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Six Key Take-Aways from President Obama’s West Point Speech

Six Key Take-Aways from President Obama’s West Point Speech

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On May 28th, President Obama laid out his foreign policy at West Point. Here are the six key take-aways:

1.      “The Landscape has changed”

In the beginning of his speech, President Obama stressed how much has changed since he delivered the Graduation Address four years prior, “When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq. We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan. Our counter-terrorism efforts were focused on al Qaeda’s core leadership. And our nation was just beginning a long climb out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

In this intervening time, the United States’ national security priorities have changed, “We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more. Through it all, we have refocused our investments in a key source of American strength: a growing economy that can provide opportunity here at home.”

Despite moments of self-doubt and struggle, the United States continues to serve as “the indispensable nation.” President Obama announced, “The values of our founding inspire leaders in parliaments and new movements in public squares around the globe” and that “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 United States is the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed, and will likely be true for the century to come.”

2.      “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option.”

In regard to the country’s foreign-policy, President Obama argued that the United States possesses an obligation to protect both the interests of its own citizens and the interests of the international community as a whole. The President said, “The question we face – the question you will 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.”

Addressing those who advocate for continual isolationism or intervention, President Obama pursued a middle path. He argued, “Neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment.” 

President Obama cited the dangers of loose nuclear materials and regional aggression, and emphasized, “I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative – it also helps keep us safe.” 

3.      “Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance.”

President Obama argued that the United States has failed to come to grips with the heavy costs of war. He 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, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required.”

According to the President, military action, even when necessary, imposes heavy costs upon the nation and the individual people who compose it. He said, “And I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.

Although military power is an important tool in the United States’ arsenal, the nation must use it appropriately and focus upon the potential costs and benefits imposed by its use. As such, President Obama acknowledged that the United States will act “unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it – when our people are threatened; when our livelihood is at stake; or when the security of our allies is in danger.”

However, when “issues of global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States are at stake” President Obama specified that, “the threshold for military action must be higher.” In such situations, the United States must reach beyond military might and utilize a wider range of tools including, “collective action,” “diplomacy and development, “sanctions and isolation,” “appeals to international law,” and “multilateral military action.” These collective efforts are “more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes.”

4.      “I believe we must shift our counter-terrorism strategy – drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan – to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.”

Terrorism and its prevention remained at the top of President Obama’s agenda. However, President Obama criticized “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”

As al Qaeda has changed, the threats it poses have changed as well. As such, President Obama argued that the threat of terrorism now arises from “decentralized al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate” rather than “a centralized al Qaeda leadership.”

Keeping with these changing realities, President Obama recommended strengthening local institutions in order to deal with the threats imposed by terrorism. He said, “Empowering partners is a large part of what we’ve done in Afghanistan. Together with our allies, America struck huge blows against al Qaeda core, and pushed back against an insurgency that threatened to overrun the country.”

Rather than sending an occupying force to places where terrorists reside and train, President Obama advocated creating, “a new Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.”

According to the President, these new resources will allow “flexibility to fulfill different missions” in order to combat threats and challenges in diverse places such as Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Mali, and Syria.

5.      “At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy spoke about the need for a peace based upon, “a gradual evolution in human institutions.” Evolving these institutions to meet the demands of today must be a critical part of American leadership.” 

President Obama stressed that the United States must continue to participate in and improve “institutions to keep the peace and support human progress.” Institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, NATO, and the UN are the pillars of a peaceful world.

Although President Obama acknowledged that, “skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action,” but emphasized that multilateral institutions and action preserve world order. He cited the recent Crimea crisis of an instance in which these institutions have helped to give “a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future.”

6.      “You see, American influence is always stronger when we lead by example. We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else.”

President Obama challenged American politicians and citizens to look beyond personal biases and political interests that endanger the prosperity of the nation and the world.

Climate change is a danger to us all, regardless of those who fail to grapple with the threat it presents.

President Obama declared that the United States must “lead by example” and is unable to “call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if so many of our political leaders deny that it is taking place.”

 In the same way, President Obama called upon American politicians to pass the Law of the Sea Convention and look to the scores of military leaders who support its ratification. He said, “It’s a lot harder to call on China to resolve its maritime disputes under the Law of the Sea Convention when the United States Senate has refused to ratify it – despite the repeated insistence of our top military leaders that the treaty advances our national security.”

When it pursues these policy goals, the United States will exercise “leadership” instead of “retreat;” “strength” instead of “weakness”

President Obama concluded by arguing that the United States’ “global leadership” both “requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty” and “as it should be – a place where the aspirations of individual human beings matter.”



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