President Obama sought to recast if not reboot his overall approach to foreign policy with his graduation address at West Point on Wednesday.
In essence answering critics who have complained that his administration has lacked forceful responses to challenges in places such as Syria, Iran, Ukraine and Nigeria, Obama emphasized that “America must always lead on the world stage.”
But he underscored that not every global problem has a military solution.
When the country is under attack, Obama said, the U.S. will not hesitate to act unilaterally. But when “issues of global concern” do not pose a direct threat to the country, America will mobilize allies to take “collective action.”
“We must do so because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained and less likely to lead to costly mistakes,” Obama said.
The most concrete step in this direction was the president’s call for Congress to fund a $5 billion counterterrorism partnership fund. The money would be used to bolster security alliances with countries plagued by terrorism, such as Yemen, Libya and Mali.
Obama said he will work with Congress “to ramp up support” for the Syrian opposition in its long rebellion against the Assad regime. He said he would also coordinate with Arab and European allies, but he did not outline the specifics of any new approach.
“As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers,” Obama said of the Syrian conflict, which has continued now for four years.
Obama stressed the importance of working within international institutions to address matters such as Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the upheaval in Ukraine.
Offering foreign assistance, he said, was not an “afterthought” when it comes to protecting the nation’s interests, but a bulwark in and of itself.
“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” Obama said. But, he noted, “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example.”
He emphasized that “America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world.”
Jeremi Suri, a historian at the University of Texas, said Obama’s speech “echoes a traditional form of American progressive internationalism, emphasizing slow and steady global change through support for the rule of law, civil society and basic humanitarianism.”
But, Suri added, “It was a speech that will satisfy few listeners looking for quick and decisive achievements.”
A day after he announced that U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan will be reduced to just under 10,000 by the end of the year, Obama told cadets he is “haunted” by the deaths of earlier West Point graduates there.
He suggested that “a long season of war” is nearing its close.
“You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into Iraq or Afghanistan,” Obama said.