Twelve years ago, having already decided on a course of war with Iraq, President George W. Bush traveled to the U.S. Military Academy on June 1, 2002, to announce a new doctrine of unilateral “preemption.” Today his successor Barack Obama delivered a very different message to West Point’s graduating seniors: The true measure of U.S. strength lies not in its capacity to act alone but in its ability to marshall international institutions and lead coalitions to advance common interests. His speech was an eloquent, reasoned defense of moderate internationalism. At the same time, it is unlikely to satisfy either self-styled “realists” who bemoan his failure to set strategic priorities or interventionists who criticize his unwillingness to use military might to advance the cause of freeom.
As anticipated, the president sought to seize the middle ground between these warring camps. “Neither view fully speaks to the demands of the moment,” he declared. “The United States cannot ignore what happens beyond our boundaries,” since even local conflicts can spill over borders. But nor does “every problem [have] a military solution.” Indeed, some of the greatest tragedies in the nation’s history occurred when it “rushed into military adventures” heedless of potential costs and without securing sufficient allies. Dismissing today’s armchair warriors, the president invoked the restraint of Dwight Eisenhower, who considered war “mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly.” Where no critical U.S. interests are at stake, Obama declared, the bar for intervention must be set higher, and the United States must not go it alone.
Rejecting both isolationism (too soft) and unilateralism (too hard), the president offered up a goldilocks formula based on expanded bilateral partnerships and strong multilateral institutions. Terrorism, he declared, remained the greatest near-term security threat to the United States. But whereas al-Qaeda was formerly concentrated in a few countries, today it had morphed into a host of loosely affiliated local franchises in dozens of nations. Rather than intervening in each in an endless game of whack-a-mole, the United States would “shift our counterterrorism strategy… to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” To further this goal, the president announced a new $5 billion counterterrorism partnership fund, intended to assist beleaguered governments from South Asia to the Sahel, urging Congress to fund it.
Perhaps more surprising, given the recent resurgence of great power rivalry in Eastern Europe and East Asia, was Obama’s forthright defense of multilateral institutions as an indispensable bulwark of world order. When progressives speak of international bodies, they often do so sotto voce, leery of being dismissed as starry-eyed Wilsonians. The president instead made them a cornerstone of his speech, declaring that working through multilateral institutions and coalitions is a sign of “strength” rather than “weakness.” One need look no further than Ukraine, where the G7, NATO, the OSCE, and the IMF were helping to support a new, democratic government, reassure nervous neighbors, and calm unstable parts of the country. In Africa, meanwhile, the United Nations “provides a platform to keep the peace in states torn apart by conflict” from the Congo to Sudan.
During his first term, the president was often tarred by conservatives for regarding the United States as just another country. At West Point, he insisted, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” But he made it clear that exceptionalism should not imply exemptionalism: “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example. We cannot exempt ourselves from rules that apply to everyone else.” Indeed, “What makes us exceptional is not not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” Along these lines, the president even made a pitch for the UN Covention on the Law of the Sea, which has long languished in the U.S. Senate—despite endorsements from every living president, secretary of state and sefense, and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. How can the United States press China to drop its outrageous maritime claims in the South China Sea, he suggested, while staying outside the major legal regime governing the world’s oceans?
Like many of his speeches, Obama’s West Point address was long on generalities but short on specifics. At this late date in his presidency, the overall effect is dissatisfying. It is as if you’ve just sat through another thoughtful university lecture, but haven’t gotten any tools to help you make decisions. Rejecting false choices, as he often does, the president declared that “global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty.” At the same time, “American leadership requires us to see the world as it should be.”
Fair enough. The art of diplomacy requires making hard choices, including between geopolitical interests and cherished values.
But what strategic principles or national priorities should inform those calculations? What do we do when we collide with big powers like Russia in some settings (such as on Ukraine) but need to work with them in others (such as on Iran)? And what alternatives can the United States pursue if those vaunted international institutions, like the UN Security Council, are hamstrung when it comes to addressing grinding, bloody conflicts?
By far the most disappointing aspect of Obama’s speech, in this regard, was his treatment of Syria. After pursuing an indecisive and often incoherent policy for the past three years, the president offered little more than enhanced humanitarian aid to victims and assistance to insulate neighboring countries from the conflict’s increasingly grave spillover effects. By now, of course, Syrian offers only a witches brew of unsavory options. But for an administration that has long championed the prevention of mass atrocities, the steps proposed by the president are thin gruel indeed.
This highlights the critical gap in Obama’s foreign policy. In striving to reject false choices and avoid dangerous mistakes, the administration often winds up taking minimal action that pales in comparison to the challenge.