President Barack Obama's speech emphasizing soft power and alliances over military might crystallized into a single speech what many experts said Wednesday was an inevitable — and welcome — evolution of U.S. foreign policy.
The president who pulled U.S. troops from Iraq, avoided direct confrontation in Syria and has tapered off the American military presence in Afghanistan seemed to be saying that the U.S. had learned that it cannot impose its will on the rest of the world, said David Livingstone, an expert in international security at London's Chatham House. He said Obama's words went against the "American instinct to go in hard with the military first" when crisis erupts.
"America has to be in sympathy with the world, and its leadership has been perceived to be unilateral," he said after listening to Obama's speech at West Point. He thought the president should have made it clear that it is impossible to assure the safety of every American.
In the Gulf state of Qatar, Brookings Center director Salman Shaikh saw the speech as a boost for consensus, but he said broke no new ground for a president who has distanced himself from the "interventionist wars" of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
"He talked about partnerships, working multilaterally, which is all to be welcomed," Shaikh said, cautioning that had to be balanced against "whether the U.S. is really willing to lead across the Middle East."
Obama devoted his most muscular language to counterterrorism, particularly in Syria where Obama said extremists are spilling across borders and where a civil war has killed more than 160,000 people. Without specifying, Obama talked about more U.S. support for Syria's moderate opposition fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.
Obama put off any hint of using force there or in Iran, where he touted a possible agreement over its nuclear program.
"He was clear that this is his foreign policy legacy, he hopes, when it comes to the Middle East," Shaikh said, adding that Obama was "relatively weak" when pressing issues like human rights and democracy in the region.
Boaz Ganor, an Israeli counterterrorism expert, said Obama's speech revealed a lack of understanding of the global threat of terrorism. He disagreed with Obama's assertion that al-Qaida is less dangerous now.
"Maybe a 9/11 type of attack right now from a centralized al-Qaida in a lesser probability. But a decentralized al-Qaida is even more dangerous than a centralized al-Qaida because these splinter groups, these embryonic new al-Qaida organizations will emerge and will no doubt down the road try to hit the U.S. mainland and will inspire many followers in the United States."
He said there is "a big question" on whether the U.S. has the determination to impose its will on enemies and a "small question" about whether it has the capability to do so.
"You need to understand that if you are running away from terrorism, terrorism will probably come after you and chase you," he said. "I would argue that the U.S. lost Egypt, lost Libya and diluted their influence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. It seems that the villains of the region have the upper hand, this is Iran and its affiliates, and that is a very bad sign for the allies of the United States around the world."
Concerns about terrorism also clouded the president's message to Africa, said J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. The administration has emphasized Africa's economic promise for its upcoming summit of African leaders in Washington.
"For all the desire to move on to the 'New Africa,' the 'Old Africa' of conflicts, terrorism, and other security and humanitarian concerns still consumes much of the attention that the continent and its nations receive in Washington, all too often crowding out the strategic, long-term picture."
Obama's speech was not broadcast on Chinese television. There was no immediate reaction from the government, state media or government-backed scholars to the president's reference to worries among China's neighbors over its economic rise and military reach. China routinely complains that Washington plays-up such concerns to fortify a drive to contain Beijing's growth and turn other countries against it.
Washington wants allies such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines — all suspicious of China's intentions — to take on greater regional security responsibilities, said Yu Maochun, an expert on Chinese security matters at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
"If President Obama's stress on multilateral collective actions is true, China will be further isolated in the international community, especially among its neighbors," Yu said.
But others, including Gordon Adams, professor of international relations at American University in Washington, believe the president may have promised more than America can deliver.
"The underlying premise here is that the United States is indispensable to all these troubles and the solution depends on the United States intervening," he said. "We're going to be part of the solution to a lot of these problems, but setting us up to expect that we can solve them by force or goodwill perpetuates a myth in a rapidly changing world where we don't have the capacity to do that anymore. It's not American decline. It's the global system rebalancing itself."