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Obama Tells US Air Force Academy Graduates to Reject Isolationism

President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address at the 2016 class U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 2, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama, using his last commencement address as president, offered the graduating cadets of the U.S. Air Force Academy life lessons he has learned about national security and foreign policy over the past seven years.

In Colorado Springs, Colorado, Obama on Thursday urged the more than 800 new Air Force officers not to pull back from U.S. engagement and leadership in the world.

"We can't be isolationists. It's not possible in this globalized, interconnected world," he said. "In these uncertain times, it's tempting sometimes to try to pull back and wash our hands from conflicts that seem intractable, let other countries fend of themselves."

While never mentioning the contentious primary election season, Obama's comments were a veiled swipe at presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has called for, among other things, building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and assessing America's commitment to NATO.

"We cannot turn inward," Obama said. "We cannot give in to isolationism. That’s a false comfort."

Diplomacy, treaties

He reminded the graduates that U.S. military force alone can't solve all problems, and stressed the need for diplomacy and treaties.

"We’ve got to draw on every tool, all elements of our national power," Obama said. "That is how we won the Cold War -- not just with the strength of our arms, [but] with the power of our ideas, the power of our example."

Treaties, such as the one that established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or those that limit conventional and nuclear weapons, "help keep us safe," Obama said, saying one of the most effective ways for the U.S. to lead in world affairs.

"On just about every issue, the world looks to us to set the agenda," he said. "Here is a fact: The United States of America remains the most powerful nation on Earth and a force for good. ...

"When there is a problem around the world, they do not call Beijing or Moscow. They call us," Obama said.

He also told the academy graduates that the U.S. military "is the most capable fighting force on the planet." His comments were directed at Republican critics who have said the military has been diminished under his leadership.

Despite what he called the most peaceful and prosperous era in history, Obama said there are serious threats facing the U.S.: terrorist networks, the Islamic State group, Russia, disputes in the South China Sea, North Korean nuclear threats and Iran.

The Air Force Thunderbirds fly overhead as graduating cadets celebrate with the "hat toss" after graduation ceremonies at the 2016 class of the U.S. Air Force Academ, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 2, 2016.
The Air Force Thunderbirds fly overhead as graduating cadets celebrate with the "hat toss" after graduation ceremonies at the 2016 class of the U.S. Air Force Academ, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 2, 2016.

'Challenge of your generation'

All these "are testing an international order that we built, where the sovereignty of nations is respected and all nations abide by the same rules," the president said. “How to meet these threats while also seizing the incredible opportunities of this moment in history, that is going to be your challenge, the challenge of your generation."

Of the academy's 812 graduates, Air Force officials said 345 are going to train as pilots, and another 60 will train to operate remotely piloted aircraft, such as drones, which have become a central tool of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. It said about a quarter of the class is female.

Earlier this year, Obama delivered commencement addresses at Howard University and Rutgers University.

Earlier in the day Thursday, one of the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbird team planes crashed after flying over the graduation ceremony.

Authorities say the pilot was unharmed after ejecting safely from the plane. Obama later met briefly with the pilot.

The president's commencement address occurred the same day the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, sharply criticized Trump's foreign policy, saying, "He is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility."

Trump later claimed that Clinton "made up" his foreign policy.