With almost seven years as president under his belt, Obama came across as the elder statesmen saddened by the impetuousness of untested candidates. He suggested that with some seasoning, they will learn what he already knows and recognizes: “that diplomacy is hard, that the outcomes are sometimes unsatisfying, that it’s rarely politically popular.”
His larger message to those fighting for his job is not to give up on multilateral institutions and the international order built so arduously under American guidance in the seven decades since the end of World War II. “There are those who argue that the ideals enshrined in the U.N. charter are unachievable or out of date—a legacy of a postwar era not suited to our own,” he said. “Effectively, they argue for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history and that predate this institution: the belief that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; that the rights of individuals don’t matter; and that in a time of rapid change, order must be imposed by force.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin was the ostensible target of that remark. But it also reflected the repeated promises of military force heard in the GOP debates. More directly, Obama lamented what he sees in Western and American politics, complaining that “the increasing skepticism of our international order can also be found in the most advanced democracies.”
He added, “We see greater polarization, more frequent gridlock; movements on the Far Right, and sometimes the Left, that insist on stopping the trade that binds our fates to other nations, calling for the building of walls to keep out immigrants. Most ominously, we see the fears of ordinary people being exploited through appeals to sectarianism, or tribalism, or racism, or anti-Semitism; appeals to a glorious past before the body politic was infected by those who look different, or worship God differently; a politics of us versus them.”
Lest there be any doubt of his target, he declared that the United States “is not immune” from the affliction. “Even as our economy is growing and our troops have largely returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, we see in our debates about America’s role in the world a notion of strength that is defined by opposition to old enemies, perceived adversaries, a rising China, or a resurgent Russia; a revolutionary Iran, or an Islam that is incompatible with peace. We see an argument made that the only strength that matters for the United States is bellicose words and shows of military force; that cooperation and diplomacy will not work.”
While the Republicans repeatedly assert he has let the American military muscle atrophy, he insisted, “I lead the strongest military that the world has ever known, and I will never hesitate to protect my country or our allies, unilaterally and by force where necessary.” He warned against overuse of that military, though.