President Obama's remarks at West Point

Thank you so much.

Thank you. Thank you, General Caslen, for that introduction. To

General Trainor and General Clarke, the faculty and staff at West

Point, you have been outstanding stewards of this proud institution

and outstanding mentors for the newest officers in the United States


I'd like to acknowledge the Army's leadership, General McHugh --

    Secretary McHugh, General Odierno, as well as Senator Jack Reed who is

    here and a proud graduate of West Point himself. To the class of

    2014, I congratulate you on taking your place on the Long Gray Line.

    Among you is the first all-female command team: Erin Mauldin and

    Austen Boroff. In Calla Glavin, you have a Rhodes Scholar, and Josh

    Herbeck proves that West Point accuracy extends beyond the three-point


    To the entire class, let me reassure you in these final

    hours at West Point, as commander in chief, I hereby absolve all

    cadets who are on restriction for minor conduct offenses.

    Let me just add that nobody ever did that for me when I was in


    I know you join me in extending a word of thanks to your


    Joe DeMoss, whose son James is graduating, spoke for a whole lot

    of parents when he wrote me a letter about the sacrifices you've made.

    "Deep inside," he wrote, "we want to explode with pride at what they

    are committing to do in the service of our country." Like several

    graduates, James is a combat veteran.

    And I would ask all of us here today to stand and pay tribute,

    not only to the veterans among us, but to the more than 2.5 million

    Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as their


    This is a particularly useful time for America to reflect

    on those who've sacrificed so much for our freedom. A few days after

    Memorial Day. You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may

    not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

    When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than

    100,000 troops in Iraq. We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan.

    Our counterterrorism efforts were focused on Al Qaeda's core

    leadership, those who had carried out the 9/11 attacks. And our

    nation was just beginning a long climb out of the worst economic

    crisis since the Great Depression.

    Four and a half years later, as you graduate, the landscape has

    changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down

    our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda's leadership on the border region

    between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin

    Laden is no more.

    And, through it all, we have refocused our investments in what

    has always been a key source of American strength, a growing economy

    that can provide opportunity for everybody who's willing to work hard

    and take responsibility here at home.

    In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger

    relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise, who

    suggest that America is in decline or has seen its global leadership

    slip away, are either misreading history or engaged in partisan


    Think about it. Our military has no peer. The odds of a

    direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close

    to the dangers we faced during the Cold War.

    Meanwhile, our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth; our

    businesses the most innovative. Each year, we grow more energy

    independent. From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances

    unrivaled in the history of nations. America continues to attract

    striving immigrants. The values of our founding inspire leaders in

    parliaments and new movements in public squares around the globe. And

    when a typhoon hits the Philippines, or schoolgirls are kidnapped in

    Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine -- it is America

    that the world looks to for help.

    So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation.

    It has been true for the century passed, and will likely be true for

    the century to come.

    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 individuals, raising the

    capacity of terrorists to do harm. Russia's aggression towards 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 us, and

    governments seek a greater say in global forums. And even as

    developing nations embrace democracy and market economies, 24 hour

    news and social media makes it impossible to ignore the continuation

    of sectarian conflicts and 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 each of you will face is not

    whether America will lead, but how we will lead, not just to secure

    our peace and prosperity, but also extend peace and prosperity around

    the globe.

    Now, 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. And not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing

    challenges here at home, that view is shared by many Americans.

    A different view from interventionists from the left and

    the right says that 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.

    And 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. We don't have a choice to ignore what happens beyond

    our borders. If nuclear materials are not secure, that poses a danger

    to American citizens. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders,

    the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only


    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. We can't

    ignore what happens beyond our boundaries. And beyond these narrow

    rationales, I believe we have a real stake, abiding self-interest, in

    making sure our children and our grandchildren grow up in a world

    where school girls are not kidnapped, and where individuals are not

    slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief.

    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


    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; without

    leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required.

    Tough talk often 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. And that includes those of you here at

    West Point. Four of the servicemembers who stood in the audience when

    I announced the surge of our forces in Afghanistan gave their lives in

    that effort. A lot 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 ever

    sent you into harm's way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in

    the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about

    critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to

    avoid looking weak.

    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. 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. And

    because the costs associated with military action are so high, you

    should expect every civilian leader -- and especially your commander

    in chief -- to be clear about how that awesome power should be used.

