According to an anecdote I once heard, two South American friends under a dictatorial regime were having a snack, when one of them washed down his meal with a Coca Cola. His friend replied, angrily, that he would never drink the “black waters of imperialism.”
While this story seems silly in hindsight, it portrays much of the distrust and animosity the world has felt towards the United States. Commonly seen as the the world’s paramount superpower, the U.S. has been criticized as a military bully, imposing its laws and beliefs upon other nations. Whether the purpose of such interventionist policies was benevolent or detrimental, it nonetheless paints military intervention (whether overt or covert) as a staple of United States foreign policy.
However, that image could potentially change.
Cue Barack Obama’s speech at West Point on May 28, 2014. Certainly, it didn’t shake up the world with some new “Foreign Policy Master Plan” or with new threats or promises that couldn’t be carried out. It definitely appealed more to a country that is tired of conflict and would much rather see an end to it. But it also accomplished more.
The President did not shy away from the United States’s military might: he clearly pointed out that many still see it as the world’s arbiter and as one of the most economically prosperous nations, and that those “who suggest that America is in decline or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics” (Obama). But, rather than stop there, the President pointed out that times are changing, which signals new threats, new technology, and a new world order.
The President is not proposing American isolationism, of course, but he is proposing that the U.S. needn’t rush into every conflict, every arising problem, simply because it can. Or, to put it in the President’s words, “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
In fact, the President is proposing that the U.S. find more allies by working alongside nations where terrorism has found a home and by not shying away from international organizations and partnerships. He is not wrong in claiming that organizations like Al-Qaeda have gone from being part of centralized groups to being dispersed across various nations, making it much harder to end their threats. He is not wrong in claiming that NATO and the UN have done their share in keeping stability on the global stage.
And the fact that President Obama is not only pointing these things out, but is also seemingly trying to make them U.S. foreign policy, is what truly matters here.
He has been decried by many critics as having a policy of “weakness and retreat,” and unfortunately the Presidents’ foreign policy record isn’t exactly spotless. The crisis in Syria continues, the deployment of drones has become more commonplace, and the U.S.’s weak position on the Ukraine situation has been greatly denounced. However, this path has also been crucial in that the U.S. has not started wars, but rather has striven to end them.
And this has not been lost on the global stage. Thanks to this policy, many actions that could have been taken by the U.S. alone have happened with the approval or support of other nations or international bodies. Many conflicts that could have escalated in body count and duration have not, largely due to the U.S. and other countries holding back. And the world is repaying Obama for his efforts to change the U.S.’s image: in Iran, the government has now engaged in actual talks about its nuclear program, and in Venezuela, President Maduro reopened diplomatic relations with the U.S. While to an optimist (like myself), these may seem like great steps, others will condemn them as meaningless actions. But nonetheless, they reflect a shying away from unilateral military action and an embrace of diplomacy and collaboration. If the U.S. continues on a trend that does not see military force as the terminal goal of conflicts, but rather emphasizes this softer and more multilateral foreign policy, it could signify both an increased trust in the U.S. and a step in the right direction in conflict management.
Klein, Joe. “Obama’s West Point Speech Was Not Exciting.” Time. Time, 28 May 2014. Web. 29 May 2014. <http://time.com/124440/obamas-speech-was-not-exciting/>.
Obama, Barack. “Full Transcript of President Obama’s Commencement Address at West Point.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 28 May 2014. Web. 29 May 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/full-text-of-president-obamas-commencement-address-at-west-point/2014/05/28/cfbcdcaa-e670-11e3-afc6-a1dd9407abcf_story.html>.
Zezima, Katie. “Eight Key Takeaways from Obama’s West Point Speech.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 28 May 2014. Web. 29 May 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/05/28/highlights-from-obamas-west-point-speech/>.