Obama offers some humility; this can be a good thing

By Zachary Wolfraim:

Barack Obama

President Obama sought to outline a vision for US foreign policy in his commencement speech to West Point graduates on 28 May and once more highlighted the role of American leadership in global affairs.  While he noted that the US was the ‘indispensible nation’, the new dangers to the international system were neither to be underestimated, nor should the US be complacent about its place in this system. Indeed, President Obama noted the rising challenges coming from a rapidly developing world and outlined the continued need for American leadership in tackling future crises. Moreover, despite the blows struck against al-Qaeda, he also highlighted the still dangerous and diffuse threat of international terrorism.

What exactly does this mean for the role of the US as primus inter pares? Perhaps most notably, Obama’s speech sought to balance optimism with a dose of humility. The heavy toll of Iraq and Afghanistan has certainly given pause for reflection over the use of force as an immediate solution for major foreign policy crises. Indeed as he noted, “just because we have the best hammer doesn’t mean that every problem is a nail.” Similarly, Obama sought to highlight the importance of restoring America’s moral leadership – again vowing to close Guantanamo, revise protocols on intelligence gathering and support the broader cause of international justice. Of course, this was balanced by his continued support for drone strikes as a vital counter-terrorism tool.

Critics of the President may see this speech as broadly kowtowing to international public opinion and damaging US ability to project its power and protect its interests internationally. However, in many ways the speech betrays a realism that has been a long time coming. America’s ‘unipolar moment’ is long past and the dynamics of international power continue to change; however, to suggest that the US has less of a role in world than it did in the past is also wrong. Indeed, as noted already, the US remains first among equals and will for some time yet, despite previous missteps or errors like the drawing of ‘red-lines’ with regards to Syrian chemical weapons.

As outlined in the speech, redoubling efforts to reinforce legitimacy-building institutions enhances American power far beyond military adventures or one-off diplomatic initiatives. The recognition that military power does not exist in a vacuum recognizes the important lessons learned from Afghanistan. As demonstrated by the shaky progress in Afghanistan, development and diplomacy need to be critical components of any future intervention or counter-terrorism initiative from the very beginning. Utilising appropriate international organizations will help achieve this by building the capabilities of allies reinforcing partnerships.

Nonetheless, the foreign policy as outlined carries dangers if followed through half-heartedly. If the US is to truly try and reform and reinforce the components of the current international order it needs to be done so with zeal, commitment and genuine follow-through to prevent its efforts from being bogged down in a bureaucratic quagmire. Taking on deeply entrenched bureaucracies such as the UN will require serious diplomatic commitment on the part of the US and its allies.  This echoes many of the same issues that the US has faced in NATO in the past with regards to free-riding and burden sharing. Any optimism about the US trying to embed itself deeper in the system of international institutions should be tempered by the recognition that its partners and allies must match or at least share in this commitment. Indeed, US leadership is all well and good, but not all nations will see this renewed engagement as a positive step. Rather, this move can open the door to restrict, contain or otherwise hamper the exercise of American power internationally. Additionally, the increased engagement of the US in these organizations can also open them to criticism that they are only instruments of Western power. Perhaps most vitally, the international community should not expect the Obama administration or future administrations to sacrifice the ability to act on some issues on the altar of international legitimacy.

While Obama has outlined this ‘new’ approach to foreign policy, the international community should not expect any dramatic, immediate changes. He has already shown a hesitancy to use military force; largely reflecting the tentativeness of the American public to avoid another prolonged entanglement abroad. Rather this likely signals a greater effort to support existing areas of US influence within international organizations. NATO, ever starved for summit deliverables, will likely have a raft of possibilities for counter-terrorism cooperation, alongside cyber-defence and other joint activities to bolster European defence. With regards to the UN, IMF and World Bank, it will be interesting to see new American initiatives in these organizations and what these entail.

The announcement of new priorities in US foreign policy certainly deserves attention. It is naïve, however, to think that this will dramatically change any of the numerous challenges facing the international community. That said, if executed properly this sets the stage for US foreign policy over the next decade. It serves Obama and any future administrations well to recognize that the international system is changing, as is the position of the US within it. Terrorism, Syria, and challenges posed by Russia all present continuing threats to the international order. In order to stay relevant, US foreign policy must adapt and learn the lessons of the past decade’s military adventurism. We should all hope that Obama’s speech, if followed through and implemented, represents a step in the right direction.


Zachary Wolfraim is a third year PhD student in the War Studies Department, King’s College London, where he focuses on the role of narratives in shaping foreign policy in relation to NATO operations. He previously worked as a consultant in NATO Headquarters on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachWol.

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