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
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
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 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
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
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.