Read this excerpt from President Barack Obama’s commencement address to the Air Force Academy on Wednesday, May 23.
Does it sound like American Exceptionalism? Do you agree that the U.S. is still the world’s leader or is this just election year cheerleading to potential voters? What American values are emphasized? Henry Luce, founding publisher of Time magazine, referred to the last century as the American Century. A recent poll shows that only a third (33%) of the American people think that the country is moving in the right direction.
Around the world, the United States is leading once more. From Europe to Asia, our alliances are stronger than ever. Our ties with the Americas are deeper. We’re setting the agenda in the region that will shape our long-term security and prosperity like no other — the Asia Pacific.
We’re leading on global security — reducing our nuclear arsenal with Russia, even as we maintain a strong nuclear deterrent; mobilizing dozens of nations to secure nuclear materials so they never fall into the hands of terrorists; rallying the world to put the strongest sanctions ever on Iran and North Korea, which cannot be allowed to threaten the world with nuclear weapons.
We are leading economically — forging trade pacts to create new markets for our goods; boosting our exports, stamped with three proud words — Made in America. We’re expanding exchanges and collaborations in areas that people often admire most about America — our innovation, our science, our technology.
We’re leading on behalf of human dignity and on behalf of freedom — standing with the people of the Middle East and North Africa as they seek their rights; preventing a massacre in Libya with an international mission in which the United States — and our Air Force — led from the front. We’re leading global efforts against hunger and disease. And we’ve shown our compassion, as so many airmen did in delivering relief to our neighbors in Haiti when they were in need and to our Japanese allies after the earthquake and tsunami.
Because of this progress, around the world there is a new feeling about America. I see it everywhere I go, from London and Prague, to Tokyo and Seoul, to Rio and Jakarta. There’s a new confidence in our leadership. And when people around the world are asked, which country do you most admire, one nation comes out on top — the United States of America.
Of course, the world stage is not a popularity contest. As a nation, we have vital interests, and we will do what is necessary always to defend this country we love — even if it’s unpopular. But make no mistake, how we’re viewed in the world has consequences — for our national security and for your lives.
See, when other countries and people see us as partners, they’re more willing to work with us. It’s why more countries joined us in Afghanistan and Libya. It’s why nations like Australia are welcoming our forces who stand side by side with allies and partners in the South Pacific. It’s why Uganda and its African neighbors have welcomed our trainers to help defeat a brutal army that slaughters its citizens.
I think of the Japanese man in the disaster zone who, upon seeing our airmen delivering relief, said, “I never imagined they could help us so much.” I think of the Libyans who protected our airman when he ejected over their town, because they knew America was there to protect them. And in a region where we’ve seen burning of American flags, I think of all the Libyans who were waving American flags.
Today, we can say with confidence and pride the United States is stronger and safer and more respected in the world, because even as we’ve done the work of ending these wars, we’ve laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership. And now, cadets, we have to build it. We have to build on it. You have to build on it.
Let’s start by putting aside the tired notion that says our influence has waned or that America is in decline. We’ve heard that talk before. During the Great Depression, when millions were unemployed and some believed that other economic models offered a better way, there were those who predicted the end of American capitalism. Guess what, they were wrong. We fought our way back. We created the largest middle class in history and the most prosperous economy the world has ever known.
After Pearl Harbor some said, the United States has been reduced to a third-rate power. Well, we rallied. We flew over The Hump and took island after island. We stormed the beaches and liberated nations. And we emerged from that war as the strongest power on the face of the Earth.
After Vietnam and the energy crisis of the 1970s, some said America had passed its high point. But the very next decade, because of our fidelity to the values we stand for, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and liberty prevailed over the tyranny of the Cold War.
As recently as the 1980s with the rise of Japan and the Asian tigers, there were those who said we had lost our economic edge. But we retooled. We invested in new technologies. We launched an Information Revolution that changed the world.
After all this, you would think folks understand a basic truth — never bet against the United States of America. And one of the reasons is that the United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs. It’s one of the many examples of why America is exceptional. It’s why I firmly believe that if we rise to this moment in history, if we meet our responsibilities, then — just like the 20th century — the 21st century will be another great American Century. That’s the future I see. That’s the future you can build.
I see an American Century because we have the resilience to make it through these tough economic times. We’re going to put America back to work by investing in the things that keep us competitive — education and high-tech manufacturing, science and innovation. We’ll pay down our deficits, reform our tax code and keep reducing our dependence on foreign oil. We need to get on with nation-building here at home. And I know we can, because we’re still the largest, most dynamic, most innovative economy in the world. And no matter what challenges we may face, we wouldn’t trade places with any other nation on Earth.
