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Obama Call for 'International Order' Raises Questions About U.S. Sovereignty

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President Obama addresses the graduates of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., May 22. (AP Photo)

President Obama is facing criticism for his declaration over the weekend that he would seek a new "international order," with some questioning how much U.S. sovereignty the administration is willing to cede in exchange for more global cooperation. 

Obama, delivering the commencement speech Saturday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said that "stronger international standards and institutions" and stronger alliances can "resolve" challenges ranging from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to climate change to economic decline. 

"Our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending our power," Obama said. "So we have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation." 

The president added that efforts by America's armed forces need to be "complemented" with greater diplomatic engagement "from grand capitals to dangerous outposts," more humanitarian assistance to needy nations, better communications among intelligence agencies, first responders to act after earthquakes, storms and disease and "law enforcement that can strengthen judicial systems abroad, and protect us at home."

"America has not succeeded by stepping outside the currents of cooperation; we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice -- so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities, and face consequences when they don't," he told the graduating class at the military academy.

"This engagement is not an end in itself. The international order we seek is one that can resolve the challenges of our times -- countering violent extremism and insurgency; stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and securing nuclear materials; combating a changing climate and sustaining global growth; helping countries feed themselves and care for their sick; preventing conflict and healing its wounds," he said.

The address seemed to mark a greater departure from the so-called "Bush Doctrine" than past Obama speeches like the president's address to Muslim nations last summer in Cairo. The Bush administration's approach to foreign affairs, dubbed the "Bush Doctrine," generally included a policy of unilateralism and the right to preemptive strike, among other tenets. 

The address also drew a split reaction. Conservatives claimed Obama was putting undue faith in global institutions while progressives said he was rightly turning away from Bush-era policy. 

"He recognizes that you can't solve the economic, the military or the environmental problems by yourself, even if you wanted to," said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "You simply can't do it without working with other nations, so I think it's important to start doing that."

KT McFarland, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Ronald Reagan and a Fox News contributor, said the president is moving further from the view of "American exceptionalism." 

"It's a very international sense that America is just one of many, that we are not going to be a superpower in leading the world and I think it's a very dangerous mindset and trend," she said.

Obama did not say Saturday which specific global institutions he wants to build. Obama has made enhanced international cooperation a priority dating back to the campaign and so far has carried out that goal by seeking global agreements for nuclear weapons reduction, an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhanced support from the United Nations in dealing with rogue regimes. 

But his West Point speech struck some as a stretch -- particularly since efforts at the United Nations so far have done little to halt nuclear development in Iran and North Korea

James Carafano, an Army veteran and director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, said the plodding and uphill battle to win sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program demonstrates the problems with over-relying on global institutions. 

"It's just simply not grounded in reality," he said. "It's strategic nonsense." 

The commencement address follows Obama's speech at the close of a nuclear security summit in Washington last month in which he said the United States is a superpower "whether we like it or not."

That remark touched off debate over whether the administration feels burdened by the superlative status. 

Carafano said the superpower remark was no "Freudian slip" and that the West Point speech amounted to more than just rhetoric -- he said the administration has already started undermining U.S. sovereignty with its arms reduction treaty with Russia

"He thinks diminished American power and independence in the world actually is a force for good," Carafano said. 

Obama, in his speech, acknowledged that the "order" he was proposing was no cure-all. 

"We are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system," he said. But, he added, "what we can do, what we must do, is work and reach and fight for the world that we seek -- all of us, those in uniform and those who are not."