With the scenery and backdrop of graduates in uniform at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the commander-in-chief laid out a roadmap for American engagement at a time when polls suggest that a war-weary American public would rather just stay focused at home.
Five and a half years into his presidency, Barack Obama has just given international engagement advocates their best case yet for global action by pushing back on the notion of America in retreat from the world. Most importantly, the president steered a path that is interventionist without solely relying on the use of force or American boots on the ground—countering critics who say the country is disengaged or that the United States can’t afford to get involved overseas.
For those looking for an overarching frame, Obama laid out a multi-faceted toolbox of approaches to a dangerous and chaotic world in which options exist for something in-between troops on the ground and doing nothing. For those looking for specific policies, the president can point to a range of non-military solutions to hot spots: sanctions on Russia for its behavior in Ukraine, diplomacy despite Russia to get chemical weapons out of Syria, drones to hunt down terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, international organizations to solve thorny issues like climate change and trade. Moreover, he argued for giving the nuclear negotiations with Iran time to work before concluding the deal is unworkable.
The speech comes on the heels of Obama’s Memorial Day announcement that the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan will come down to 9,800 with an end to the combat mission at the end 2015 and all troops removed by 2017. Critics on the left will say the plan is too troop-dependent; critics on the right will say is not a large enough residual military presence. That suggests Obama probably got it about right. The American presence will give the Afghan government help and support without doing their job for them. Ironically, Obama spoke at West Point in 2009 to announce the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan against what he termed a “highly polarized and partisan backdrop” in the United States over national security policy.
This West Point speech, repeating the call for reductions in troops in Afghanistan, advocates for a range of non-military approaches to the world’s problems writ-large. It is likely to be part of a major road show not only for the president who heads to Poland and then Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day but for the full array of national security experts fanning out to make the case for American engagement.
As we approach June 6h, this feels like a good moment to re-define American power, principles, and purpose and push back on the declinist narrative. Using all of America’s assets—beyond just military prowess—makes sense to those of us who believe that smart engagement extends our values and interests and furthers security while ensuring that we are not dragged into unnecessary wars. It also lends credence to the notion that America’s friend and allies will share some of the burdens of global leadership if they know America is committed to playing a positive role on the international stage.
For the graduating class of Army cadets, and for ordinary Americans looking for leadership—the president hit the mark—unless, of course, you are an isolationist or someone who wants U.S. troops everywhere. The West Point speech is unlikely to fit neatly on a bumper sticker like “containment” or “American exceptionalism,” but it offers lodestars at a difficult time in the foreign policy galaxy.
Tara Sonenshine is former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and currently Distinguished Fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.