Avoiding Stupid Stuff


U.S. president Barack Obama’s speech delivered at the West Point Military Academy on May 28 2014 has sketched the contour of American foreign policy. This was his second commencement speech for the graduating cadets of Military Academy. President Obama first addressed them in 2009. That marked the height of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

Much water has flown since then and the geopolitics has undergone tremendous transformation prompting major world powers to introduce changes in the priorities of their countries’ foreign policies. The American foreign policy hugely impacts on world political landscape. Therefore, Obama’s emphasis on intervention and internationalism will largely determine as to how the global problems will be handled in the near future.

In the aftermath of America’s complete military withdrawal from Iraq and the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan lowering up to 9800 this year and bringing that number further down in next two years, president Obama has given an indication that the U.S. will less likely be interventionist in future wars. One of the points in his oft-quoted Foreign Policy speech is that America cannot ignore what happens beyond U.S. boundaries.

“America must lead the world stage”. This was announced by Obama on May 28 2014 (The New York Times May 29 2014). What it makes obvious is that isolationism is not America’s option. President Obama has added that the U.S. will not favor unilateral approach either. The U.S. administration is prepared to use force, if necessary. It will take muscular action only by taking allies together.

Refuting his critics who accuse the Obama administration of failure to establish its global supremacy seen its hesitancy to apply military force to resolve the civil war in Syria, he has clarified that not every problem has a military solution. This has been favorably received by those who fear that America might be tempted to use its military muscle in resolving problems around the world. America’s involvement in Iraq war (2003) even without UN authorization and its leadership of military coalition against the Qaddafi government resulting in regime change (2011) have aroused apprehension among the militarily weaker nations of the developing world.

Regarding the threats to global peace and security, Obama has identified terrorism as the most serious one and he points to Al Qaeda affiliates as the most active terrorist entities at the present time. His reference to places in Yemen, Mali and Nigeria underscores the view that the U.S considers the remnants of Al Qaeda to be of deep security concern. This is why his administration has announced a new program of assistance to the above countries in fighting terrorism. $ 5 billion would be allocated to Terrorism Partnership Fund, which would assist the terrorism-affected countries in North Africa to take effective counter terrorism measures.

President Obama has warned not to misread U.S. policy as being isolationist only because America has refrained from using military force in Syria to end the crisis there. It has also been made obvious that withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan is not the symbol of decline of U.S. role in managing global affairs. President Obama has also rejected the arguments that the U.S. should retreat from its post-World War II centrality in global affairs (Mark Lander The New York Times).

While dealing with global crises Obama has laid emphasis on the fact that no American soldier’s life will be put at risk even when the U.S. military muscle is used in safeguarding the national interests. For this objective the U.S. will put sincere efforts in mobilizing the international coalition to tackle problem like Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

But Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian political scientist and a fellow with Hudson Institute, Washington DC in his essay “Putin’s Brave New World” (Project-Syndicate May 30 2014) has argued that the immediate response of the U.S. and the EU to Russia’s annexation of Crimea was to declare that military intervention was “absolutely excluded”, given that Ukraine is not a member of NATO.

The political scientist in the above essay further explains why the Russian president will likely escalate the Ukrainian crisis. According to him, during the Cold War (1945-1989), both sides’ acceptance of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) ensured that nuclear weapons served as a deterrent and thus supported strategic stability.

In Putin’s case the threat to use nuclear weapons is a perfectly logical tactic in Andrei Piontkovsky’s opinion. He adds that Putin can assert international authority only by claiming a free hand in the entire post-Soviet space and menacing the West with a limited nuclear war if it interferes with Russia’s imperial ambitions. For Putin such tactic seems more practical given the fact that Russia’s conventional weaponry is limited.

As Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist of The New York Times has recently quoted Obama saying in private conversation that “America should not do stupid stuff”, one doubts whether the president, who will complete his second term in about two years and a half, will undertake muscular measures to settle crises, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The recourse to military action in resolving disputes is always the least preferred option but diplomacy not backed by force can hardly deter the aggression in Europe and elsewhere. However, one may be optimistic as pointed out by Shinzo Abe, the incumbent Prime Minister of Japan, in his Project-Syndicate essay “Securing the Rule of Law”. Abe believes that in today’s world, countries should not fear that coercion and threats will replace rules and laws.

If the world becomes as law-abiding as the Japanese Prime Minister wishes to see, then Obama’s assertion that the U.S. should not do stupid stuff, may be a pragmatic policy option. In this vein former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s contention (“A Manifesto for European Change”, Project-Syndicate) that the twenty-first century world order will be dramatically different from that of the twentieth century lends credence to the above optimism. Let us hope that the world turns less violent with fewer occasions to have to take military action.

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