Two West Point* Speeches and American Foreign Policy

The USA is the self-selected ‘policeman’ of the world. This has led to it being involved in conflicts every year since 2000. Consequently a significant part of the annual budget is devoted to military spending. Symbolic of this are two speeches to graduates of the US Military Academy in 2019 and 2020. They were given, respectively, by Vice-President Pence and President Trump. They made foreign policy statements about the anticipated roles of elite soldiers who were beginning their careers as leaders in the army. However Pence and Trump have divergent visions of future military action.

Vice-President Pence was unequivocal about the interventionist role of the US army. He said,

It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life. You will lead soldiers in combat. It will happen.

Some of you will join the fight against radical Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of you will join the fight on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific, where North Korea continues to threaten the peace, and an increasingly militarized China challenges our presence in the region. Some of you will join the fight in Europe, where an aggressive Russia seeks to redraw international boundaries by force. And some of you may even be called upon to serve in this hemisphere.**

The interventions Pence expects are frightening. There’s no current conflict on the Korean peninsula. He appears to commit the USA to combat in the Ukraine, “Some of you will join the fight in Europe, where an aggressive Russia seeks to redraw international boundaries by force.” (my emphasis) This is bellicose Cold War pre-1991 rhetoric.

This contrasts with President Trump’s speech made a year later in the same venue.

Each of you begins your career in the Army at a crucial moment in American history. We are restoring the fundamental principles, that the job of the American soldier is not to rebuild foreign nations, but defend and defend strongly our nation from foreign enemies. We are ending the era of endless wars. In its place is a renewed, clear-eyed focus on defending America’s vital interests. It is not the duty of US troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have never even heard of. We are not the policemen of the world.*** (my emphasis)

Trump’s shift in emphasis for US foreign policy is a version of his America First policy. His disdain for America’s role as global policeman is vivid, “It is not the duty of US troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have never even heard of.

Trump’s tone heralds a new form of isolationism. Choosing to announce it to West Point‘s elite military graduates, who will be the leaders of the army for decades to come, is symbolic. Every significant defence decision is predicated on the prospective role of the USA in a global context. Trump says he can only conceive of conflicts defending the USA’s direct interests. These two speeches are of seminal importance. Pence reiterates the post-1945 settlement, whilst Trump pivots in a radical and ground breaking way to new international relationships. Diplomatic certainties are evaporating and Trump’s speech to West Point graduates is significant. America’s allies should pay very close attention to these two speeches.

Notes

* It’s actually called the United States Military Academy

** For the full text of Pence’s speech see https://eu.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2019/05/25/mike-pence-west-point-read-vice-president-full-speech-military-graduation-ceremony/1236826001/

*** For the full text of Trump’s speech see https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/donald-trump-west-point-commencement-speech-transcript

Sources

For US military engagements 2000-20 see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_United_States_military_operations#2000%E2%80%932009

For US defence spending see https://www.pgpf.org/chart-archive/0053_defense-comparison#:~:text=Defense%20spending%20accounts%20for%2015%20percent%20of%20all,only%20about%20one-third%20of%20the%20annual%20federal%20budget.

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