Teaching as much American History as I currently do, particularly of the late 20th Century, I always take a keen interest in US current affairs and politics. This week I watched as Barack Obama gave a lengthy speech at West Point, NY outlining US Foreign Policy in a lecture that reiterated rather than revolutionised their approach to the world and their relationships.
What I found interesting about Obama’s words was the very little difference between them and what he said in his inauguration speech back in 2009. Upon appointment as President, Obama said much by which his performance can now be measured. Whilst this can wait until the end of his time as President, his words on US foreign policy made clear the approach which would dominate his practices in the years that followed.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
Fast-forward through a very slow withdrawal from Afghanistan, work with mixed results in Libya, the high point of Bin Laden’s assassination (with the controversies that followed), a failure to effectively intervene in Syria and now the challenge of dealing with Putin’s pursuit of Ukraine, and Obama’s words ring more true than ever. At West Point, Obama stated that:
America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life. On the other hand, when issues of global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States are at stake – when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction – then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilise allies and partners to take collective action. We must broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law and – if just, necessary, and effective – multilateral military 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 acknowledges that to Americans, the belief that the US must continue to play the role of global policemen (those pursuing isolationism are by far in the minority) is still very strong, and yet there is a real reluctance to get involved in long, drawn out campaigns. The BBC’s North American editor, Mark Mardell, sums it up well when he stated that, “Mr Obama’s paradox is that he is commander-in-chief of the most powerful military ever known, in a country that doesn’t want to go to war. So he uses a simple saying to reinforce his point – just because you can fight, and would probably win, it doesn’t mean you have to do so”.
Obama recognises how mistakes were made in the past by assuming that the USA were an irresistible force, unstoppable, almost invincible. The need for “allies” and “cooperation” in order for success in foreign policy is now more important than ever. Economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure are often the weapons that are needed, as events in Russia, Ukraine, Syria and China demonstrate.
This has been Obama’s message since he began his first term back in 2009. Like almost every 20th Century President before him, he has stubbornly stuck to his principles in terms of his policies. This is not to say he is wrong. He recognises the multiple threats, he understands the complex role that globalisation plays, he acknowledges that the world has changed in the last fifteen to twenty years. Will history perceive Obama to have made America appear weak in the eyes of the world? Time will tell, but no doubt history will record that Obama stuck to his convictions and his pragmatic approach to US Foreign Policy.