America must always lead on world stage, because no one else will

America must always lead on world stage, because no one else will

President Barack Obama articulated his vision of America’s role in the world on Wednesday, telling graduating cadets at the United States Military Academy that the nation they were being called to serve would seek to avoid military misadventures abroad, while it confronts a new set of terrorist threats from the Middle East to Africa. Below is an excerpt of his commencement speech at West Point.

MAY 30

President Barack Obama articulated his vision of America’s role in the world on Wednesday, telling graduating cadets at the United States Military Academy that the nation they were being called to serve would seek to avoid military misadventures abroad, while it confronts a new set of terrorist threats from the Middle East to Africa. Below is an excerpt of his commencement speech at West Point.

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 is 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 America is in decline or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.

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 unrivalled 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 US is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past and it will 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 globalisation have put power once reserved for states in the hands of individuals, raising the capacity of terrorists to do harm.

The question we face is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead, not only to secure our peace and prosperity, but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe.

Now, this question is not 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, self-described realists say 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 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 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 do not have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders.

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, without levelling with the American people about the sacrifices required.


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 service members 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 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 is my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we do not, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But US 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 US 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 US, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise 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 mobilise 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 harbours 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 foothold.

And the need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralised Al Qaeda leadership. Instead, it comes from decentralised Al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the 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 US 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 diffused 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 alongside us. And empowering partners is a large part of what we have done and what we are currently doing in Afghanistan. Together with our allies, America struck huge blows against Al Qaeda’s core and pushed back against an insurgency that threatened to overrun the country.

Today, as part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new counterterrorism partnership fund of up to US$5 billion (S$6.28 billion), which will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.

Let me make one final point about our efforts against terrorism. The partnerships I have described do not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves. When we have actionable intelligence, that is what we do, through capture operations, such as the one that brought a terrorist involved in the plot to bomb our embassies in 1998 to face justice, or drone strikes, such as those we have 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 near certainty of no civilian casualties. 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 counterterrorism 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 training partners.


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 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (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 nations.

Now, just as the world has changed, this architecture must change as well. 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 sceptics who often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions, such as the UN or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they are wrong.

In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this is not the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away.

Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions, Europe and the Group of Seven joined with us to impose sanctions, NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies, the IMF is helping to stabilise Ukraine’s economy, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine. And this mobilisation of world opinion and international institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, 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 do not know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order and working with international institutions have given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.

Similarly, despite frequent warnings from the US and Israel and others, the Iranian nuclear programme steadily advanced for years. But 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 Tehran government. 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.

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 matter, where hopes and not only fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in the direction of justice.



About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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