Last week, President Obama used a commencement address at West Point to summarize his administration’s approach to foreign policy issues. He told the future military leaders, “The question we face . . . is not whether America will lead but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.”
President Obama described three aspects of foreign policy:
1. When a global issue does not pose a direct threat to the United States, he argues that our policy should be to “mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.”
2. When terrorism is the threat, the goal should be to “more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold” and use a strategy that “expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”
3. When the goal is to strengthen and enforce international order, “it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.” This kind of leadership, he argued, is American strength in action.
The speech was attacked as pulling America back from the global leadership role it has had since the end of World War I. In a country weary of war, the fear seems to be that this approach will be seen as a sign of weakness by leaders in places like China and Russia, which remain ideological and political competitors. His argument, in return, is that “what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”
Finally, he notes, “America does not simply stand for stability or the absence of conflict no matter what the cost”—which could be seen as weaknesses by international foes. Instead, he asserts, “we stand for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people everywhere.” In this context, he argues for a fourth element of foreign policy: “Our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity”—which is a real national security interest in a global society. “Democracies,” he says, are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods. Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror.”
The speech was roundly attacked by those who fear that, in a war-weary country, America will back away from military confrontation and be unwilling to act in its own best interests. However, President Obama noted that, in the 21st century—a century defined by global communications and international interdependencies—“American isolationism is not an option. We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders.”
The point of his speech, it seems to me, is that we need to have multiple strategies at hand and be prepared to use them as the situation demands. This is not a new idea. Historian Stephen Ambrose, in his historian’s memoir To America, quoted two thought leaders of the 1960s whose ideas remain powerful today. He quotes Walter Lippman “American can exert its greatest influence in the outer world by demonstrating at home that the latest and most complex modern society can solve the problems of modernity. . . . Example, and not intervention and firepower, has been the historic instrument of American influence on mankind, and never has it been more necessary and more urgent to realize this truth once more.” And, William Fullbright: “The world has no need, in this age of nationalism and nuclear weapons, for a new imperial power, but there is a great need of moral leadership—by which I mean the leadership of decent example.”
President Obama’s foreign policy is an attempt to expand America’s foreign policy toolkit so that we can better respond to the challenges and demands of a rapidly changing world and retain true world leadership in the face of resurgent Russian nationalism, expanding Chinese monolithic approach to capitalism, and the ideological frenzy of Islamic jihadism. It is the right policy for our times.