Measured against the build-up, President Obama’s address at West Point this week on US foreign policy was a disappointment, and has been roundly dismissed as such by his critics, at home and also abroad. It contained, they said, no compelling vision, and will do little to dispel “declinism” – the belief that America on his watch is losing power and influence in the world, and has become a passive, inward-looking observer of global developments rather than the shaper of them.
In fact, Mr Obama delivered a speech that was eminently sensible, measured and practical in its goals. He rejected any notion of isolationism, and stressed the need, wherever possible, for acting collectively. Equally, however, the US was ready to use military force, unilaterally if necessary, if its own security or that of its allies was threatened. He identified the main danger as terrorism, announcing a $5bn fund to help countries on the front line counter that threat. Few people would quarrel with any of the above. “The question is not whether America will lead,” the President concluded, “but how we will lead.” Alas, therein lies the problem.
Expectations of US foreign policy function rather like the stock market, tending to overshoot in one direction or the other. George W Bush was rightly condemned for leading the US into the disastrous adventure in Iraq. Under his successor, “Damned if you do” has been replaced by “Damned if you don’t”. Mr Obama is accused (with some justification) of doing too little to end the horrors in Syria, and of acquiescing in the return of military rule to Egypt. But in both cases it is hard to see what Washington could have done to change things.
Much less justified are the charges that he has failed to prevent China’s expansionism and bullying of its neighbours in East Asia, or stood up to Russia over Ukraine. In fact, the Ukraine crisis upholds his argument that economic sanctions can work where a military response is not on the table. If anyone is dragging their feet over sanctions, it is Europe, not the US. Instead, the clamour by Mr Obama’s detractors for him to get tough only grows, as if the US had almost superhuman powers.
In that sense, Mr Obama is the prisoner of expectations. The US, owner of the world’s largest economy and by far its most potent military, is uniquely able to project massive force anywhere, almost instantly. At times of international crisis, eyes automatically turn to Washington, the nearest thing in our imperfect, ever messier world to a global policeman.
Mr Obama is well aware of these expectations. He is equally aware, however – and the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq support him – that wars are easy to get into, but much harder to get out of. He also knows that in a democracy, a country’s foreign policy cannot be divorced from public opinion. After two of the longest wars in US history, the last thing Americans want is another one.
His problem is that power lies in the perception of power, and of a readiness to use that power. No such doubt existed over his predecessor, and his chest-thumping challenge to America’s foes to “bring it on”. This President is the opposite: cool and deliberative, a believer in the power of reason as much as emotion. But as Mr Obama has discovered, emotion sometimes trumps reason in the foreign policy debate. By that yardstick, the West Point speech was a disappointment. Mr Obama, however, should take encouragement from America’s ablest foreign policy president of recent times. One thing George H W Bush couldn’t manage, by his own admission, was “the vision thing”.