I see an American Century because you are part of the finest, most capable military the world has ever known. No other nation even comes close. Yes, as today’s wars end, our military — and our Air Force — will be leaner. But as Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow us to make the mistakes of the past. We still face very serious threats. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, with al Qaeda in Yemen, there are still terrorists who seek to kill our citizens. So we need you to be ready for the full range of threats. From the conventional to the unconventional, from nations seeking weapons of mass destruction to the cell of terrorists planning the next attack, from the old danger of piracy to the new threat of cyber, we must be vigilant.
And so, guided by our new defense strategy, we’ll keep our military — and our Air Force — fast and flexible and versatile. We will maintain our military superiority in all areas — air, land, sea, space and cyber. And we will keep faith with our forces and our military families.
And as our newest veterans rejoin civilian life, we will never stop working to give them the benefits and opportunities that they have earned — because our veterans have the skills to help us rebuild America, and we have to serve them as well as they have served us.
I see an American Century because we have the strongest alliances of any nation. From Europe to Asia, our alliances are the foundation of global security. In Libya, all 28 NATO allies played a role and we were joined by partners in the air from Sweden to the Gulf states. In Afghanistan, we’re in a coalition of 50 allies and partners. Today, Air Force personnel are serving in 135 nations — partnering, training, building their capacity. This is how peace and security will be upheld in the 21st century — more nations bearing the costs and responsibilities of leadership. And that’s good for America. It’s good for the world. And we’re at the hub of it, making it happen.
I see an American Century because no other nation seeks the role that we play in global affairs, and no other nation can play the role that we play in global affairs. That includes shaping the global institutions of the 20th century to meet the challenges of the 21st. As President, I’ve made it clear the United States does not fear the rise of peaceful, responsible emerging powers — we welcome them. Because when more nations step up and contribute to peace and security, that doesn’t undermine American power, it enhances it.
And when other people in other countries see that we’re rooting for their success, it builds trust and partnerships that can advance our interests for generations. It makes it easier to meet common challenges, from preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to combating climate change. And so we seek an international order where the rights and responsibilities of all nations and peoples are upheld, and where counties thrive by meeting their obligations and they face consequences when they don’t.
I see an American Century because more and more people are reaching toward the freedoms and values that we share. No other nation has sacrificed more — in treasure, in the lives of our sons and daughters — so that these freedoms could take root and flourish around the world. And no other nation has made the advancement of human rights and dignity so central to its foreign policy. And that’s because it’s central to who we are, as Americans. It’s also in our self-interest, because democracies become our closest allies and partners.
Sure, there will always be some governments that try to resist the tide of democracy, who claim theirs is a better way. But around the world, people know the difference between us. We welcome freedom —- to speak, to assemble, to worship, to choose your leaders. They don’t. We welcome the chance to compete for jobs and markets freely and fairly. They don’t. When fundamental human rights are threatened around the world, we stand up and speak out. And they don’t.
We know that the sovereignty of nations cannot strangle the liberty of individuals. And so we stand with the student in the street who demands a life of dignity and opportunity. We stand with women everywhere who deserve the same rights as men. We stand with the activists unbowed in their prison cells, and the leaders in parliament who’s moving her country towards democracy. We stand with the dissident who seeks the freedom to say what he pleases, and the entrepreneur who wants to start a business without paying a bribe, and all those who strive for justice and dignity. For they know, as we do, that history is on the side of freedom.
And finally, I see an American Century because of the character of our country — the spirit that has always made us exceptional. That simple yet revolutionary idea — there at our founding and in our hearts ever since — that we have it in our power to make the world anew, to make the future what we will. It is that fundamental faith — that American optimism — which says no challenge is too great, no mission is too hard. It’s the spirit that guides your class: “Never falter, never fail.”
That is the essence of America, and there’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world. It’s what’s inspired the oppressed in every corner of the world to demand the same freedoms for themselves. It’s what’s inspired generations to come to our shores, renewing us with their energy and their hopes. And that includes a fellow cadet, a cadet graduating today, who grew up in Venezuela, got on a plane with a one-way ticket to America, and today is closer to his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot — Edward Camacho. Edward said what we all know to be true: “I’m convinced that America is the land of opportunity.”
You’re right, Edward. That is who we are. That’s the America we love. Always young, always looking ahead to that light of a new day on the horizon. And, cadets, as I look into your eyes — as you join that Long Blue Line — I know you will carry us even farther, and even higher. And with your proud service, I’m absolutely confident that the United States of America will meet the tests of our time. We will remain the land of opportunity. And we will stay strong as the greatest force for freedom and human dignity that the world has ever known.
May God bless you. May God bless the Class of 2012. And may God bless the United States of America.