But the world is changing with accelerating speed. This presents opportunity, but also new dangers. We know all too well, after 9/11, just how technology and globalization has put power once reserved for states in the hands of the individual, raising the capacity of terrorists to do harm. Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors. From Brazil to India, rising middle classes compete with our own, and governments seek a greater say in global forums. And even as developing nations embrace democracy and market economies, 24 hours news and pervasive social media makes it impossible to ignore sectarian conflicts, failing states and popular uprisings that might have received only passing notice a generation ago.
It will be your generation’s task to respond to this new world. The question we face – the question you will face – is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.
This question isn’t new. At least since George Washington served as Commander-in-Chief, there have been those who warned against foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being. Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. Not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges at home, that view is shared by many Americans.
A different view, from interventionists on the left and right, says we ignore these conflicts at our own 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 aggression in the future.
Each side can point to history to support its claims. But I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment. It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. If nuclear materials are not secure, that could pose a danger in American cities. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened groups to come after us increases. Regional aggression that goes unchecked – in southern Ukraine, the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world – will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military.
Beyond these narrow rationales, I believe we have a real stake – an abiding self-interest – in making sure our children grow up in a world where school-girls are not kidnapped; where individuals aren’t slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political beliefs. I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative – it also helps keep us safe.
But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, 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; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.”
Like Eisenhower, this generation of men and women in uniform know all too well the wages of war. That includes those of you at West Point. Four of the service-members who stood in the audience when I announced the surge of our forces in Afghanistan gave their lives in that effort. More were wounded. I believe America’s security demanded those deployments. But I am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds. And I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.