State’s Frantz: 10 Takeaways from Obama’s Speech at West Point

10 Takeaways from President Obama’s Speech at West Point

by Doug Frantz

This blog post by Doug Frantz originally appeared on the State Department website on May 28. Frantz serves as the assistant secretary of state for public affairs.


In his commencement address to the graduating class at the United States Military Academy at West Point today, President Obama laid out his vision of America’s leadership on the global stage. Here are 10 highlights that drew my attention:

1.) GLOBAL LEADERSHIP: President Obama outlined the importance and global need for America’s continuing leadership. He illustrated his point with recent of examples of places where this country has demonstrated its unique role, including in the Philippines, Nigeria and Ukraine. Whether it’s combating climate change or helping emerging democracies fight corruption, the president made clear that the United States is the only country that has the resources and ability to lead on these challenges.

2.) GLOBAL PRESENCE: The President said that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. Turning a blind eye to what is happening beyond our borders will have a negative impact on our own national security now and for generations to come. The president emphasized that the United States would never hesitate to use military force when our “core interests demand it.” But, in advocating diplomacy and partnerships with other nations, he cautioned that not all global problems have a military solution.

3.) AFGHANISTAN: As President Obama announced on Tuesday, the United States will be drawing down all troops from Afghanistan beyond the normal embassy security presence by the end of 2016. In addressing the cadets, he reaffirmed this commitment to bringing our troops home and ending the war in Afghanistan in a responsible way.

4.) COUNTERTERRORISM EFFORTS: With core al-Qaida almost destroyed, the president announced a new counterterrorism strategy that will focus on the terrorist group’s decentralized affiliates and other extremist groups. A key part of this effort will be a proposed $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund to help other countries train their troops and build their capacity to combat rising extremism. These resources will magnify the ability of American forces to fight extremists wherever they operate around the world.

5.) SYRIA: President Obama defended his decision not to intervene militarily in Syria. And he promised new efforts to combat the ongoing crisis in Syria and new support for our allies, for the Syrian opposition and for those fighting for the rights of all Syrians. The administration will step up efforts to assist Syria’s neighbors — Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — as they face growing burdens from helping refugees and a rising threat that the extremism brewing in Syria will spill over to their borders.

6.) INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTIONS: The president made a strong case for strengthening existing global institutions — NATO, the United Nations, World Bank, and the IMF — and continuing to support the work that they do to help keep the peace and support human progress around the world. As an illustration, he talked about the unified response by NATO and the European Union to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

7.) UKRAINE: Following the recent elections in Ukraine, President Obama reaffirmed our commitment to the Ukrainian government and people going forward to help chart a new course and determine their own future.

8.) IRAN: In another illustration of the way Washington works with its partners, the president spoke about the success of the international coalition built in 2009 in bringing Iran to the bargaining table through economic sanctions rather than through force. That work, he said, has created the potential to resolve our differences over Iran’s nuclear program peacefully.

9.) GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE: The president described climate change as a critical national security issue. He pledged to make sure that America is “out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet.” And in an emblematic phrase, he said, “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example.”

10.) DEMOCRACY & HUMAN RIGHTS: Speaking of examples, the president described how the United States is continuing to use its unique resources to support democracy and human rights by empowering people around the world, and he noted that, through the efforts of U.S. diplomacy, foreign assistance and our military, more people live under elected governments today than at any time in history.

What I took away from the speech was the very strong sense that President Obama was describing a foreign policy for the next decade that learns from the mistakes and the successes of the previous decade.

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