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The State of the Union: Five Foreign Policy Takeaways

By Angelo Piro
Staff Writer

On January 20, United States President Barack Obama took the podium for his sixth State of the Union address to brief the nation and, more importantly, the new Congress on his vision for the direction of his administration for the year. While most of the leaked talking points seemed to favor domestic issues such as the economy, taxes, and immigration, recent international events pressed Mr. Obama to discuss aspects of his foreign policy. With policy shifts regarding Iran, Cuba, and Ukraine, and security crises in Paris and Yemen, what did the President choose to focus on and how will he set the foreign policy agenda in his last two years in office? Here are five major takeaways from President Obama’s address:

Victory Lap

In the SOTU’s first mention of foreign policy, the President praised the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, emphasizing the decrease from nearly 160,000 troops deployed at the beginning of his tenure to the less than 15,000 currently between Iraq and Afghanistan. Paired with his overall themes of a new era in American policy, President Obama highlighted the transition in Afghanistan from a combat role to a support role, additionally commending Secretary of State John Kerry for negotiating a peaceful democratic transition amid a much contested election.

However, while the withdrawal was much touted by the President, this by no means meant that U.S. involvement in the Middle East is over. Mr. Obama flagged America’s leadership against the Islamic State and went on to request legislation allowing not only aid to moderate forces in Syria and Iraq, but also a congressional authorization of force against the militant group. This, paired with a rather hawkish statement evoking the right to act through unilateral military action, means that the U.S. counterterrorism momentum will not end; instead, it will merely shift to focus on the Islamic State and the rising risk of civil war in Yemen.

Countering Russia and China

In the hour-long speech, President Obama directed explicit disapproval and challenges for only two states, Russia and China. The President recalled America’s work in isolating Russia and dissuading it from exercising further aggression in Ukraine. He branded Russian actions as “bullying,” and also took a moment to answer critics who thought Russian President Vladimir Putin the winner of the whole debacle, some of whom are new members of the 114th Congress.

China held the honor of being the most mentioned foreign state in the entire address. While he acknowledged recent cooperation on climate change, Mr. Obama made it clear that America would continue to challenge China on issues ranging from regional maritime border disputes to international trade policy, with the President specifically calling on Congress to grant him new trade promotion authority to help “write the rules” for Asian trade.

New Age of Rapprochement

Beyond recalling past accomplishments and future battles, the President laid out his path towards a more diplomatic approach to foreign policy, using the examples of Iran and Cuba. Mr. Obama maintained that there has been progress in nuclear arms negotiations with Iran. He asked for greater patience, even

threatening to veto any additional sanctions against Iran that come to his desk in order not to disrupt the talks, despite a significant pro-sanctions portion in the Democratic Party. On Cuba, arguably his most controversial foreign policy decision of late, he asked for help in establishing an embassy and lifting the decades-long embargo. These approaches match a major theme of the President’s address: the importance of diplomacy and smart leadership over traditional force.

However, with much of the President’s past rapprochements faltering as in the injection of liberal democracy in Myanmar or failing like the non-confrontational curbing of Russian expansionism, it will be interesting to see how his approach will play out as he runs out of time in the White House.

Investing in Global Humanitarian Responses

An instance of bipartisan praise in the address was on the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. The President applauded Congress for their response to the disease, yet he made it clear that the work was not done. Hinting at the global audience his SOTU would draw in, the President appealed not only to Congress, but also to the world at large. Mr. Obama asked the international community to “build a more effective global effort” to respond to human interest issues, such as epidemics, investment in developing countries, and poverty eradication. This call for a global response implies that the remaining time of the Obama administration may see an increase in already significant U.S. contributions to existing response infrastructures within and beyond the United Nations, such as the underfunded World Health Organization, or the almost wholly depleted World Food Program.

What He Didn’t Say

Often in politics, things unsaid are almost as important as those that are. The State of the Union is no different. Two things were noticeably absent from the President’s address.

First, there was very little mention of the persistent worldwide threat of terrorism. Beyond mentions of the Islamic State and the latest series of attacks in Paris and Pakistan, little was made about the tireless instability in the Middle East and the growing reach and capability of non-state militants. While “the shadow of crisis has passed” in terms of direct threats to the United States, the growing power of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the uncertainty in Yemen mean that the America’s role as an active intermediary is still necessary.

Secondly, besides an unabashed challenge to China, the President’s speech did not touch upon his pivot towards Asia, a major policy shift early in his presidency that has seemed to have been shelved by an administration distracted by redeployment to the Middle East, battles brewing in Eastern Europe, and diplomatic pursuits in America’s immediate neighborhood. Despite the stirring of North Korea in recent months, the benching of the Asian program signals that the pivot towards Asia will be stalled for the remainder of the President’s term, perhaps hinting at the administration’s outlook that a balance in Asia will soon be struck as India rises to meet China. In any event, it will be another bullet point among the unanswered questions up for grabs in the impending 2016 presidential race.

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