Norman Naimark: Obama’s speech at West Point and the future of U.S. foreign policy

Opinion by Winston Shi
May 30, 2014, 6:18 p.m.

This is an interview conducted over email with Norman Naimark. This interview is part of The Daily’s “Ideas of an International Order” series, running from April 27-30, 2014, which explores the potential for evolving and contrasting concepts of an international system in the 21stcentury, and what America can or should do in response.


What did we learn from President Obama’s speech at West Point?

The overwhelming impression one gets from reading President Obama’s speech at West Point is its political character. He responded to criticisms from those in the Republican Party and even some politicians within his own party who want the United States to carry out a more activist foreign (and military) policy. They consider the administration’s actions in the Syrian crisis and in Ukraine to be excessively cautious, exacerbating rather than helping to solve the problems involved.

Obama also responded in parts of his speech to the isolationist inclinations of the “Tea Party” movement and, indeed, of a large segment of the American people as a whole. He tried to steer a moderate and middle course in foreign policy, urging action only in those cases of immediate American interest, but calling for multi-lateral action in less pressing cases.

In general, I think one can conclude that the West Point speech reflected a weariness with foreign involvements that characterizes the present mood in the White House, Congress and the country as a whole. At the same time, President Obama appropriately warned us that the dangers of terrorism are shifting and changing, and that the struggle against its increasingly diverse manifestations is far from over. Interesting in this context was his plan to appropriate considerable funds for allies and “friends” around the world who might be threatened by terrorist attacks in their own countries.


Do you think that the idea of a liberal international system is under threat?

Since the Second World War, the “liberal international system” has been dominated by the United States and by the institutions that grew out of the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and the beginning of the Cold War. There have been serious challenges to that liberal order, but, on the whole, it has proven to be remarkably durable and successful.

Putin’s Russia, for all of its neo-imperial bluster – including the unwarranted and counterproductive annexation of the Crimea – is as dependent on the liberal order as is China. The real question here is how the U.S., Europe and the major institutions of the international system react to violations of the “rules,” if you will, of that liberal order.

It is certainly another kind of challenge when countries like Turkey and Thailand reverse the course of democracy and become more authoritarian. But here, too, one could argue that the liberal international system has been able to absorb all but a few outliers (North Korea and Iran, as examples). Swings in the historical pendulum between more democratic and more autocratic forms of government, especially in newly created democracies, are inevitable. China and Iran will not always have a semi-autocratic form of government. At the same time, democracy is not inevitable everywhere.


What are the governing principles that should guide American foreign policy? What do we want, what should we want?

Let me say: I think this is a fundamentally political question and not a scholarly one, meaning there will be many answers, depending on one’s analysis of the state of the world and the role of America in it. But I do think there are several principles to keep in mind.

One is that the United States is by far the most powerful country in the world, and with that power comes the responsibility to be involved and active in the international system. Obama was right to reject isolationism in its various forms at West Point.

The second is that the United States needs to think carefully and well about “foreign involvements.” The country has launched a series of interventions that have exacted extremely high costs – in human lives, both of our own citizens and those of our enemies and allies abroad; in this country’s “treasure,” which could be used in productive and important ways at home; and in the destruction of social and economic infrastructures in countries where the U.S. has intervened and wars have been fought.

The third is that we are, indeed, the “indispensable nation,” meaning we cannot turn our backs on dangerous situations that threaten to escalate. The line between “appeasement” and efforts at peace making is not at all easy to discern. At the same time, it is crucial to back agile diplomacy with military power.


Are we consistent with these principles? Is it possible to be consistent with them?

Absolute consistency is, of course, impossible. There will be situations where intervention will cause more problems than it solves. Sometimes, military intervention is the only sensible policy alternative. Other cases require a high level of mobilization of American and allied resources – I’m thinking of the Ukrainian crisis – but where military action would not be a reasonable option.

The West Point speech was notable in the absence of any kind of “grand strategy.” Some scholars suggest that this is not a period where a grand strategy is useful. But I do think that between the poles of articulating such a strategy and reacting to one crisis after another, there should to be a strong and supple framework for the pursuit of American foreign policy. The Obama administration does not create the impression at home or abroad that such a framework exists.


Norman Naimark ’66 M.A. ’68 Ph.D. ’72 is the Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor in East European Studies at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Affairs. He is also the Sakurako and William Fisher Director of the Stanford Global Studies Division and is currently working on a book entitled ‘Stalin in Europe, 1945-1953.’


Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 “at”


Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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