President Barack Obama’s foreign policy speech to graduates at West Point on Wednesday reflects the divided nation he leads. It is both cautious about retreating from grand ambitions after more than a decade of war and mindful of not looking weak to the rest of the world. The president walked a fine line in laying out his vision for the future, a world where American exceptionalism is widely understood, but our willingness to act militarily isn’t.
Obama illustrated the challenges of leading in a world where the threat to the homeland is real, but the enemy is often far away. The defense budget is being slashed, he said, yet the United States “has rarely been stronger.” The U.S. is “one indispensable nation,” yet he cautioned not to “flout international norms and the rule of law.” Obama will use military force “when our core interests demand it,” but he said, “we should not go it alone,” making clear that America “should never ask permission” to protect itself.
“Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. Not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges at home, that view is shared by many Americans,” he said. “A different view, from interventionists on the left and right, says we ignore these conflicts at our own peril; that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”
“Each side can point to history to support its claims,” he said. “But I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment.”
Obama seems to want it both ways. “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option,” Obama said. “But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”
Instead, Obama said there needs to be a more balanced, one-size-does-not-fit-all approach. He laid out a double-sided mission that projects U.S. power and global leadership but also sets the bar high for military intervention.
“By most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise – who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” he said, taking a dig at critics who say he’s been increasingly weak on the global stage, especially when it came to drawing red lines over Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons last summer. Obama touted the decision not to intervene in the civil war as his own, saying it was “the right decision,” though it was Congress that, in the end, voted not to act.
Terrorism remains the biggest threat to the United States, he said, and even though the war in Afghanistan is ending, the fight against terrorists is not, especially in places like Syria. Obama said he plans to create a new $5 billion fund to help pay for the continued global war on terror.
“Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage,” Obama said. “But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. And because the costs associated with military action are so high, you should expect every civilian leader – and especially your commander-in-chief – to be clear about how that awesome power should be used.”
Obama said using that power to help others strengthens U.S. national security. A key part of his goal is to rely more on diplomacy and other measures than the military. “When a typhoon hits the Philippines, or girls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine – it is America that the world looks to for help.”
“The question we face – the question you will face – is not whether America will lead,” Obama told the graduates, “but how we will lead.”