Obama’s “International Order”

The president sets out his foreign-policy vision, which involves new partnerships and leading by example.

President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Egypt, June 4, 2009
President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Egypt, June 4, 2009 (White House/Chuck Kennedy)

Speaking at West Point’s famed military academy on Saturday, President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to reinvigorate an “international order” led by the United States. The president promised that America would be “steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well,” while working to build “new partnerships and shape stronger international standards and institutions” at the same time.

“This engagement is not an end in itself,” he noted. “The international order we seek is one that can resolve the challenges of our times.”

Obama used the same platform six months ago to announce an Afghanistan troop surge. Eight years before him, President George W. Bush spoke at West Point also to expound his vision on American foreign policy with its emphases on unilateral action and the right to wage preemptive war. The current administration is moving away form that direction with renewed attention for international concerns.

While the fight against terrorism continues to be at the center of the administration’s policy, Obama warned that there would be “no simple moment of surrender to mark the journey’s end — no armistice, no banner headline,” no Mission Accomplished.

The military will remain the “cornerstone of our national defense, and the anchor of global security,” said the president. But the United States must look beyond its current engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq “because unlike a terrorist whose goal is to destroy, our future will be defined by what we build.”

In this regard, the United States should lead by example: “we must first recognize that our strength and influence abroad begins with the steps we take at home.” The president reiterated part of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech of last December when he also spoke of the need for America to be the world’s “standard bearer” of order and justice. This is what some have dubbed Obama’s Jeffersonian approach to foreign polich.

The president added that he seeks an “international order” that confronts the host of challenges facing America today, from the War on Terror and nuclear proliferation to climate change and persisting human rights abuses. He told cadets that the United States is well aware of the shortcomings of the international system.

“But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation,” he stressed. “We have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don’t.”

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