In a graduation speech at West Point, many pundits have criticized, if not slammed, President Obama for a defensive and substance-less speech on US foreign policy. The ironies could not have been starker. In front of a crowd of well-groomed soon to become officers, keen (well, we should expect so at least) to advance America’s military objectives, Obama toned down their necessity. Instead, he argued for a more “restraint” use of American military, rhetoric that would find itself banal at best. It was an anti-climatic harbinger that US diplomacy is likely to remain key as it has been since Obama took office.
Ultimately, this contrast is a reflection of a much deeper debate. Amidst a public tired of the Bush-era wars and an economy still sputtering to life, traditional unilateral American action will remain an elusive option. Countering this is a conservative bloc that remains well-funded and vocal calling for a maintenance of cold-war type of US involvement, arguing that a return to Wilsonian isolationism is a recipe for increased global instability. The latter is right in some aspects as a rudderless international order demands some worry. It is however this tension that percolates in Washington where Obama has been able to balance out both demands.
The US economy simply cannot afford to absorb another trillion-dollar intervention. With a ballooning the debt and an ever-encroaching defense lobby, the hubris of the Bush years should serve as a reminder that a simplistic and chauvinistic foreign policy where the US remains the chief architect of the world should humble any new policy underpinnings. Already, Iraq has plunged into a civil war largely the result of a democratic system that cannot withstand the traditional Sunni-Shi’ite feud. For foreign policy experts to demand Obama lay out a grand strategy of sorts is simply absurd. While nice in rhetoric, not only would it repeat the same mistakes but it would be impractical in today’s realities. It may seem bland to the average American. The absence of such is perhaps novel in post-war American politics. Now however, as the international stage becomes more multi-polar, trying to assert American dominance would be costly and lend itself little support especially at a time when ideology and principle remain low on the priority list.
At a time when Europe is continues to focus on fixing its economy, China continues to life people out of poverty and enact radical urban reforms, and India tries to jump-start its economy, there is very little will for “feel good” international politics, where in the past commies and capitalists pitted themselves out. To put it simply, everyone has problems and everyone seems to see the world as a toolbox to solve these internal problems, making interests and allegiances murkier. It is perhaps wise of Obama to steer clear from this path choosing instead to remain ambiguous. This ambiguity allows the US to react accordingly in an ambiguous environment. And that has been the hallmark of the Obama administration; a reactionary foreign policy not keen on trying to make sweeping changes but aiming to keep the US a relevant economic and security ally.
His recent pivot to Asia may outwardly appear as defiance to China’s rise, choosing purposely not to visit Beijing in favor of Tokyo and Seoul, key American allies. But his odd choice of Malaysia is perhaps a larger symbol that the US has not forgotten of secondary Asian economies that have since seen surging trade with China to become the largest trade partner in the region.This coupled with his recent visit to Myanmar and Thailand seem more like a timely reminder rather than an affirmation of a strong friendship. It was a “don’t forget us” moment.
The international stage is an uncertain affair. It is no longer a 60-minute symphony that ends in a finale. It is a cliff-hanging Beckett type play. Obama brought the US nowhere in his speech and neither will the international community.