    So, let me spend the rest of my time describing my vision for how

    the United States of America, and our military, should lead in the

    years to come, for you will be part of that leadership.

    First, let me repeat a principle I put forward at the

    outset of my presidency: the United States will use military force,

    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.

    In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions

    about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just.

    International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission

    to protect our people, our homeland or our way of life.

    On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a

    direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake,

    when crises arrive 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. In such circumstances,

    we should not go it alone.

    Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective

    action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and

    development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law,

    and if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action.

    In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective

    action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely

    to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.

    This leads to my second point. For the foreseeable future, the

    most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.

    But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors

    terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must

    shift our counterterrorism 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


    And the need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today's

    principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al Qaida

    leadership. Instead, it comes from decentralized Al Qaida affiliates

    and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they

    operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style

    attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S.

    personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It

    heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a

    shopping mall in Nairobi.

    So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse

    threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch

    our military too thin or stir up local resentments. We need partners

    to fight terrorists along-side us. And empowering partners is a large

    part of what we have done and what we are currently doing in


    Together with our allies, America struck huge blows

    against Al Qaida core and pushed back against an insurgency that

    threatened to overrun the country.

    But sustaining this progress depends on the ability of Afghans to

    do the job. And that's why we trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan

    soldiers and police. Earlier this spring, those forces, those Afghan

    forces, secured an election in which Afghans voted for the first

    democratic transfer of power in their history. And at the end of this

    year, a new Afghan President will be in office, and America's combat

    mission will be over.

    Now, that was an enormous achievement made because of America's

    armed forces. But as we move to a train and advise mission in

    Afghanistan, our reduced presence there allows us to more effectively

    address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa. So

    earlier this year, I asked my national security team to develop a plan

    for a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel. Today, as

    part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new

    Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will

    allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on

    the front lines. And these resources will give us flexibility to

    fulfill different missions, including training security forces in

    Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al Qaida; supporting a

    multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with

    European allies to train a functioning security force and border

    patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali.

    A critical focus of this effort will be the ongoing

    crisis in Syria. As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers

    there. No military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering

    any time soon.

    As president, I made a decision that we should not put American

    troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian war, and I

    believe that is the right decision. But that does not mean we

    shouldn't help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs

    and starves his own people. And in helping those who fight for the

    right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we are also pushing

    back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in

    the chaos.

    So with the additional resources I'm announcing today, we will

    step up our efforts to support Syria's neighbors: Jordan and Lebanon,

    Turkey and Iraq, as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists

    working across Syria's borders. I will work with Congress to ramp up

    support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best

    alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators. And we will continue

    to coordinate with our friends in Europe and the Arab world to push

    for a political resolution of this crisis, and to make sure that those

    countries and not just the United States are contributing their fair

    share to support the Syrian people.

    Let me make one final point about our efforts against terrorism.

    The partnerships I described do not eliminate the need to take direct

    action, when necessary, to protect ourselves. When we have actionable

    intelligence, that's what we do. Through capture operations, like the

    one that brought a terrorist involved in the plot to bomb our

    embassies in 1998 to face justice, or drone strikes, like those we've

    carried out in Yemen and Somalia.

    There are times when those actions are necessary, and we cannot

    hesitate to protect our people, but as I said last year, 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 no certainty -- where there is near certainty

    of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test:

    we must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.

    I also believe we must be more transparent about both the basis

    of our counter-terrorism actions and the manner in which they are

    carried out. We have to be able to explain them publicly, whether it

    is drone strikes or trading partners. I will increasingly turn to our

    military to take the lead and provide information to the public about

    our efforts.

    Our intelligence community has done outstanding work, and we have

    to continue to protect sources and methods, but when we cannot explain

    our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and

    international suspicion, we erode legitimacy with our partners and our

    people, and we reduce accountability in our own government.

    And this issue of transparency is directly relevant to a

    third aspect of American leadership, and that is our effort to

    strengthen and enforce international order.

    After World War II, America had the wisdom to shape institutions

    to keep the peace and support human progress, from NATO and the United

    Nations, to the World Bank and IMF. These institutions are not

    perfect, but they have been a force multiplier. They reduce the need

    for unilateral American action and increase restraint among other


    Now, just as the world has changed, this architecture must change

    as well. At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy spoke about

    the need for a peace based upon "a gradual evolution in human

    institutions." And evolving these international institutions to meet

    the demands of today must be a critical part of American leadership.

