What Obama’s Foreign Policy Speech Means for Europe

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Before U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his foreign policy speech on May 28 to new graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he had come under a huge amount of flak from all sides of the political divide.

When it came to American leadership and its role in the world, few analysts knew what Obama stood for or what he believed in. His speech was supposed to allay such criticism. It will hardly do that. In attempting to please all constituencies, from those who oppose war to those who want America to exert leadership, Obama has left his allies confused and authoritarian regimes relieved.

One of the most important aspects of Obama’s speech was the retreat from hard power. As he told the class of 2014, “you are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.” No wonder the young men and women applauded.

Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be underestimated. Besides lasting over thirteen years and costing many thousands of casualties, these wars showed how the use of such hard power failed to achieve the desired outcome.

Iraq is mired in sectarianism, corruption, and insecurity. Those struggling for human rights and the rule of law in Afghanistan dread the day when the bulk of U.S. troops leave the country later this year. There are big question marks over the wisdom of the 2011 NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya given the turmoil in the country today. Above all—and this is very important for the Europeans—America’s war on terror clashed with America’s values.

Obama is now trying to repair the damage wreaked by the war on terror.

Since 9/11, successive U.S. administrations have run roughshod over human rights. Torture, targeted killings, and renditions were condoned. Detainees were not, and are still not, tried before the courts but instead are put before military tribunals—if their cases are processed at all. To this day, despite so many pleadings by human rights organizations and lawyers, those detainees on hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay are being force-fed.

Obama was right to say that he intended to close the Guantánamo detention camp. But he promised that when he was first elected president in 2008. In previous speeches, Obama has admitted that the war on terror, and especially Guantánamo, damaged America’s standing in the world. Indeed, the war on terror downgraded values, dignity, and basic decency to such a degree that many countries, particularly in the Middle East, came to despise the United States, which had so long espoused the values of freedom and tolerance.

European governments are not blameless either.

For far too long, most European leaders were relieved to have America do their dirty work. Yes, they condemned the existence of Guantánamo Bay, its appalling practices, and the disregard of the rule of law. They also called for the camp to be closed. But how many European governments then helped Obama shut it down when he asked his allies to take some of the detainees? A mere handful.

Europeans were also relieved when, in 2011, U.S. special forces killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In short, for all the criticism of Obama’s policies, more often than not Europeans were prepared to support them.

Yet when Obama decided not to intervene in Syria, despite the many thousands of civilian deaths there, European governments went along with that too. They were neither politically nor militarily prepared to act without the United States. With few exceptions, European leaders have also been mute over how the values that defined the transatlantic relationship have become eroded.

Of course, the United States is not going to abandon hard power or its leadership in the world.

“America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will,” Obama said. “U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance,” he added. And in a gesture to his critics and the UN Security Council, he said that regardless of international opinion, the United States would use military force, unilaterally if necessary. “America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life.”

Yet behind these words is a retreat to a special kind of soft power. Obama wants to establish new counterterrorism partnership fund designed to train and “facilitate partner countries on the front lines.” He intends to work with European allies “to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya and [support] French operations in Mali.” There was very little mention of the role of NATO.

Obama also justified Washington’s soft power policy toward Ukraine, saying U.S. sanctions on Russia proved that such kind of pressure was effective. But for all that, it is hard to see Russian President Vladimir Putin and authoritarian regimes in Central Asia and elsewhere shaking in their boots over Obama’s doctrine.

European leaders should not feel vindicated by Obama’s speech. They have been wobbly over Russia and inconsistent over defending their values. If anything, they should realize that the United States is no longer going to do the running for the Europeans. Since that is the case, what about the Europeans replying to Obama with their own foreign and security policy doctrine?



Comments (4)

  • US Army Retired
    President Obama set up straw men in his Commencement Ceremony presentation at West Point. Here is an example of what I mean the President stated “self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve.” Then the President stated: “interventionists from the left and right says that we ignore these conflicts at our own peril…” Then being the law school scholar the President is he says “But I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment.”

