the last eight years, what do you think are some of the the administration’s biggest foreign policy accomplishments?
Paris climate agreement, Iran deal, Cuba opening, dramatically reducing the number of U.S. troops serving in harm’s way while sustaining pressure on terrorists, taking out Osama bin Laden, reaching young people all around the world, stamping out Ebola.
What’s the greatest foreign policy challenge facing the next administration?
To not fall back into the trap of escalating war in the Middle East.
How do you balance the importance of engaging with countries—such as Cuba, Iran and Vietnam—who have been criticized for their human rights records?
We believe that engagement is a much better way to improve human rights conditions in these countries. Clearly, isolation has done nothing to improve human rights conditions. When something doesn’t work, why would you keep doing it over and over and over again? We can’t transform societies overnight nor can we dictate change from afar. But when we engage, we create incentives for countries to reform – we’ve seen that in Burma’s transition to democracy; in the dramatically growing private sector; and in the labor and legal reforms in Vietnam.