WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama just wants everybody to follow the rules.
In a highly anticipated speech delivered Wednesday in West Point, New York, Obama’s message was broad and doctrinal: leaders of nations should respect borders and the sovereignty of neighbors, treaty agreements against the construction or use of weapons of mass destruction, and laws that protect the sanctity of universal human rights.
But as the president said, US foreign policy – especially in the Middle East – must be governed not by how leaders wish to see the world, but by how the world actually operates.
And in his address, Obama made clear he fears the wheels may come off that global order without proactive leadership from the United States.
The infrastructure of our current order is a network of international institutions, treaties and alliances that have been utilized in recent months to address some of the world’s most alarming challenges.
Cohesion in the world community put pressure on Russia to pull back from the brink of war in Ukraine; pressed Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program in Vienna; and forced Syria to forfeit its arsenal of chemical weapons, all without the use of force or loss of American life.
And yet the president’s underlying message was stark: with the fraying or weakening of these global institutions – should they lose the power to successfully enforce international norms – chaotic wars are more likely in Ukraine, in Syria and in Iran.
While the US cannot put out all the world’s fires on its own, Obama believes that strong international institutions can be a “force multiplier” for American power, he told graduating cadets from the United States Military Academy.
Thus, the president suggested in his Wednesday address that, throughout the remainder of his presidency, his priority will be to reinvigorate struggling international institutions.
Obama acknowledged that some of those institutions might need reform, given their inability to adequately address global crises. Surely he was referring to the United Nations Security Council for its inaction on Syria, and of course, on Ukraine, due to Russia’s permanent veto power.
America should reinforce those institutions, not abandon them, Obama asserted, accusing his critics of overreaching unilateralism.
“There are a lot of folks, a lot of skeptics, who often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action,” Obama said. “For them, working through international institutions like the UN or respecting international law is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong.”
Pursuing peace through consensus is cost-effective; efficient policing and diplomacy are preemptive alternatives to expensive, traumatic military campaigns.
But while a noble ideal, the president provided no proposal on how to reform a dysfunctional United Nations, or how to embolden a NATO alliance in crisis. If Obama insists reform is required, leadership requires he provide the path forward.