international analysis and commentary

Obama’s State of the Union: too little foreign policy


President Obama’s treatment of international issues in his State of the Union was profoundly unsatisfying. Under the US Constitution, the president’s principal responsibility is to direct the foreign policy of the United States and to protect the country from external enemies. A State of the Union address ought to reflect that priority, but this one fell far short.

Obama did open his speech with a brief discussion of foreign affairs. There was the expected self-congratulatory passage regarding the on-schedule withdrawal of US troops from Iraq at the end of 2011. Likewise, there was the predictable praise of American military personnel for taking out Osama bin Laden and other high-level leaders of al Qaeda. Yet the overall treatment of international policy ultimately made up barely ten minutes of a sixty-five minute speech.  

The emphasis on domestic issues highlights a problem in the US political system. American voters tend to elect chief executives based far more on their domestic agendas than on any expertise candidates might have in the arena of foreign policy. Incumbent presidents understand that their re-election prospects, barring a major international crisis, depend primarily on their performance regarding domestic – especially domestic economic – issues. President Obama’s State of the Union address clearly reflected that understanding.

The portion of his address that was devoted to international issues emphasized two themes: thinly-veiled economic nationalism and a sometimes strident insistence on undiminished US global leadership. The first theme ought to trouble other nations, especially China. Although the president gave perfunctory endorsement to free trade agreements, even that segment had more than a tinge of the “fair trade” caveat – with China cited specifically for allegedly unfair practices. Indeed, with one exception (Obama’s declaration that he was unwilling to cede leadership in clean energy to either Germany or China) Beijing was the only offender mentioned by name.

Moreover, a major theme in the speech – arguably the most prominent single theme – was the need to restore American manufacturing and overall economic competitiveness, thereby keeping jobs in the United States or returning jobs to America’s shores. From trade policy to tax policy, and to rebuilding America’s infrastructure, the goal of economic nationalism was paramount. For countries, especially those with export-led economies that are dependent on the US market, there is reason to be nervous about the president’s emphatic endorsement of that orientation.

The second theme – the insistence that US global leadership is undiminished and will remain so – also ought to make Americans uneasy. Obama’s stress on that point seemed to border on shrill. On one occasion, he thundered that analysts who contend that America is in decline, or even that US power has waned, “don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Such an attitude is a classic case of denial. The reality is that the United States faces chronic federal budget deficits of approximately $1.5 trillion per year, with much of the growing debt held by China, an emerging strategic competitor. Washington has proven spectacularly unable to achieve an array of major, high-profile foreign policy goals. Those include making Iraq a model of stability and democracy for the Arab world, winning the war in Afghanistan, and getting either North Korea or Iran (much less both countries) to relinquish nuclear ambitions. The notion that the United States exercises the same degree of global dominance that it did in the immediate post-Cold War decade is delusional. It is more than a little disturbing that the president seemed unwilling to acknowledge an obvious change in fortunes.

Once President Obama returned to a discussion of international affairs in the State of the Union address – following a nearly fifty minute focus on largely domestic matters – his treatment consisted of little more than generalities and sound bites. America, he proclaimed, is the “one indispensible nation” in world affairs – echoing a slogan of national narcissism once voiced by Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.

On those policy issues that did receive some attention in his address, the president’s assessment reflected a persistent, and often vapid, bipartisan consensus. That was clearly true regarding Israel, for example. The president reaffirmed an “ironclad commitment” to Israel, just as US chief executives have done for decades.

The bipartisan consensus about Iran was also in evidence. There was no indication of flexibility regarding that country’s nuclear program. The endorsement of ever-tightening economic sanctions against Tehran, accompanied by dark hints that all options remained on the table if sanctions fail, was as prominent as under previous administrations. Indeed, Obama boasted that Iran is now more isolated than ever before. There was the tiniest of olive branches – a statement that Iran was welcome to rejoin the community of nations if it would only abandon its nuclear apostasy, but that option has been, and remains, a non-starter. Those who hoped to see some recognition that the current policy merely deepens a dangerous confrontation with a major Middle Eastern power found no reasons for encouragement.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the president’s all-too-brief, perfunctory treatment of foreign policy was the list of important issues he did not discuss. Relations with the European democracies were virtually ignored.  Likewise, such key powers as Russia and India were invisible in the State of the Union address. And except for the complaints about unfair trade practices, the relationship with China was snubbed. There was certainly little indication that Washington and Beijing have important security concerns – and underlying policy disagreements – in East Asia or anywhere else.

As a campaign speech that hit raw nerves among important domestic political constituencies, or as one to inspire the American people to restore the country’s economic greatness, the State of the Union was a winner. But as a speech that reflected the president’s primary role as the steward of US foreign policy, it was shallow, perfunctory, and sterile. Obama missed an opportunity, in a high-profile setting, to articulate a more sustainable and effective international policy for the United States.