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Foreign Policy

Charting a Middle Course: Why Obama’s West Point Speech Should Reassure the World

Jun 27 , 2014

The annual graduation ceremony of the U.S. Military Academy, popularly known as West Point, has become a favored occasion for American presidents to announce major national security doctrines or explain their foreign policy.  Last time a historic foreign policy speech was made here was during the academy’s 2002 graduation ceremony — George W. Bush, then the U.S. president, shocked the world with a new doctrine of preemptive war. And less than a year later, the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Minxin Pei

At this year’s West Point graduation ceremony, which took place last month, President Barack Obama also delivered a widely noted speech on American foreign policy.  It is unclear whether his speech will be considered as consequential as Bush’s 2002 speech.  What is clear, however, is that Obama’s West Point speech is by far the best summary of the Obama Doctrine, the essence of which is restraint in the use of force and global leadership through multilateralism.

Taken together, Obama’s West Point attempts to chart a middle course between isolationism and interventionism in a world where America’s overwhelming military power is becoming a less effective instrument of policy, and challenges to American national security and global order is coming from many different directions.  Even though political necessity in the U.S. means that the primary audience of Obama’s speech was domestic, the world should also pay attention – and find reassurance – in the newly updated Obama Doctrine.

Among other things, four themes in Obama’s West Point speech deserve particular attention.

The most important message presented in the speech by President Obama deals with a new set of criteria for the use of American military power.  In complete contrast to Bush’s 2002 speech, which set a low bar for using military force, Obama has raised the threshold for the use of force because, as he explained, America’s previous strategic mistakes were caused not by an unwillingness to use force, but by a rush to commit the American military in the wrong places.  In the future, Obama declared, the U.S. will use force, “unilaterally if necessary,” only when its core interests are at stake.  More specifically, the use of force will be justified when the American people are threatened, American economic security is at stake, and when American allies are endangered.  Based on these criteria, American military intervention in Syria or Ukraine would not be permitted.  And by extension, should the chaos in Iraq worsen, Washington would also refuse to intervene militarily. This is why the Obama administration reportedly rebuffed the Iraqi government’s request for using airpower against the Sunni militants who recently seized Mosul.

Equally worth noting is that the Obama Doctrine has further raised the bar for using force by declaring that the U.S. would first rally its allies and apply diplomatic and economic sanctions in dealing with threats to its interests.  He cited the examples of working with the European Union in punishing Russia for seizing Crimea and building an international coalition in imposing severe economic sanctions on Iran and forcing it to return to the negotiating table.

To the rest of the world, the third theme of Obama’s West Point speech should also sound reassuring.  Unlike his predecessor who never doubted American righteousness, Obama conceded that the U.S. must lead by example.  As an internationalist acutely sensitive to other countries’ resentment of American arrogance and hypocrisy, Obama pointed out that America stands taller in the world when it abides by international rules.  He called on the U.S. Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention (which the U.S. has signed but the Senate has refused to approve) and promised, once again, to close the infamous Gitmo (the American military prison housing terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base).  While such commitment is welcome, one must also recognize the political reality in Washington – the Republicans, strongly opposed to the closure of Gitmo and the ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, hardly share Obama’s perspective.

For China, President Obama’s speech sends a mixed message.  On the positive side, he identified terrorism, not China’s rise, as the most direct threat to the U.S. for the foreseeable future.  But the bad news is that he also mentioned China’s growing power in Asia in the same context as Russia’s aggression in the former Soviet bloc.  And for the first time, an American president openly declared that the U.S. supports ASEAN in its negotiations with China for a code of conduct in the South China Sea (previously, such declarations had been made by American secretaries of state and defense).

By and large, the Obama speech represents America’s liberal foreign policy philosophy: global leadership sustained mainly through strategic restraint, multilateralism, and respect for international law.  To be sure, Obama himself will have great difficulty in fulfilling his liberal vision because of domestic opposition.  But the world should cheer his efforts nevertheless.

Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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