    Now, there are a lot of folks, a lot of skeptics, who often

    downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working

    through international institutions, like the U.N., or respecting

    international law is a sign of weakness. I think they're wrong. Let

    me offer just two examples why.

    In Ukraine, Russia's recent actions recall the days when Soviet

    tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn't the Cold War. Our

    ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away.

    Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned the

    Russian actions. Europe and the G-7 joined us to impose sanctions.

    NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies. The IMF is

    helping to stabilize Ukraine's economy. OSCE monitors brought the

    eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine. And this mobilization

    of world opinion and international institutions served as a

    counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border

    and armed militias in ski masks.

    This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I

    spoke to their next president. We don't know how the situation will

    play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead. But standing

    with our allies on behalf of international order, working with

    international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian

    people to choose their future, without us firing a shot.

    Similarly, despite frequent warnings from the United States and

    Israel and others, the Iranian nuclear program steadily advanced for

    years. At the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that

    imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy, while extending the hand of

    diplomacy to the Iranian government.

    And now, we have an opportunity to resolve our differences

    peacefully. The odds of success are still long, and we reserve all

    options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But for the

    first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a

    breakthrough agreement, one that is more effective and durable than

    what we could have achieved through the use of force. And throughout

    these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through

    multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.

    The point is, this is American leadership; this is

    American strength. In each case, we built coalitions to respond to a

    specific challenge. Now we need to do more to strengthen the

    institutions that can anticipate and prevent problems from spreading.

    For example, NATO is the strongest alliance the world has ever

    known. But we're now working with NATO allies to meet new missions --

    both within Europe, where our Eastern allies must be reassured; and

    also beyond Europe's borders, where our NATO allies have to pull their

    weight to counterterrorism and respond to failed states, and train a

    network of partners.

    Likewise, the U.N. provides a platform to keep the peace in

    states torn apart by conflict. Now we need to make sure that those

    nations who provide peacekeepers have the training and equipment to

    actually keep the peace, so we can prevent the type of killing we've

    seen in Congo and Sudan. We are going to deepen our investment in

    countries that support these missions. Because having other nations

    maintain order in their own neighborhoods lessens the need for us to

    put our own troops in harm's way. It's a smart investment. It's the

    right way to lead.

    Keep in mind, not all international norms relate directly to

    armed conflict. We have a serious problem with cyber-attacks, which

    is why we're working to shape and enforce rules of the road to secure

    our networks and our citizens.

    In the Asia Pacific, we're supporting Southeast Asian

    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.

    That spirit of cooperation needs to energize the global effort to

    combat climate change, a creeping national security crisis that will

    help shape your time in uniform as we are called on to respond to

    refugee flows and natural disasters and conflicts over water and food.

    Which is why next year, I intend to make sure America is out front in

    putting together a global framework to preserve our planet.

    You see, American influence is always stronger when we lead by

    example. We can't exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to

    everybody else. We can't call on others to make commitments to combat

    climate change if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it's

    taking place.

    We can't try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we

    have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is

    ratified by the United States Senate, despite that fact that our top

    military leaders say the treaty advances our national security.

    That's not leadership. That's retreat. That's not strength. That's

    weakness. It would be utterly foreign to leaders like Roosevelt and

    Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

    I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my

    being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout

    international norms and the rule of law. It is our willingness to

    affirm them through our actions.

    And that's why I will continue to push to close Gitmo, because

    American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite

    detention of people beyond our borders.

    That's why we're putting in place new restrictions on how America

    collects and uses intelligence, because will have fewer partners and

    be less effective if a perception takes hold that we're conducting

    surveillance against ordinary citizens.

    America does not simply stand for stability or the absence of

    conflict no matter what the cost. We stand for the more lasting peace

    that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people


    Which brings me to the fourth and final element of American

    leadership -- our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity.

    America's support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism.

    It is a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest

    friends and are far less likely to go to war.

    Economies based on free and open markets perform better and

    become markets for our goods. Respect for human rights is an antidote

    to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror. A

    new century has brought no end to tyranny. In capitals around the

    globe, including unfortunately some of America's partners, there's

    been a crackdown on civil society. The cancer of corruption has

    enriched too many governments and their cronies and enraged citizens

    from remote villages to iconic squares.

    And watching these trends, or the violent upheavals in

    parts of the Arab world, it's easy to be cynical.

