President Obama said a lot more about foreign policy in last night’s State of the Union message than many of us expected. But did he say anything new?
His first entry point to international affairs was notable: he got there via exports and trade, pivoting quickly to TTP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and TTIP, the Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe. Though he didn’t name them, that’s what he was referring to when he appealed for Congress to provide him with what is known as trade promotion authority to negotiate deals with Asia and Europe that are “not only free, but fair.” Nothing new here, just an interesting elevation of economic diplomacy to pride of place. Ditto the plea to close tax loopholes that encourage American companies to keep their profits abroad.
But after a detour to the internet and scientific research, the President was soon back on the more familiar territory of national security. He plugged smart leadership that builds coalitions and combines diplomacy and military power. He wants others to do more of the fighting. But there was little or no indication of how collapsed states like Syria, Yemen and Libya might be governed in the future.
Leaving it to their own devices hasn’t worked out well, but this is a president who (like all his predecessors) doesn’t want to do nationbuilding abroad and who (unlike many of his predecessors) has been disciplined enough to resist it. He talks non-military means but uses force frequently and says he wants an authorization from Congress to use it against the Islamic State, which he is doing anyway.
Russia is isolated and its economy in tatters, the President claimed, but it also holds on to Crimea and a large part of Donbas in southeastern Ukraine. He offered no new moves to counter Putin but rather “steady, persistent resolve.” On Cuba, the Administration has already begun to restore diplomatic ties. The President reiterated that he wants Congress to end the embargo, which isn’t in the cards unless Raul Castro gets converted to multi-party democracy in his dotage.
Iran is the big issue. The President naturally vaunted the interim Joint Plan of Action and hopes for a comprehensive one by the end of June. He promised to veto any new sanctions, because they would destroy the international coalition negotiating with Tehran and ruin chances for a peaceful settlement. All options are on the table, the President said, but America will go to war only as a last resort. Nothing new in that either, though I believe he would while many of my colleagues think not.
Trolling on, the President did cybersecurity, Ebola, Asia-Pacific, climate change and values (as in democracy and human rights), stopping briefly at Gitmo and electronic surveillance along the way. Nothing new here either, just more of that steady, persistent resolve.
Notable absences (but correct me if I missed something): any mention of the Israel/Palestine “peace process,” Egypt, Saudi Arabia (or the Gulf), India (where the President will visit starting Sunday), Latin America (other than Cuba), North Korea.
What does it all add up to? It is a foreign policy of bits and pieces, with themes of retrenchment, reduced reliance on US military power (but little sign of increased diplomatic potency), prevention of new threats and support for American values woven in. The President continues to resist pronouncing a doctrine of his own but wants to be seen as a moderate well within the broad parameters of American internationalism. He is wishing to get bipartisan action from Congress on a few things: trade promotion authority, the authorization to use force, dismantling the Cuba embargo, closing Guantanamo. But none of this is new ground.
He is also prepared to forge ahead on his own. As I’ve noted before, this lame duck knows how to fly.
In case you didn’t watch it last night and have more patience than I do, here is the whole thing: