Brookings Experts React to President Obama’s Foreign Policy Speech at West Point

“The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe,” said President Obama Wednesday in his commencement address at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Here’s a roundup of what Brookings scholars have been saying about the speech:

Bill Galston reviewed a number of questions not addressed in the speech, but which he says U.S. foreign policy must address, from Ukraine, to Egypt, to Afghanistan. “In a speech that runs nine single-spaced pages,” Galston writes, “Mr. Obama devoted a total of four sentences, scattered through the text, to China—less than what he spent on Burma.” He concludes:

The world we now inhabit is the world that the United States of America took the lead in building after World War II. It is a world in which our interests and values have a better chance of flourishing than in any of the alternatives. And it is a world that requires American effort and sacrifice to sustain. If the United States is, as Mr. Obama insists, the “one indispensable nation,” are we prepared to do what is necessary to maintain that role?

Read Galston’s analysis here.

Michael O’Hanlon appeared on WSJ Live to discuss the speech and also his recent piece in which he called President Obama’s new Afghanistan force policy “mixed news.” In the interview, he spoke more about that new policy, commented on the president’s Ukraine and Iran policies, and addressed the speech itself, saying that:

In terms of explaining exactly what he’s up to, in terms of finding a way to connect his big, visionary speeches of a few of years ago to the day-to-day handling of the in box, I’m not sure today’s speech helped all that much. The president explained why he can’t use military force for each and every problem, and that was fine. But he didn’t exactly explain how he makes his decisions.

The best new idea of course was this $5 billion fund for counterterrorism training throughout the broader Middle East, and I support that. But I’m still skeptical that he is going to do enough in regard to Syria and Libya, where so far his policies I think have been a bit lacking in follow through.

Watch the full interview here or on

Thomas Wright

 wrote that the speech “is likely to raise additional concerns in the United States and allied nations,” noting that it “fell short in at least four respects:

First, this was a speech dominated by the legacy of 9/11 and largely neglected the rebalance to Asia. …

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 …

Third, the president gave little indication that he understands the challenge posed by Russian and Chinese revisionism in Eastern Europe and East Asia. …

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. …

Read the piece here to get more details on these issues, which Wright describes as “at the heart of any foreign policy that seeks to strengthen a multilateral international order.”

Suzanne Maloney focused on what President Obama said about Iran nuclear negotiations, stating that “Obama runs several risks in exalting the Iran accord as the epitome of his multilateralist foreign policy, specifically:”

First, he is idealizing an exception that proves the rule: international cooperation on challenges as complex and contested as Iran has unfortunately proven rare and hard-fought, as underscored by even the most cursory understanding of the past 35 years of U.S. policy toward Tehran.

In addition, his near-preemptive declaration of victory on the Iran nuclear issue may yet come back to haunt him, if negotiators continue to run into difficulties in bridging the wide divide between Tehran and the international community on the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear program.

Read her full analysis here.

O’Hanlon also appeared on MSNBC’s “The Reid Report,” where he again spoke about the Afghanistan policy and also reacted to the president’s words on reform of intelligence collection.  


Watch here or on MSNBC:

O’Hanlon, writing in Foreign Affairs, says that President Obama “is doing much better on the world stage than his critics allow,”

and yet “the president’s speech will hardly silence the debates about specific policies, a number of which are overheated.”

Access the article on (registration required to read it in full).

Tuesday, during an event at Brookings to discuss his new article, “Allure of Normalcy: What America Still Owes the World,” author Robert Kagan said that in foreign policy, President Obama tries to “look for the dead center [of where the American public is] on foreign policy, which he doesn’t really care about I think.”


Kagan is also author of the book The World America Made.

Also Tuesday, Daniel Drezner wrote of “the two things that need to be in Obama’s West Point speech,” namely, “more positive economic engagement” and how to “counter revanchist actors in the world” while also offering the most affected countries a “road map for how the United States will continue to act as a reliable geopolitical partner even if the situation should worsen.”

“So if this speech says,” writes Drezner, “a) military action is risky; but b) we have no positive economic agenda; and c) no plan for what to do if matters get even worse — then this is not going to be a very good speech at all.”

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