Obama’s message to the outside world was clear: While the U.S. continues to be a superpower, it is not a global police force anymore. This, however, is a domestic balancing act — critics already smell weakness and helplessness.
It was a difficult foreign policy message that the president, forced onto the defensive, tried to sell to the men and few women at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The message’s key point to the upcoming military and political elite of the country is: Just because I don’t immediately invade a country doesn’t mean I am weak. Rather, I am levelheaded. The world has changed and, as Obama puts it, “just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
Obama’s goal is to introduce a change of consciousness, which will last beyond the end of his term and a potential change of political powers in Washington. He wants to officially end the brute-force approach. In his new world, the U.S. will only use military forces when its security or its core interests are threatened — and in that case with all consequences and single-handedly, if necessary. He plans to solve any other kind of conflicts through international alliances, political means and with a lot of money.
But the hammer wants to be used. There are unmistakable voices in the U.S. which consider the president’s opinion not to be a system, but rather weakness and helplessness. With Syria, Afghanistan and the Ukraine, America feels humiliated and ignored. The opposition is driving the public opinion about Obama. His mostly conservative Republican critics demand that whenever a global power makes a threat, it eventually needs to follow through on it.
But who to aim for? The big hammer, the largest military force in the world, can only be used for defensive purposes, or for attacking other countries or military forces. There is simply not just one nail to be hit in a world where decentralized terrorist groups and extremists are the biggest problem. While these groups have their secret home bases in various countries, this does not simply justify attacking these countries or their people. Obama is not the first to realize that, but he actually states it.
With this he courageously admits that the lonely superpower is in a state where it feels relatively helpless. But per Obama, one can deal with that. In his mind, America’s leadership role in the world is still invulnerable and irreplaceable. Being a superpower, however, means not simply adjusting international rules, but rather filling them with life. It’s a robust defense of his foreign policy carried out thus far; a balancing act between a claim for leadership and partnership.
This alternative, which Obama proposes, is not without risks, however. Together with other affected countries and groups, he wants to support the fight against terrorism financially and logistically. American foreign policy, however, is full of examples where, at the end, the wrong ones were supported, protected, trained, armed and raised. This was done for many reasons, not the least to secure American interests or American economic interests. This includes both Central America and Iran. International collaboration offers the chance to avoid such mistakes.
Syria is going to be Obama’s big test. First, he threatened consequences were the “red line” to be crossed, and once it was crossed, nothing really happened. Now he has to prove that this is not true and that his way was in fact the right one for a country that is lost in chaos.
His domestic political position will become unsustainable if he doesn’t succeed. The hammer, the traditional means for problem solution, will become more attractive. Then things will go back to the way they were. After all, one of the attractive opportunities a military career has to offer — according to a flyer in our hallway, which promotes the U.S. Army to young soldiers — is “worldwide travel aboard a military aircraft.”*
*Editor’s note: This quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.