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At West Point, Obama Completed His “Pivot” Away from U.S. Unilateralism

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President Barack Obama’s West Point commencement address last week was not an announcement of a new direction in American foreign policy — it was a defense of the policy path already chosen. The most significant takeaway from the speech — if not its biggest headline — was the president’s commitment to international institutions. Obama reminded his audience that this system of post-World War II multilateral institutions – NATO, the U.N., the Word Bank and IMF – was largely an American initiative. He further noted that America also specializes in obstructing, disregarding or otherwise impeding their work, and he came down hard on ideological resistance to multilateralism as a leadership strategy.

Acknowledging the right and obligation for the U.S. to act alone if necessary, Obama offered a persuasive defense for his “first do no harm” approach to foreign policy (anticipated by, among others, John Cassidy in the New Yorker.) His view casts multi-lateral organizations in a role similar to that of the Senate within the U.S. legislative process; they are “wave-breakers” which step deliberately between a policy problem and a knee-jerk reaction to it. These institutions are not only, in the president’s words, “force multipliers” that arrange burden-sharing, they restrain individual nations from acting independently against others. Obama credited this system for isolating Russia in response to its recent aggression toward Ukraine and curbing its actions. Further, the speech reiterated how Obama values U.S. force as a deterrent threat. He recognizes its deterrent effect is diminished when military action alone may achieve specific near-term goals (the removal of a dictator, for example), without securing long-term strategic ends (the political stability of a given country.)

Still, having affirmed their importance, the president stopped short of specifics regarding multilateral institutions in three important areas: reform of those institutions, drone use and climate change.

Reform of Multilateral Institutions. Acknowledging that “evolving these international institutions to meet the demands of today must be a critical part of American leadership,” Obama offered no plan to do so. To be fair, plans to reform these institutions — the permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council, for example — have lingered so long because they are fairly intractable. The same veto system that allows a single member to obstruct action allows them to obstruct the addition of Brazil, India or other nations whose permanent membership would make the regional composition of the Council a closer representation of today’s world. After re-opening a door to these institutions the previous administration had slammed shut, Obama let a chance to offer a first round of specific reform proposals pass by.

Drone Use. A high-profile foreign policy speech had to include language on the role of combat drones, and Obama defended their continued use. He conceded strikes be conducted with greater transparency, but crucially stopped short of specifying any particular efforts to do so, differing to the military. Further, he did not mention any desire to adopt an international effort to regulate drone use, whether agreed-upon guidelines or an international treaty similar to what eventually governed ballistic missile proliferation. Drone use is an appropriate subject to bring to a multilateral forum like the U.N. The fact that Obama stopped short points to his desire not to infringe on the executive’s capacity to use drones as a counterterrorism tool, now or in the future. Transparency advocates will be troubled by this dodge. It reveals the president’s view of how U.S. military power may be used most effectively. Considered use of drone strikes appears to be his own unilateral “force multiplier”, and Obama has been willing over time to weather criticism to defend their use.

Climate Change. Buried within the speech was a pledge to put the U.S. back in the lead on a global climate change agreement. (The EPA has since announced carbon-reduction goals, to the chagrin of Republican and Democratic coal-state legislators alike.) The announcement reflects some confidence that the global economy has turned a big enough corner to allow consideration of carbon reduction proposals in a way that was politically untenable during a severe downturn. The U.N. is an established leading voice on climate change, and perhaps Obama’s teaser in the speech, followed by the EPA announcement, points to an initiative in the closing years of his presidency that will tackle the issue head on in the multi-lateral forums he defended.

In foreign policy (and domestically), Obama’s presidency began with extremely high expectations. It has succeeded in “pivoting” the U.S. back into the international system it took the lead in creating. An ideal foreign policy? No. Progress? Absolutely.



Michael Crowley

Mike Crowley received his MA with distinction from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in American Foreign Policy and European Studies in 2003 and his MFA in Classical Acting from The Shakespeare Theatre Company/George Washington University in 2016. He has worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. He's an actor working in Washington, DC and a volunteer at the National Gallery of Art, and he looks for ways to work both into his blog occasionally.