What Obama Should Say at West Point, But Won’t

The president's biggest foreign-policy speech in a year will be showy and ambitious but can't paper over his administration's lack of focus.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Obama will give the commencement address at West Point tomorrow morning. I don’t know what he is going to say, of course, but I’m sure he’ll say it well. The New York Times says the speech will be part of a broader administration effort to explain its handling of foreign policy, and that Obama will use this opportunity to defend his measured approach to overseas intervention and his preference for a "middle course between isolationism and military intervention." 

No doubt the speech will offer up the usual list of "achievements" (Osama bin Laden is dead, we’re out of Iraq, etc.), and rumor has it that he’s going to announce a new program of assistance for the Syrian opposition. Given the setting, it is bound to strike a patriotic tone and contain some typically soaring Obamian rhetoric. But what the president really needs to do is provide the strategic coherence that has been lacking ever since he took office in 2009. Although he seems to have recognized from the start that the United States had to reduce its global burdens in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither Obama nor his advisors ever managed to articulate and stick to a set of core strategic principles. The result has been an overly ambitious foreign-policy agenda that kept top officials busy but failed to produce significant positive results.

The first thing I’d like to hear in tomorrow’s speech is a clear articulation of Obama’s foreign-policy priorities. What does he regard as the most pressing threats to U.S. security? Where are the most promising opportunities that, if seized, would make ordinary Americans safer or more prosperous? What issues or problems should the United States focus on, and what issues or problems can be downgraded or deferred? 

To be specific: Is nuclear security the big issue to which others should be subordinated? The lingering threat from al Qaeda? The emergence of a more powerful and assertive China? Instability and Islamic radicalism in Central Africa? The looming specter of climate change? Empowering women in the developing world? The carnage in Syria? The Israeli-Palestinian peace process? And so forth.

I ask these questions because I have no idea what U.S. priorities are at this stage (and I’ve been paying attention). At one point I thought Obama’s core aim was to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East and "pivot" to Asia, but then came the Arab spring and the United States was busy easing Hosni Mubarak out, backing repression in Bahrain, creating a failed state in Libya, and then welcoming a military coup in Cairo. Next, Secretary of State John Kerry came in and spent months in a futile and inept attempt to broker a Middle East peace deal.

The lack of consistent strategic priorities has been even more apparent in the U.S. response to Russia in general and the situation in Ukraine in particular. Vladimir Putin may not be our best buddy, but the United States has much to gain from a solid working relationship with Russia. We want Moscow to cooperate on Iran and Syria, and on broader issues of nuclear security and counterterrorism. We still rely on Russian facilities to supply our troops in Afghanistan, and we have a long-term interest in keeping Moscow and Beijing apart. Given these realities, did it make any sense whatsoever to keep expanding missile defenses in Eastern Europe, to take advantage of Russian cooperation in the Security Council to do "regime change" in Libya, and then to back an ill-conceived effort to pull Ukraine into an economic and strategic partnership with the West? The answer is no, because Russia cares a lot more about Ukraine’s fate than we do — with good reason — and Putin had many ways to thwart our efforts (as indeed he has). And make no mistake, he’s been the big winner here: Crimea is now part of Russia, NATO membership for Ukraine is off the table for good, and Ukraine’s new president clearly understands that good relations with Moscow are essential, just as Putin wanted.

The second thing I’d like to hear is how Obama intends to elicit more effective cooperation from U.S. partners around the world. Passing the buck to others is often a smart strategy, especially for a country that is a safe as the United States actually is, and U.S. leaders used to be pretty good at it. But after 50 years of Cold War and 20 years of erstwhile hegemony, many U.S. allies have become disarmed dependencies and the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has become accustomed to running the show. Our allies know this, of course, so they continue to free-ride, occasionally whining about America’s eroding "credibility." These complaints invariably find a receptive audience back in official Washington, and the usual U.S. response is to immediately reassure our allies we will continue to defend them no matter what. But if uncooperative allies can always count on American protection, why expect them to do what we want or to make a greater contribution to common objectives?

My fantasy, of course, is that Obama will seize the opportunity of tomorrow’s speech to explain some core realities to the cadets, the American people, and to the rest of the world. I wish he’d begin by reminding his audience that the United States is in fact very secure, and that many of the dangers we’ve been inflating over the past two decades are in fact minor problems that deserve some attention but not nearly as much as we’ve been giving them. He could also extol the positive role that American military power has played in the past. In particular, the U.S. military is very good at deterring conventional aggression in areas we regard as vital interests, and very good at reversing it when it does occur. The United States military also plays a valuable role in protecting the global commons, and especially the world’s sea lanes of communication and trade (in this sense, it’s too bad he won’t be at Annapolis). 

But I wish Obama would also acknowledge that the United States is not very good at running other countries, or engaging in social engineering in societies that are undergoing radical upheavals and that we do not understand very well. This isn’t a unique American failing; nobody is really good at doing that sort of thing. As we have learned in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and many other places, even well-intentioned efforts to guide and shape the internal politics of other countries are as likely to backfire as they are to succeed. Sometimes we pick the wrong local allies, and end up empowering corrupt, unpopular, or incompetent leaders. Or sometimes our interference fuels anti-American conspiracy theories, so that Washington gets blamed not only for the things we do, but also for things for which the United States is not responsible (see under: Pakistan). Unfortunately, this discouraging track record has not dampened enthusiasm for these efforts; it’s just made U.S. foreign-policy elites eager to find ways to do them on the cheap.

If Obama wanted to be really bold (which is clearly not his style), he could also remind his listeners that American power and influence are greatest when the United States is strong and prosperous, yet slow to anger. Our leverage over other states will be greatest when we are powerful, but when our willingness to use that power is conditional on what others are willing and able to do for us. It’s bad strategy to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, and to hail it as some great foreign-policy victory when we get saddled with solving some intractable conflict in some weak and distant country. Freedom of action is the great luxury that America’s position in the Western hemisphere affords, and underscoring that bedrock strategic principle could
give the last two years of Obama’s presidency a coherence it has lacked until now.

That’s what I’d like to hear tomorrow. But I’m not holding my breath.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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