WASHINGTON — President Obama attempted to set a new course for American foreign policy Wednesday, laying out a plan for action on the world stage he said continues the country's role as global superpower, but does so in a way that looks within before looking out.
"I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being," the president said in a prepared version of the commencement address he delivered at West Point. "But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it's our willingness to affirm them through our actions."
The president called on Congress to adopt the Law of The Sea convention, take action on climate change, and close GITMO, efforts he said would go a long way to showing the world the United States practices what it preaches.
The country's number one threat "remains terrorism," Obama said. But the changing nature of that threat means that the tools of the recent past should be scrapped, he added.
"A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable," he said. "I believe we must shift our counter-terrorism strategy – drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan – to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold."
Obama proposed a $5 billion fund to help build the partnerships he described, money Congress will have to choose to spend and that Obama said will be used "to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines."
When those efforts aren't enough — and when Americans have "actionable intelligence" — Obama reserved the right to strike directly with U.S. military assets. But he said those strikes will be carefully targeted to prevent later blowback on Americans and their allies.
"In taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties," he said. "For our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield."
When making decisions about how to use power, America needs to keep its promise to work with allies, Obama said, except in certain extreme circumstances. The idea, he said, was to thread the needle between "isolationism" and "interventionists."
"Here's my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don't, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership," the president said. "But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."
Obama reserved the right to use America's military unilaterally, but stressed that "international opinion matters."
In his only reference to the ongoing NSA revelations that have roiled domestic politics and led to a breakdown in relations with some of America's strongest allies, Obama said that his previously promised reforms to the NSA will help make the case that America does what it asks others to do.
"We are putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence – because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we are conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens," he said.
Working together — taking "collective action" with allies — should be the preference, Obama said. Proving to those allies America is serious about keeping its promises requires collective action at home, he said.
"American influence is always stronger when we lead by example," he said. "We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else."