President Obama’s commencement address Wednesday was a good speech; about as good as could be expected. I say as good as to be expected because there are parameters that define the longstanding US foreign policy consensus that Obama, a cautious man, could not be expected to challenge. No US president would. But he did skirt the outer edge of those parameters.
I described that consensus in one of my earliest posts (Sept 16) as embodying the view that the United States is the world’s dominant superpower and that that dominance is good and necessary, both for this country and for the rest of the world. The United States in this view has provided security and served as a beacon of liberty and democracy around the globe. This country accordingly has the right and indeed the responsibility to actively maintain its dominance, projecting its military might around the globe and prepared to use it when challenged. At its extreme—the edge opposite Obama’s–the consensus is consistent with ruthless and brutal assaults on international law and order, e.g., the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq. (Let’s not forget that along with practically all the Republicans, almost half the Democrats in Congress—including the party’s 2004 and presumptive 2016 presidential nominees—voted to authorize that disaster.)
The West Point speech didn’t directly challenge the consensus, but it de-emphasized the US role as the uniquely indispensable enforcer of international stability and justice. Instead, Obama talked about the limits of American power and the need for restraint in its use. He suggested that it is not the US’s role to be the world’s policeman, or maybe gendarme: “Just because we have the best hammer [i.e., military power] does not mean that every problem is a nail.” He decried the US’s past excesses in military intervention and rebuked those of his critics on the right who would have us charging around the world waving our hammer. I would like to think that when he declared “what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions,” he was implicitly acknowledging that American exceptionalism often means that we do indeed presume the right to flout international norms and the rule of law. Obama called for a prudent foreign policy that responds to real threats and views military action as a last resort. He properly identified terrorism as the most direct current threat (I would say the only real threat) to Americans’ security.
This might all sound very sensible and reasonable, but the fact is that no other American president—including Obama himself–has spoken so forthrightly in these terms. Obama has laid out a broad set of guiding principles that should inform our debates about foreign policy for years to come. I hope Hillary paid attention.
I say all his as one who has hardly been a cheerleader for Obama’s foreign policies. With little to show for it (and against the advice of Joe Biden and others) Obama greatly escalated our presence in Afghanistan before he wound it down. He’s conducted a drone warfare policy that is probably illegal, largely immoral and quite possibly counterproductive. He has given a free pass to the brutal new dictatorship in Egypt. And he has refused to acknowledge the legitimate grievances—including US support for the coup that put an anti-Russian government in Kiev—that drove Vladimir Putin’s recent aggression. I could go on.
And I would have liked to see Obama’s speech go further. I would have liked to see him pose the question of whether this country really needs to account for more than 40% of the entire world’s military spending. But to even ask that question would be to venture over the edge of our foreign policy consensus. That would be too much to expect.