Obama’s Speech and Fretting Allies

Obama Cameron Merkel

In the foreign ministries of America’s allies, as they analyse the President’s West Point speech on foreign policy, they will find nothing to set off alarm bells, but they will be fretting anyway. This is what America’s allies do. They fret when the United States is too assertive and they fret when it is too passive. They fret when Washington is taking too much interest in what they are doing and they fret when they are being ignored.

The reason for this is simple: alliance means dependence. The United States remains the world’s most powerful country. It has played an essential role in preventing major war by being ready to threaten major war on behalf of its allies. As the direct threats to the United States are modest, requiring it to be prepared to go to war in response to indirect threats can appear unnatural. For allies, this means that security depends on the United States honoring commitments in the event of serious trouble, and if you fear serious trouble then you need reassurance. On the other hand, if there is no serious trouble, you don’t want to be dragged into some unnecessary conflict just to show you are a good ally. It is nice to be welcomed into Washington to get an opportunity to influence American thinking, but then you worry that too much scrutiny into your defense spending or risk taking might reveal you to be an undeserving ally. President Obama is not the first president and certainly won’t be the last to wish that the allies did more for themselves and relied less on the Americans.

America’s allies live with their anxieties for two big reasons. First, by and large, alliance with the United States has generally worked well. They have enjoyed peace and security and been able to prosper. Second, for most U.S. allies, as opposed to clients and other partners, the relationship now goes back six decades or more and is deeply embedded in military planning and foreign policy orientation. It would be a wrench to try something different. It is not that they don’t think about alternatives. Most have contingency plans. But they really prefer the status quo. Any alternative security policy would be controversial, probably more dangerous and certainly more expensive. So when allies read Presidential speeches, deep down they might not feel reassured, but officially they must be reassured. They see no choice but to stick with the United States and so it is best to keep their doubts to themselves.

On that basis there is nothing in the West Point speech to surprise them. There was no new departure. It provides a reasonable summation of the President’s overall approach to foreign policy. He is pleased to be getting out of wars and would prefer to avoid new ones. He still sees terrorism as a priority but would rather fight this with more subtlety in the future, supporting others in their campaigns. When he makes the internationalist case, and acknowledges the importance of the American network of alliances, there is a sense that he is covering bases. But this is written for a domestic audience with enough not to alarm allies that they are being abandoned. His big change was the pivot, and any more fiddling with that will turn it into a pirouette. The allies don’t want a new vision; they want the old vision to work.

This is why there is a disconnect between the President’s American critics, who warn of unravelling alliances and the country’s declining standing and international clout, and the apparent calm of America’s allies. They know that President Obama is not that interested in foreign policy (unusual for a second term President) and that he is on the risk-averse and passive end of the scale as opposed to his predecessor who was at the other end. In many respects this has been a relief, especially in Europe. There is concern that the pendulum has swung too far but the President’s attitudes are not far from their own – again, especially in Europe. The President glosses over the shambles of Syrian policy, which is the big failure so far of his foreign policy, but it was a failure shared with his European allies. The British in particular mismanaged the issue. The President wants to do more now but it is probably too late. The emphasis now will be on containing the fallout.

In the speech, the emphasis on terrorism was overdone. It is not the greatest threat to the United States, although for the moment it may be the most immediate threat to individual Americans. The greatest threat is major war. Yes, the United States is the “indispensable” nation, but that is not because it is most able to provide emergency relief but rather because it can sustain an international order by upholding its alliances. It is notable that Russia and China have taken more risks with Ukraine and Vietnam, neither allies of the United States, than with, say, Estonia or Japan.

Some American critics apparently believe that Putin has humiliated Obama over Ukraine.  Yet, apart from the fact that Putin looks to have over-reached and no longer appears to be a strategic grand-master, Obama has played his hand reasonably well, taken a lead and helped organize a collection of allies whose own performance has been at best middling. NATO allies that were once members of the Warsaw Pact remain nervous, but their concerns tend to be largely about whether they are getting sufficient support from the big Western European powers who have economic and energy interests bound up with Russia.

There are more reasons for concern in Asia, because China is getting stronger whereas Russia is getting weaker, and because there are so many possibilities for more clashes and incidents. If Obama had decided to use the speech to prepare the American people for some big challenges ahead, he would have spent more time on these issues and talking up potential American responses.

My guess is that, other than potential beneficiaries of the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, no foreign government – ally or adversary – is going to do anything differently as a result of this speech. Soon there will be another crisis and the United States will have to once again have to take a lead and find the right levels of assertiveness and restraint. Meanwhile allies will say they are reassured and continue to fret.


Lawrence Freedman has been Professor of War Studies at King’s College London since 1982. His most recent book is Strategy: A History (OUP, 2013). He is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks.