No Cold War II

May 30, 2014—President Barack Obama’s new military strategy seeks a more subtle use of US power to influence world affairs, setting a high bar for use of large-scale military force unless the US is directly attacked, he said Wednesday.

The President’s clear message was that there won’t be any grand new military buildup or mobilization to answer Russian aggression in Ukraine or mounting Chinese military strength and territorial claims in the Pacific. However, there will be a step up in advising and equipping allies and proxies in world trouble spots in order to combat terrorism without resorting to major US intervention, and to avoid “creating new enemies” by overplaying America’s military strengths, he said.

Addressing newly minted graduates at West Point, Obama declared the US faces low odds of “a direct threat against us by any nation” and that the world situation doesn’t “come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War.” With the Iraq war now behind and the Afghanistan war “winding down,” Obama said it’s time for the US to re-appraise how it flexes its military muscles.

The US, he said, repeating a theme he has often voiced over six years, will use its military power unilaterally, if necessary, “when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.” America, he said, should “never ask permission” from international bodies or allies “to protect our people, our homeland, our way of life.”

Such situations will be rare, however, Obama said. The US military “has no peer,” he asserted, and America is building energy independence and its roster of allies worldwide. When it goes to war, it will almost always be at the side of allies, and only when the threat is immediate.

“When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States … when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher,” he said. Even then, “we should not go it alone.” The US will use “diplomacy, sanctions … [and] isolation” as it has done in the Ukraine crisis; “appeals to international law” and, “if just, necessary, and effective, multilateral military action” as a last resort, not a first. The US military is the “best hammer in the world,” but not every world problem “is a nail,” he said.

The de-emphasis of military action, Obama said, stems from his perception that “some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” The advent of 24-hour news and social media, he said, has meant that world problems that previously got little notice now grab the world’s attention, and the way the US reacts must change as well.

The US, he said, must plot a middle course between “self-described realists” who say that conflicts in “Syria, Ukraine, or Central African Republic are not ours to solve” and “interventionists from the left and right” who say “we ignore these conflicts at our peril; that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience but invites escalating violence in the future.”

Despite the prospect of Russian tanks on the move in Ukraine, the greatest threat to the US remains terrorism, Obama declared. Despite defeating “centralized al Qaeda leadership” in Afghanistan, splinter al Qaeda groups and other “extremists” will have to be fought in a wide swath of the Middle East and Africa, he said. To thwart them, he will request a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund from Congress to build up the militaries and intelligence capabilities of friends in the region; to “more effectively partner with countries whose terrorist networks seek a foothold.”

He’ll also continue to authorize selective attacks launched from remotely piloted aircraft where warranted, and when loss of innocent life can be minimized. Such strikes will be authorized “only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where … there is near certainty of no civilian casualties.”

Although he noted that “Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe,” and China’s “economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors,” Obama said flatly that “this isn’t the Cold War.”

The US has probably been more effective in deterring further Russian adventurism by rallying world indignation and economic sanctions against Moscow than it would have by sabre-rattling, Obama claimed. This US “mobilization” of condemnation and sanctions by the G7 economic group—Russia has been officially thrown out of the G8—as well as NATO alerts and moves by the International Monetary Fund to help Ukraine weather its troubles, “served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” America played its leadership role effectively without resorting to violence, he insisted.

America “must lead” and remains “the indispensable nation,” Obama said, but how it will lead will change. He said the “architecture” of America’s network of alliances and involvement in multinational organizations “must change as well” to adapt to a “rapidly” evolving world situation. He didn’t explain how US involvement in NATO, the IMF, and World Bank would evolve, however.

Giving his address against a backdrop of a long list of international security concerns and crises, Obama called many of them out individually.

—Iran: Obama insisted that a combination of sanctions and “the hand of diplomacy” extended to the Iranian government have created the best chance in years of getting that nation to abandon its nuclear ambitions. The “odds of success are still long,” he allowed, but he maintained that “we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

—Syria: The new aid program will help fund “Syria’s neighbors—Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq,” contend with refugees, and fight cross-border terrorism. But Obama said that while the US will work to train and equip Syrian opposition forces so they have a chance to work out a “political solution” to that country’s civil war, he is adamant about not sending US troops. His approach “expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stir up local resentments.” He maintained there are “no easy answers” to the situation in Syria

—Egypt: Obama said the US is working with the military coup government because “we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests—from peace treaties with Israel to shared efforts against violent extremism. So we have not cut off cooperation with the new government, but we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.”

—Burma: Diplomatic overtures to the military junta in Burma have led to “political reforms opening a once-closed society,” Obama insisted, and a movement by the government “away from partnership with North Korea.” Progress “could be reversed,” he admitted, but “if Burma succeeds we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.”

—Ukraine: Although “Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe,” Obama said US diplomatic and economic efforts to punish and isolate Russia have kept Russia from going further, and led to the recent election in Ukraine of a new president. “We don’t know how the situation will play out,” Obama said, but there is now “a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future without our firing a shot.”

Obama did not explain how his new policy would affect US posture toward North Korea or Venezuela.

Regarding China, Obama said “we have a serious problem with cyberattacks” and the US will work to “shape and enforce rules of the road to secure our networks and our citizens.” In the Asia-Pacific region, he said, “we’re supporting Southeast Asia nations as they negotiate a code of conduct with China on maritime disputes in the South China Sea. And we’re working to resolve these disputes through international law.”

However, he acknowledged that “regional aggression that goes unchecked—whether in southern Ukraine or the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world—will ultimately impact our allies and could draw in our military.”

Obama said his “bottom line” is that while the US “must always lead on the world stage—if we don’t, no one else will”—US military action “cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance.”