    Really not a very creative line of argument is it. The President’s strategic vision for our West Point graduates is to train Afghan troops, to have many foreign policy successes “without us firing a shot.” In fact the President repeated the same phrase twice, he likes the idea of not having fired a shot. But our West Point graduates have learned the idea of training forces and providing advanced weapons be they in Syria, Afghanistan, or Vietnam can be a transition to active US military conflict, an exit strategy from a US military intervention, or much more rarely an effective strategy for stabilization of a nation.

    The idea that the geopolitical truth can be found always in finding the middle ground between isolationism and intervention is delusional. If the US and NATO had been much more interventionist in relation to the Russian occupation of the Crimea would we all be incinerated today as a result of a strategic nuclear exchange or would Crimea still be part of Ukraine and not the Russian Federation? I think the US and NATO would have prevailed and Putin would have backed down. But the Obama foreign policy doctrine is to never, ever risk war.

    Our West Point graduates have been taught something different. That the art of tactics consists of three interrelated aspects: the creative and flexible array of means to accomplish assigned missions, decision making under conditions of uncertainty when faced with a thinking and adaptive enemy, and understanding the effects of the use of our military on both soldiers and civilians. An important aspect of the art of tactics is the creative and flexible application of the means available our military to seize the initiative from the enemy and to retain it. President Obama does not understand the very heart and soul of what is called the US Army Doctrine which is to seize the initiative.
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  • sidney sloth
    There is a problem with "hard power", several in fact. The first is that it is exceedingly expensive. The second is that it comes in many forms, not all of which are useful in the modern world. The third is that nuclear weapons limit the scope of hard power even in those situations where it is viable.

    If you put all those factors together, it becomes apparent that hard power can be a strategic trap. If one is careless, and comes to believe that spending loads of cash (borrowed cash) on hard power will procure security, there is an ever-present danger that the money will be wasted, and that waste can reduce soft power.

    The only sure thing about hard power is that it is an industry, and as such it has lobbyists. If "leading on the world stage." means spending vast amounts of borrowed money on military hardware that is never going to be used, then America will be encouraged to lead by everyone else. All the way to bankruptcy.

    If that happy phrase means something else, such as having the economic power to influence world events, hard power night be last thing the doctor ordered for this particular patient.

    If you seek an example of a mighty world power brought undone by a puerile devotion to the toys of hard power, look no further than the current theatre of operations. The USSR was broken in exactly this fashion.

    If the USA is likewise broken as an economic force because it was unable to control the lobbyists of heavy war industries, the irony may force even devout patriots to question the doctrine of manifest destiny on the world stage.

    All war is the expression of economic power.
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  • sidney sloth
    "what about the Europeans replying to Obama with their own foreign and security policy doctrine?"

    Be careful what you wish for. Historically, European foreign and security policy doctrine has ended up buried in forgotten peat bog somewhere in Poland, by way of a detour through the outskirts of Moscow.

    It is slightly puzzling as to why the west thinks it is in any kind of position to expand Europe's geopolitical influence. Europe is hardly swimming in the money required for such an adventure. In fact, economic problems are so severe that any move to a war footing must require conscription and other nineteenth century methods of raising fighting power. Good luck with that, in the modern world. Seriously, ask the Argentineans how it goes with conscripts against a professional army.

    Indeed, if Putin were a judoka (he is), he might think in terms of using his opponents mass against him, to cause him to fall with speed onto a hard floor.

    If you break your economic power in a glorious offensive campaign, understand that the war is thus lost. From that point on, you may expect the enemy to begin setting the policy doctrine in your lands.
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  • Dr.G.ThangaRajesh
    US alone is not responsible for protecting world security. There are other actors like UN, EU, NATO must act which is badly missing. It is illegal to mount all burden on US shoulder. US must also look after her internal security.   
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