As a venue for announcing a major change of direction in US foreign policy West Point was a natural contender.
It is here that US army officers receive their training yet last week it was used by President Barack Obama to give notice that in the future his country should shy away from the interventionist policy of the past decade and concentrate instead on a new soft-power diplomacy to settle international problems. In today's world, that will mean no immediate military intervention in Ukraine or Syria where long-lasting crises are in danger of spiralling into wider conflicts. The president had a neat turn of phrase for his unexpected change of direction: "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."
While this did not represent a complete about-turn - Obama insisted that the US would continue to take a lead in world affairs - it must have left many of the officer cadets in the audience wondering if they had made the right career move. In the aftermath of the end of the Cold War in 1990, the US has made a great play of being one of the world's biggest superpowers and the only country capable of knocking heads together.
Loading article content
In that time the US has intervened in Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and while not all of the operations have been helpful or even successful they did give notice that the US was in a league of its own as far as power projection was concerned. In turn, US forces expanded and the navy, army and air force were regarded as honourable careers which were capable of attracting the brightest and best candidates of their generations. Last year alone, the US spent $554 billion on its armed forces and recruited 236,828 officers into all three services, the majority 98,126 into the army.
These are impressive figures and they make a statement both about US capabilities and its future intentions. Yet here was the US President telling a future generation of young people trained to command in combat that henceforth the accent will be on prevention instead of cure.
There will be a new Counter Terrorism Partner Fund to train and support important allies in tackling areas such as Afghanistan where terrorism is endemic. New steps will be taken to sort out problems which encourage people to turn to terrorism in areas such as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, where disaffected refugees look for solutions not from the international community but from groups affiliated to al-Qaeda. Finally, and this will upset a few old soldiers, money will be set aside to deal with other international issues such as climate change and disaster relief.
Much of this was expected as Obama has made no secret of the fact that there will be no further foreign adventures during his second and final term in office. Simple common sense made a change of direction inevitable. With the war in Afghanistan in its 13th year, a drawdown in force levels is good fiscal policy. Iraq is also now in the past and Obama has contrived to keep his country out of Libya and Syria. Any intervention in Ukraine's dispute with Russia was a non-starter due to paucity of military resources and the danger of sparking a new global conflict. Not only would any intervention risk lives and solve nothing but Obama was astute enough to know that it would be hugely unpopular with his fellow Americans.
Tellingly, he prefaced his remarks at West Point with a solemn reminder that he had addressed its officer cadets two years ago and in that time a number of them had been killed in Afghanistan. The President was honest enough to admit that he was still "haunted" by that loss of life and mourned those who had been killed while doing their duty. That, of course, is part of the cost of leadership but here was a president speaking in his country's premiere military academy admitting that there has to be a better way than simply picking up a stick and using it.
In the war-weary US, this message will play well with the electorate but it also announces the end of something that has defined the country since 1942 and the dark days of the Second World War.
Others, of course, might see it as weakness and an unwillingness to stand up to aggressive countries whenever they flex their muscles. China, Russia and Iran will all have taken note, as will have the beleaguered people of Ukraine and Syria.