Obama is facing an important dilemma in foreign affairs: Is the United States still the "indispensable nation" or is the concept and doctrine put forth by Clinton and Madeleine Albright beginning to fade? His situation is exacerbated by two recent facts. One, The New York Times-CBS survey from June that shows 58 percent of Americans disapprove of the president's leadership — including a third of Democrats — and feel deeply worried that continued involvement in Iraq could lead to another long and costly conflict, not to mention the three quarters of those surveyed who agreed that the long war did not compensate for the higher cost of living. A Pew poll from fall of 2013 indicated that — for the first time since 1964 — the majority of the country felt that Washington should concern itself with its own international issues and leave other countries to handle their affairs as they may.
The president is faced with public opinion that is radically against military intervention abroad and an increasingly introverted electorate focused on all things domestic, economic and social. It’s possible to suggest that, with the United States still being the great power it is, albeit in relative decline, North Americans fall into a certain contradictory position when, as the polls show, the majority believe in the global leadership of their country — the indispensable nation? — but they aren't the least bit interested in getting tied up in another war. Is it possible to lead globally without military force?
That brings us to the speech the president made in May at West Point Military Academy and the supposed wake-up call for foreign affairs in Washington. We remember that in 1945, after World War II, a new world order was born around the U.S., an order that has today turned multipolar, challenged by the BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India and China] and their own financial resources and systems. At the end of the Cold War, many people thought Washington would relinquish the global duties it had assumed for four decades, that the United States would transform into a "normal nation" and stop being "exceptional." Just a normal country in a normal time. But Washington continued to act "exceptionally," because in reality there was no such normal time, not with the "indispensable nation" syndrome growing in its mind. As a consequence of pressure from war-funded industry lobbies, the great power seeking a "normal life" took on seven military interventions, one every 17 months: Panama in 1989, Iraq in 1991, Somalia in 1992, Haiti in 1994, Bosnia in 1995, Iraq in 1998 and Kosovo in 1999.
It ought to be mentioned, however, that U.S. involvement in Somalia can be classified as the most purely humanitarian of the long list of North American interventions. President George H.W. Bush put it like this: "I know that the United States alone cannot write the world's wrongs." But the, "people of Somalia need ... our help. Some world crises cannot be solved without the U.S.’ involvement." Though not yet explained, there was the "indispensable nation" concept emerging.
It became an official element of U.S. foreign affairs through Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton. Albright declared, “We are the indispensable nation.” Obama incorporated the same fervor in his State of the Union address in 2012, proclaiming: “The United States continues to be the indispensable nation, and it will stay that way as long as I’m president.”* However, the long period of introspection caused by two infinite wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the financial crisis the country is still reeling from, have forced the U.S. to look for a balance between the cold hard facts and hasty interventions.
And so begins Obama’s transition toward a more interpretable notion of the “indispensable nation.” It manifested in his West Point speech differently than with previous presidents. He believes in North America’s exceptionalness with “every fiber of his being,” but [says that] “what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” He criticizes: “Some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences." That’s why, according to Obama, military action can’t be the only, nor the most important, component of his leadership. That’s why — and this message may have left some of the cadets listening perplexed, at least those with no intention of becoming diplomats or experts in development — “we have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law; and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action."
What’s surprising is the way Obama speaks about this “indispensable” business now compared to two years ago. In 2014, Obama says the U.S. will “probably” continue to be the indispensable nation in the next century. Take a look at what’s happening in Ukraine. Could an event like the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight push Washington to flex its “indispensable” muscles? Hillary Clinton, aspiring president of the U.S., may soon have attention focused on her next. In her recent book, “Hard Choices,” she writes: “Everything that I have done and seen has convinced me that America remains the ‘indispensable nation.’”
*Editor's Note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be sourced.