It is one of the glories of the U.S. Constitution that although presidential administrations must abide by the laws made by previous ones until they are repealed, foreign policy initiatives that are unworthy of a great nation can be discarded almost immediately. This is what will happen in November next year; indeed, the Obama administration’s keenness to argue that the Iranian nuclear deal did not constitute a formal treaty—in order to prevent the Senate from debating and perhaps refusing to ratify it—will make it all the easier for an incoming administration to denounce it. The closest historical equivalents are to the Reagan administration’s ditching of several previous administrations’ policy of détente towards the Soviet Union once it came to power in January 1981, and the Thatcher Ministry’s equally swift and almost contemporaneous dumping of the Foreign Office’s appeasement policy towards the same great power.
The great British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, once said that Britain had no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests. Any incoming administration will recognize that President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives towards Iran, Cuba, Russia, Egypt, China, and Israel have been uniformly disastrous for the United States’ interests and standing in the world, and it will reverse some and modify others. Iran can be told pretty much immediately that the nuclear deal is dead, though of course it will be a great test of any incoming president’s diplomatic skills to persuade America’s friends, allies, and “frenemies” to re-impose sanctions on Iran once they have been lifted and trade deals negotiated.
Of the other Obama foreign policy initiatives, some are already moribund—such as Mrs. Clinton’s notorious “reset” towards Russia—but others, including the rapprochement with the Castro regime in Cuba, will be more complicated to restore to the status quo ante. Nonetheless, initiatives such as the so-called “pivot to Asia” and the self-laceration of America inherent in Obama’s Cairo Speech will find few echoes in future foreign policy making. The humiliations over Syrian “red lines” and the Benghazi murders, which will long stain the Obama presidency before the bar of history, will need to be avenged. Within a year or so of his leaving office, President Obama’s initiatives—such as the refusal to help the Iranian liberals and democrats during the Arab Spring—will simply be seen as a particularly cringe-making period in modern American history, not as immutable demarches that can bind future governments.