Obama At West Point: Strengthening The Sources Of American Power And Promoting Shared Responsibilities

obama west pointPresident Obama’s commencement address at West Point on Saturday contained the broad outlines of his administration’s forthcoming national security strategy, and echoed a number of themes that he’s sounded since the 2008 campaign: American power derived from American economic stability, and the strengthening of international institutions to facilitate a greater sharing of global responsibilities.

On the first, Obama stated that, in order for America to achieve our goals abroad, “we must first recognize that our strength and influence abroad begins with steps we take at home.”

We must educate our children to compete in an age where knowledge is capital, and the marketplace is global. We must develop clean energy that can power new industry and unbound us from foreign oil and preserve our planet. We have to pursue science and research that unlocks wonders as unforeseen to us today as the microchip and the surface of the moon were a century ago.

Simply put, American innovation must be the foundation of American power — because at no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy. And so that means that the civilians among us, as parents and community leaders, elected officials, business leaders, we have a role to play. We cannot leave it to those in uniform to defend this country — we have to make sure that America is building on its strengths.

On the second, Obama said “As we build these economic sources of our strength, the second thing we must do is build and integrate the capabilities that can advance our interests, and the common interests of human beings around the world.”

America’s armed forces are adapting to changing times, but your efforts have to be complemented. We will need the renewed engagement of our diplomats, from grand capitals to dangerous outposts. We need development experts who can support Afghan agriculture and help Africans build the capacity to feed themselves. We need intelligence agencies that work seamlessly with their counterparts to unravel plots that run from the mountains of Pakistan to the streets of our cities. We need law enforcement that can strengthen judicial systems abroad, and protect us here at home. And we need first responders who can act swiftly in the event of earthquakes and storms and disease.

The burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone. It also cannot fall on American shoulders alone. Our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending our power. And in the past, we’ve always had the foresight to avoid acting alone. We were part of the most powerful wartime coalition in human history through World War II. We stitched together a community of free nations and institutions to endure and ultimately prevail during a Cold War.

One of Osama bin Laden’s stated goals is to provoke the U.S. into taking on overseas commitments it cannot financially sustain — it’s called the “bleed until bankruptcy” strategy. It’s good to see some acknowledgment from the president that the idea that America can be everywhere at once isn’t strength, it’s stupidity.

The speech notably lacked any really explicit digs at the previous administration’s disastrous foreign policy legacy, but Obama did make a pretty clear indication that the unilateralism of the Bush Doctrine was out of step with traditional American foreign policy, noting that while “we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system…America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation–we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don’t.”

So we have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation. We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well, including those who will serve by your side in Afghanistan and around the globe. As influence extends to more countries and capitals, we also have to build new partnerships, and shape stronger international standards and institutions.

Many conservatives seem to believe that even the recognition that global power is shifting to a more diverse array of stakeholders is “embracing decline.” But this shift is a reality. A responsible foreign policy is one that seeks to responsibly maximize American power and influence within that changing global context, to embed it within strengthened international institutions.

Importantly, the president also voiced an American commitment to promoting democracy and the rule of law, saying that a “fundamental part of our strategy is America’s support for those universal rights that formed the creed of our founding.”

We will promote these values above all by living them — through our fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution, even when it’s hard; and through our commitment to forever pursue a more perfect union. And together with our friends and allies, America will always seek a world that extends these rights. Where an individual is silenced, we aim to be her voice. Where ideas are suppressed, we provide space for open debate. Where democratic institutions take hold, we add a wind at their back. When humanitarian disaster strikes, we extend a hand. Where human dignity is denied, America opposes poverty and is a source of opportunity. That is who we are. That is what we do.

Thus far, the Obama administration has said and done little on the democracy promotion front. So while I’m very glad to see this included in the speech, it will be incumbent on progressives to hold him and his administration to it.