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President Barack Obama's long-awaited foreign policy speech Wednesday left most wanting more. Widely criticized as lacking any concrete proposals or guideposts for future foreign engagements, the speech garnered only muted reaction overseas.
The key announcement was that of a $5 billion "counterterrorism partnership fund" that would be earmarked for capacity building in other countries on the "front lines" of the effort to combat global terrorism, which Obama called the paramount threat to the homeland.
As The Christian Science Monitor summed it up:
But other than the new counterterrorism partnership fund, the speech was devoid of initiatives or proposals and instead seemed aimed at refuting mounting criticism both domestically and among some worried international partners that his foreign policy is weak and rudderless.
The president asserted that by virtue of its economic power, unmatched military, values, and spirit of innovation, America will remain the world’s “exceptional” leader. The real question, he said, is not “whether America will lead, but how we will lead.”
But other than virtually ruling out American boots on the ground in foreign conflicts and emphasizing international partnerships, Obama’s speech gave few specifics on the “how” of US global leadership for the remainder of his presidency.
Foreign Policy columnist David Rothkopf echoed that take: "It provided neither reassurance to allies nor anything remotely like a foreign-policy vision. It listed some problems, outlined some principles, but did not lay out any real goals or even a hint of what America's objectives in the world should be going forward." News website Vox may be one of the only US outlets who found his speech a "unified, tightly focused vision of America's role in the world."
BBC North America editor Mark Mardell did a line-by-line analysis of the speech. He scoffed at the announcement of more assistance for Syria and the counterterrorism fund as too late in the game and found most of the speech predictable.
The problem with this speech is that it is a restatement of Mr Obama's policy, not a re-evaluation. He's defending a policy that has manifestly failed to produce a stable world free from crisis and turmoil. That doesn't mean anyone else would have had better luck with a different sort of policy - but it does mean he is defending something that has not had many success. He's avoided a world where America is up to its arms in new wars - but he has hardly brought forth a shining new dawn for peace and democracy. To some questions, there are no answers, but saying so is hardly glorious.
At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Europe, Judy Dempsey, the editor-in-chief of their Strategic Europe publication, chastised European leaders for going along with US policy in the past and challenged them to come up with their own independent foreign policy. "For far too long, most European leaders were relieved to have America do their dirty work," she wrote, citing Europe's toothless condemnation of the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
Yet behind these words is a retreat to a special kind of soft power. Obama wants to establish new counterterrorism partnership fund designed to train and “facilitate partner countries on the front lines.” He intends to work with European allies “to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya and [support] French operations in Mali.” There was very little mention of the role of NATO.
European leaders should not feel vindicated by Obama’s speech. They have been wobbly over Russia and inconsistent over defending their values. If anything, they should realize that the United States is no longer going to do the running for the Europeans. Since that is the case, what about the Europeans replying to Obama with their own foreign and security policy doctrine?
Predictably, Pakistan's coverage on the speech focused on Obama's comments on drone strikes there – never openly acknowledged by the US, but explicitly stated by Pakistani journalists - and US plans to scale down its military role in Afghanistan, which have significant implications for Islamabad. The Dawn headlined its story "Obama stresses need for transparency in strikes."
In an indirect reference to the CIA, which runs the drone programme for Pakistan, President Obama noted that the US intelligence community had done outstanding work. “But, when we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion; we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people; and we reduce accountability in our own government.”
Every US administration has taken a stab at the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Obama was no exception. Secretary of State John Kerry made frequent trips to the region to thrash out a framework for an agreement, but those efforts fizzled last month with no sign of a Plan B. The US now seems to be taking a break from its thwarted peacemaking. Indeed, the only mentions of Israel in Obama's speech were in relation to US interests in Iran and Egypt.
Israelis noticed. From Haaretz:
To say that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was conspicuously absent from U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday is an understatement. Administration officials tried to downplay the significance of the omission, but the facts speak for themselves: Obama devoted almost 5,000 words to outlining America’s foreign policy in the coming years, none of them touching on what was described until recently as one of its primary, strategic objectives. And the Palestinians? Nothing. Gurnischt. Not a peep.
“This was a speech focused primarily on security issues. It was not our intent to discuss every aspect of our foreign policy,” the officials said. That’s one explanation. The others are that Obama saw no reason to include such an abject failure in the list of successes that he detailed; that he actually has no intention of doing anything about the peace process under any circumstances; and – most importantly – that he’s truly fed up. Yes, yes, fed up with both sides, but not equally, because it is on the Israeli side that one finds most of the critics and detractors that he tried to confront in his speech.
The Times of Israel also noted the exclusion at the end of its story on the speech.
Attention will now turn to East Asia, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares to unveil his own foreign policy doctrine at a regional security conference in Singapore on Friday. He is expected to address his plans for a greater role for the Japanese military and for the ongoing face-off with China in the South and East China Seas, The Wall Street Journal reports.