09/08/2014 05:26 EDT | Updated 11/08/2014 05:59 EST

America can't do all the world's heavy lifting, U.S. president suggests

WASHINGTON - The president of the United States admits he's feeling a little tired, sometimes, dealing with the problems of the rest of the world.

Barack Obama has become increasingly vocal about the need for other countries to pull their own weight in this turbulent geopolitical season, notably against the windstorms from Russia and ISIL.

Now some off-the-cuff remarks offer a clearer window into his view of America's role as global problem-solver.

What they reveal are mixed emotions.

In a weekend interview with NBC, he said he was proud that others still view America as the "only indispensable nation," and invigorated to see that U.S. leadership can make a difference.

But the leader of the free world also confessed that leading the free world these days can be a little draining.

"There are days where I'm not getting enough sleep, because we've got a lot on our plate," Obama said.

"You know, when you're president of the United States, you're not just dealing with the United States.... If there's a problem in Ukraine, we're the ones who are expected to mobilize the world community to isolate Russia, put pressure, support Ukrainians, and to vindicate the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and freedom that we stand for.

"If there's a problem in the Middle East, the expectation is that we create the coalitions to deal with a problem like (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant)," he said

"If there's an issue in Africa around Ebola we need to help mobilize that public health infrastructure. And so you know, it's not just me. It's my staff also. You know, our inbox gets pretty high."

There was a revealing remark in that same interview, when Ebola came up. The interviewer, NBC's Chuck Todd, began referring to how the international effort against the virus would be led by the United States.

The president spontaneously interjected: "As usual."

The call on other countries to do more has emerged as a recurring theme of U.S. foreign policy, following a decade of bloody, multi-trillion-dollar wars. That message could be further amplified this week as Secretary of State John Kerry heads to the Middle East and Obama delivers a major speech Wednesday on his anti-terrorism strategy.

Sunni countries need to step up in the fight against ISIL, said Obama, naming Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. "This is their neighbourhood. The dangers that are posed are more directed at them right now than they are us."

It's been a similar message to Europeans about the other geopolitical mess in their backyard, involving Ukraine. The U.S. has managed to persuade some European countries to ramp up sanctions against Russia.

But it failed to obtain a firm commitment on military spending at a NATO summit last week. It got countries to agree to a non-binding pledge to move spending "towards" NATO's guideline of two per cent of GDP.

The U.S. spends 3.8 per cent of GDP on the military, down from 4.6 per cent in 2009. France spends 2.2 per cent, the UK spends 2.3. Canada spends one per cent, according to the World Bank, and Germany spends 1.3 per cent.

Canada and Germany were reportedly instrumental in blocking a more robust agreement. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended Canada's position, arguing that it has contributed to international efforts.

Canada has pledged military advisers for Iraq, humanitarian supplies to minorities threatened by ISIL and military equipment for Ukraine. Speaking in London last week, Harper also mentioned the missions in Afghanistan and Libya as examples of Canadian contributions.

"Don't tell me about how much you're spending," he said. "Tell me about how much you are doing.''

One Obama critic said she's pleased to see him pressure other countries to carry a greater load. But Peggy Noonan, a former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, is worried he doesn't actually have a strategy of his own.

"He is teaching our Mideast friends the U.S. is not a volunteer fire department that suits up every time you fall asleep on the couch smoking," Noonan wrote in a Wall Street Journal column.

"In the meantime he is coolly watching new alliances form — wasn't that the Kurds the other day fighting alongside the Iranians? Mr. Obama's supporters frankly hope that there's a method to the madness, that he is quietly, behind the scenes and with great subtlety pulling together a coalition that will move."

In that NBC interview, Obama said his strategy will not involve thousands of combat troops. He said the U.S. can't go around serially occupying Middle Eastern countries whenever there are problems.

"We don't have the resources. It puts enormous strains on our military. And at some point, we leave. And then things blow up again," Obama said.

Follow @alex_panetta on Twitter