President Obama’s commencement speech at West Point was intended to reboot his foreign policy for the rest of his administration but it is likely to raise additional concerns in the United States and allied nations. He presented it as a speech that seeks to strengthen the international order but unfortunately I believe it fell short in at least four respects.
1) Pivot to Asia
First, this was a speech dominated by the legacy of 9/11 and largely neglected the rebalance to Asia. Obama repeatedly spoke about ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He mentioned terrorism or terrorists seventeen times and spent quite a bit of time on his counter-terrorism strategy. By contrast, he only talked about Asia a couple of times, largely in passing or when making a point about America’s failure to abide by international law. Supporters of the pivot/rebalance will be sorely disappointed. This was an opportunity to explain why Asia will be as important to the next decade as terrorism was to the last one. One could be forgiven for drawing the opposite conclusion.
2) U.S. Leadership in the Global Order
Second, the president failed to explain how he will use non-military tools to exercise leadership in the international order. Astonishingly, he did not mention trade once, despite the fact that his administration is actively negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Surely this would be a natural place to start for a foreign policy that looks to shape the international order without intervening militarily. It will confirm fears that this administration is unwilling to invest political capital to achieve a breakthrough on trade. He also did not distinguish between military power, which can be used to deter, and the use of force, instead choosing to lump them together.
3) Russian and Chinese Revisionism in Eastern Europe and East Asia
Third, the president gave little indication that he understands the challenge posed by Russian and Chinese revisionism in Eastern Europe and East Asia. True, he did talk about Russia and Ukraine but there was no mention of Crimea or how his promised isolation of Russia will affect U.S. foreign policy as a whole. On the South China Sea, he said, “We can't try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure the Law of the Sea convention is ratified by the U.S. Senate.” It is undoubtedly true that the Senate should ratify the Convention on the Law of the Sea but this was a moment to say that the United States will be fully engaged in maritime security in Asia, not to cast doubt on it.
4) Strategies for Legitimate and Effective Multilateral Intervention
Finally, the president did not explain what international legitimacy for intervention means in an age where Russia, and probably China, will not approve such action in the U.N. Security Council. The president says he will act unilaterally when there is a direct threat to the United States but that when a crisis poses no such threat the United States must act multilaterally. How? Can the United States get legitimacy through NATO or the G-7 or a coalition of the willing? This crucial question was completely ignored.
These are not side issues. They are at the heart of any foreign policy that seeks to strengthen a multilateral international order. The next, and maybe last chance, for the Obama administration to address them will be in the National Security Strategy, which should be released in the next couple of months.