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Foreign Policy

Obama at West Point: The Limits of American Exceptionalism

Jun 09 , 2014

“The United States is, and remains, the one indispensable nation.”  From that starting point, the President launched a defense of his foreign policy at West Point on May 28.  U.S. global leadership is not in doubt, he said: “The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe.” The President highlighted the crux of his point when he stated, “Bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will.”  Anyone who might have thought the speech would represent a departure from the standard “we are number one” rhetoric must be sorely disappointed. 

Mel Gurtov

Obama characterized his foreign-policy approach as neither interventionist nor isolationist. While he agreed that many external events seemingly outside the scope of U.S. national security interests demand a U.S. response nevertheless—such as the civil war in Syria or the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria—that response should not be a military one.  Citing Dwight Eisenhower, Obama said: “Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.”  Obama then went on to make a distinction that many presidents have made, between crises that seriously threaten national security and therefore require direct, even unilateral, involvement, and other situations that might “stir our conscience” but should not stir the military into action.  

These latter situations were Obama’s main concern in his speech—specifically, terrorism and the necessity to mobilize allies and a variety of tools to bring terrorists to heel.  He asked Congress to authorize $5 billion for a new “counterterrorism partnerships fund” which “will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.”  He mentioned Yemen, Somalia, and Mali as countries where those partnerships could be effective.   Contrary to his theme of avoiding US military involvement in places of remote interest, Obama cited drone strikes as one acceptable tool of counterterrorism when there is “actionable intelligence” and “near certainty of no civilian casualties.”  Here, Obama acknowledged an ongoing problem: Being square with the American people about such operations.  The President also stated, “I also believe we must be more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out. We have to be able to explain them publicly, whether it is drone strikes or training partners.”  Thus far, his administration has been anything but transparent about the use of drones and very careless about avoiding civilian casualties. 

“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” Obama said. “But 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.”  Indeed—and Obama rightly mentioned resistance to a new global climate change treaty, support of Egypt’s dictators, and failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as examples of US exemptionalism.  But he omitted plenty of other examples, such as the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on international leaders, drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere, and failure to sign and ratify the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court. 

Given this, Obama’s speech turned out to be surprisingly narrow in scope.  Dealing with terrorist acts is important, of course; but devoting only a few words to relations with China and Russia is odd, for at least two reasons.  One is the increasingly dangerous contest for sovereignty in the South China Sea.  Obama made an oblique reference to that area as an instance of “regional aggression,” and offered the hope that a code of conduct might be agreed upon to resolve differences.  As mentioned, he urged U.S. Senate ratification of UNCLOS.  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, however, sounded an entirely different note when, in a speech in Singapore, he sharply criticized China for “destabilizing unilateral actions” and “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea.  Naturally, this drew an equally sharp retort from Chinese representatives at the same event. 

Obama’s limited discussion of China is also odd because President Xi Jinping less than two weeks earlier had outlined “a new regional security architecture” for Asia that explicitly aimed to counter the U.S. alliance system. Though some points in Xi’s speech echoed longstanding themes in China’s foreign policy, such as breaking with Cold War-era thinking, adhering to the principle of noninterference, and practicing peaceful coexistence, on this occasion Xi proposed an “Asia for Asians” security system.  He said: “In the final analysis, it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia.” While not a proposal to establish a formal alliance, Xi’s idea was to upgrade the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia by creating a multilateral “defense consultation mechanism” in the spirit of common security.     

Exactly what Xi has in mind remains to be defined.  Was he, for instance, proposing to replace or offset ASEAN’s dialogue mechanisms? How would such a mechanism handle territorial disputes? What is beyond question is that the idea of an Asia-only membership dovetails with China’s insistence that the United States stay out of the South China and East China Seas disputes, which would cede effective regional leadership to Beijing.  President Obama has made clear that the United States is not going to ignore these disputes.  But in his West Point address, he chose not to respond to Xi’s argument. 

Given Obama’s declaration early in his first term that the U.S.-China relationship is the most important one in the world, one would hope the escalating war of words on maritime issues will cease and be replaced by serious diplomacy.  There is no logical reason why competing territorial claims cannot be peaceably resolved through multilateral dialogue if not through international arbitration.  Nor is there any reason why the US alliance system cannot coexist with a more robust Chinese economic and political role in East Asia.  The U.S. “pivot” to Asia is not going to stop, and neither is greater Chinese assertiveness concerning their regional interests.  There does need to be room for both, both the U.S. and China, however, must first adjust their policies.  For the Obama administration, this means making sure that security reassurances to allies such as Japan and friends such as Vietnam do not drag Washington into a confrontation with China, which would benefit no one. And for China, this means reconsidering its refusal to allow an international legal body, such as the International Court of Justice or the dispute resolution system under UNCLOS, to judge the merits of competing claims in the South China and East China Seas. 

Mel Gutov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective. He writes a foreign-policy blog, “In the Human Interest,” at His most recent book is Will This Be China’s Century? A Skeptic’s View (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013).

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