U.S. President Barack Obama delivered the following remarks at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., commencement ceremony on May 28, 2014.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you, General Caslen, for that introduction. General Trainor, General Clarke, 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 Army.
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 line. (Laughter.)
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. (Laughter, applause.)
Let me just say that nobody ever did that for me when I was in school.
I know you join me in extending a word of thanks to your families. 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 families. (Applause.)
It 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. (Cheers, applause.)
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-Qaida'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-Qaida's leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more. (Cheers, applause.) And through it all, we've 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 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 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. (Applause.) So the United States 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 globalization has put power once reserved for states in the hands of 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, 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 the globe.
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 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 increases. 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 schoolgirls are not kidnapped; where individuals aren't 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 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 leveling with the American people about the sacrifices 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 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'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.