The West Point Story: A Critique on Obama’s Foreign Policy Priorities


President Obama congratulating West Point graduates

[If you wish to read the transcript: click here]

The West Point Commencement speech is a unique and special moment for college graduates (West Point is a unique college too). Compared to the thousands of other graduates across the US, this ceremony has the privilege of hearing from distinguished generals, vice presidents, and even the President of the United States. This year, like others where a sitting President speaks, it is a conversation about how the graduating class may change the world, become leaders in the uncertain and still cloudy future. It is also a time to remember past achievements, reflect on sacrifices, and discuss the opportunities they, and we as a country, have ahead of us.

Today, the US faces challenges that are of sharp departure from the last twenty of the post-Cold War Era. Russia is resurgent and China is challenging the United States for global leadership. Brazil and India, long on the sidelines of global leadership, are rising and expect to have a stronger voice in their respective regions. Climate Change is, as Obama said, a “creeping national security threat” that that will require global leadership and action. Yet, the speech also does focus or align his priorities with these other issues. Given the prominence of the Pivot to Asia he hardly addressed it, or the other issues such associated with China and the Asia-Pacific Region, such as cybersecurity or the UN Law of the Sea. Rather than being clear about how regional partners the United States will address the issue, he has remained non-committal and committed to continuing the foreign policy of old: focused mostly on terrorism.

President Barack Obama continues to hit the central themes of his presidency: Use of Force only in the highest national interest, building global partnerships for peace, and a return to normalcy after a long decade of war and conflict. These reflect the fundamental mission of the Obama Presidency, thoughts iterated by past Presidents, like Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Bush. In the past, the US has taken up the sword and mantle of global leadership and exercised it with both vigor and determination, through both the Cold War and, even more importantly, in the post-Cold War world. With the clear mission to act, and a defined direction projected from priorities set by the President and the government the US launched successful interventions in Iraq (1991), and Bosnia (1996). Furthermore, the US has contributed to the development of International Law under Clinton, and inspired confidence in our allies under Bush, in initiatives such as the Missile Shield.

His address continues reducing foreign policy to a tool of rhetoric, meant to appease a war-weary public in exchange for advancing the domestic agenda. Tying foreign policy to domestic politics has greatly trivialized the issues, ignoring important national security interests. Empowering Great Britain and France to help fight terrorism in Africa (like France did in Mali in 2012) is more important than bouncing around how the US will set up another counter terror fund. Engaging the country about threats of terrorism in Syria should be on the table, though it has been ignored in exchange for weak and half-hearted efforts to strengthen NATO.  Rather than looking at the real national interest and engaging the public in the reality of the challenges we face, the President avoids it by resorting to, as Kori Schake put it, “abiding aspirational pictures” of the future and focusing on old policies and potentially half-full initiatives.

America is no closer to solving the issues we were beset with in 2008 abroad. While we have improved relations with our core allies, we have not adapted to the changing needs or aspirations of our allies, like Germany, Brazil, and even Japan. Even as the President spoke about moving ahead with negotiations on cybersecurity, he has hardly managed to take a heavier hand with Beijing, in spite of the NSA leaks of U.S. cyber attacks on Chinese soil (not that this should surprise anyone). Comprehensive action on cybersecurity, both for business and government, was not even addressed, despite its implications in major crime, espionage, and national security. The Law of the Sea issue, which the President has used to contest Chinese assertions for control of the South China Sea, has still not been ratified by Congress. While the Pivot to Asia is the most public one,  many issues have become muddled in this rhetoric that has caused confusion among allies who do not feel the U.S. will stand up for them. Instead of being an “indispensable nation,” the U.S. is becoming a weary country that cannot seem to mind what it stands for any longer in the post-Cold War order.

What the United States needs in Mr. Obama (and in a 2016 Candidate) is someone who can create priorities, align his administration with his own statements, and create a meaningful conversation rather than a lecture of ideals and rhetoric. Instead of dumbing the conversation about our aspirations for a more perfect world, we need to a president that accepts responsibility for their policies, and not saying it’s the “Joint Chief’s job” or “that policy is their problem.” Harry Truman famously said the puck stopped with him and put a sign on the Oval Office desk, a picture that shows how leadership is not just action, but taking ownership of victory and failure. Rather than addressing how we will do better, the West Point Speech became a defense for a client that is losing its luster among the majority of Americans and Washington policymakers. By making the conversation about the tough choices we have to make, we are engaging in meaningful conversations on our country’s future, something these young officers deserve to hear and participate in.

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