As President Barack Obama mounted a defense of his foreign policy at West Point on Wednesday, analysts, policy experts and critics warned that the United States risked emboldening tyrants and leaving a vacuum in some regions that could result in more instability.
Speaking in deliberate tones, President Obama denied that U.S. international might had deteriorated during his administration.
After withdrawing troops from Iraq and as he does the same in Afghanistan, President Obama signaled a move towards international cooperation regarding intervention missions.
He promised to stand strong against Russia over Ukraine and vowed to hold China accountable on the "rules of the road" in the South China Sea.
"To say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution," Obama said.
Obama’s speech was widely seen as an effort to not only lay out a policy blueprint leading into his final two years in office.
It was also an answer to critics and allies who trace crises like Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and Chinese actions in the South China Sea to U.S. action - or inaction.
“There’s a sense that US foreign policy is in drift, from the highest levels of government down to the American people, there’s no clear what we’re about, what makes us tick as Americans,” said William C. Martel, associate professor of international security studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
“We don’t have a grand strategy… and without that grand strategy, our friends and allies don’t understand us, and worse, our adversaries don’t know what we’re about,” he said.
Obama’s foreign policy in the first term was characterized as a “light footprint” approach, harnessing tools like drone strikes, Special Operations raids and cyberwarfare, economic sanctions as a way to meeting policy goals.
This was in part of reflection of Americans’ war-weariness, after expending thousands of casualties and trillions of dollars in a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s also, however, an indication of a lack of leadership, argued Robert Kagan, a foreign policy commentator and author of newly published, 12,000-word article called “Superpowers Don’t Get To Retire."
“This is not just war weariness about Iraq or Afghanistan,” Kagan argued in a speech at the Washington-based Brookings Institution Tuesday. “What this has exposed is that, I believe that most Americans no longer understand or remember what we’re doing out there. I’m not sure Americans even understand why we have all these alliances anymore.”
“What we’re facing is… world weariness. In the sense of why we have taken on these vast responsibilities: ‘Can’t somebody else do it?’” Kagan said. “I think it’s been a long time since anyone has attempted to explain this role to the American people and attempted to justify it.”
Critics, particularly Republicans, have pointed directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to wholescale annex the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, and the ongoing insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and accused the Obama administration of weakness.
In a speech Tuesday announcing plans to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before the end of his term, Obama gave a preview of his West Point speech.
“I’m confident that if we carry out this approach, we cannot only responsibly end our war in Afghanistan and achieve the objectives that took us to war in the first place, we’ll also be able to begin a new chapter in the story of American leadership around the world,” he said.
In his speech Wednesday, he tried to rebut critics, suggesting election politics was as much a motivation as anything.
"Those who argue otherwise – 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 said.
With the wind-down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House has trumpeted what it calls the “pivot to Asia” – putting a focus on U.S. relations in East Asia, and the rising military and economic strength of China.
What the instability in Ukraine has shown is that the “pivot” has tilted the balance too far away from core U.S. interests in Europe, said Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser to the United States special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and currently dean of the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. Moreover, the White House should remember that Russia is also an Asian power, he said.
“This is not the time to pivot to Asia so completely that it makes Europe reluctant to follow America’s lead in facing up to Mr. Putin’s challenges,” Nasr wrote in an Op-Ed piece published Friday in The New York Times.
“Even in the Pacific, America has a deep interest in managing Russian ambitions — an interest that now demands a rebalancing of American foreign policy, back to paying primary attention to Europe,” he wrote.
Obama was ambitious in the early years of his first term—a “big idea guy,” said Michael O’Hanlon, director of research for the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy
"Since that period of time, his speeches have been few and far between and the overall policy doesn’t seem to add up to a coherent whole – that’s why he’s got to explain it,” O’Hanlon said.