    But remember that because of America's efforts, because of

    American diplomacy and foreign assistance, as well as the sacrifices

    of our military, more people live under elected governments today than

    at any time in human history. Technology is empowering civil society

    in ways that no iron fist can control. New breakthroughs are lifting

    of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and even the

    upheaval of the Arab world reflects the rejection of an authoritarian

    order that was anything but stable, and now offers the long-term

    prospect of more responsive and effective governance.

    In countries like Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is

    anchored in security interests, from peace treaties to 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. And meanwhile, look at a country like Burma,

    which only a few years ago was an intractable dictatorship and hostile

    to the United States. 40 million people. Thanks to the enormous

    courage of the people in that country, and because we took the

    diplomatic initiative, American leadership, we have seen political

    reforms opening a once-closed society. A movement by Burmese

    leadership away from partnership with North Korea, in favor of

    engagement with America and our allies.

    We're now supporting reform and badly needed national

    reconciliation through assistance and investment, through coaxing and,

    at times, public criticism.

    And progress there could be reversed. But if Burma succeeds, we

    will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot. American


    In each these cases, we should not expect change to happen

    overnight. That's why we form alliances, not just with governments,

    but also with ordinary people. For, unlike other nations, America is

    not afraid of individual empowerment. We are strengthened by it.

    We're strengthened by civil society. We're strengthened by a free

    press. We're strengthened by striving entrepreneurs and small

    businesses. We're strengthened by our educational exchange and

    opportunity for all people, and women and girls. That's who we are.

    That's what we represent.

    I saw that through the trip to Africa last year, where American

    assistance has made possible the prospect of an AIDS-free generation,

    while helping Africans care themselves for their sick. We're helping

    farmers get their products to market, to feed populations once

    endangered by famine. We aim to double access to electricity in sub-

    Saharan Africa, so people are connected to the promises of the global


    And all this creates new partners and shrinks the space

    for terrorism and conflict.

    Now, tragically, no American security operation can eradicate the

    threat posed by an extremist group like Boko Haram, the group that

    kidnapped those girls. And that's why we ought to focus not just on

    rescuing those girls right away, but also on supporting Nigerian

    efforts to educate its youth. It should be one of the hard-earned

    lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, where our military became the

    strongest advocate for diplomacy and development. They understood

    that foreign assistance is not an afterthought -- something nice to do

    apart from our national defense, apart from our national security. It

    is part of what makes us strong.

    Ultimately, global leadership requires us to see the world as it

    is, with all its danger and uncertainty. We have to be prepared for

    the worst, prepared for every contingency. But American leadership

    also requires us to see the world as it should be -- a place where the

    aspirations of individual human beings really matters; where hopes and

    not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding

    documents can steer the currents of history in a direction of justice.

    And we cannot do that without you.

    Class of 2014, you have taken this time to prepare on the

    quiet banks of the Hudson. You leave this place to carry forward a

    legacy that no other military in human history can claim. You do so

    as part of a team that extends beyond your units or even our armed

    forces, where in the course of your service, you will work as a team

    with diplomats and development experts. You'll get to know allies and

    train partners. And you will embody what it means for America to lead

    the world.

    Next week, I will go to Normandy, to honor the men who stormed

    the beaches there. And while it's hard for many Americans to

    comprehend the courage and sense of duty that guided those who boarded

    small ships, it's familiar to you. At West Point, you defined what it

    means to be a patriot.

    Three years ago, Gavin White graduated from this academy. He

    then served in Afghanistan. Like the soldiers who came before him,

    Gavin was in a foreign land, helping people he'd never met, putting

    himself in harm's way for the sake of his community and his family, of

    the folks back home.

    Gavin lost one of his legs in an attack. I met him last

    year at Walter Reed. He was wounded, but just as determined as the

    day that he arrived here at West Point, and he developed a simple

    goal. Today, his sister Morgan will graduate, and true to his

    promise, Gavin will be there to stand and exchange salutes with her.

    We have been through a long season of war. We have faced trials

    that were not foreseen. And we've seen the visions about how to move


    But there is something in Gavin's character -- there is something

    in the American character that will always triumph. Leaving here, you

    carry with you the respect of your fellow citizens. You will

    represent a nation with history and hope on our side.

    Your charge now is not only to protect our country, but to do

    what is right and just. As your commander in chief, I know you will.

    May God bless you. May God bless our men and women in uniform.

    And may God bless the United States of America.