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The State of the Union: Five Foreign Policy Takeaways

NOTE: This guest post was written by Angelo Piro. Angelo is a student majoring in Diplomacy and International Relations and Economics at Seton Hall University. Angelo’s focus has been on the role of international organizations in development and good governance, recently studying the prevention of electoral violence from an international perspective. He is fluent in English and Spanish, and has a working knowledge of Russian. Angelo has interned with the office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and will be studying at Dubrovnik International University this coming semester. He writes for the Diplomatic Envoy.


At 9 o’clock last night, President Obama made his sixth State of the Union address to speak to the nation, and more importantly, the new Congress, about his view of the state of our nation and his vision for the direction of his administration for the year. While most of the leaked talking points seem to favor domestic issues such as the economy, taxes and immigration, recent events around the world required the President to address some aspects of his foreign policy. With issues like Iran, Cuba, Ukraine, and even more recent events in Paris and Yemen, what will the President choose to focus on and how will he choose to present his direction on these and other pressing matters of foreign policy? Here are five major takeaways from President Obama’s address:

Victory Lap
One of the major points of the President’s speech is to praise the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He made this quite important in his speech, as it was the first mention of foreign policy in his hour long speech, emphasizing the draw down from nearly 160,000 troops deployed at the beginning of his tenure to now under 15,000 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 praising the work of Secretary of State John Kerry in negotiating a peaceful democratic transition amid a much contested election.

However, while the withdrawal received much acclaim from the President, this does not mean that US involvement in the Middle East is over. Mr. Obama took great lengths to mention America’s work in building and leading the anti-ISIS coalition and went on to ask for legislation allowing not only aid to moderate forces in Syria and Iraq, but also a congressional authorization of force against ISIS. This, paired with a rather hawkish statement retaining the right to act through unilateral military action, means that the US counterterrorism momentum will not end. It will merely shift to focus on ISIS and likely rising threats in Yemen.

Counter Russia and China
In his hour long address, President Obama saved direct disapproval and challenges for only two states, Russia and China. The President recalled America’s work to isolate and dissuade Russian aggression in Ukraine, part of his ‘smart leadership’ approach, calling Russian actions bullying and putting the Russian Federation’s situation in stark perspective. He also took a moment to answer his critics, who thought President Putin the winner of the whole exchange, which was a clear rebuke of some of his new colleagues in the 114th Congress.

China held the honor of being the most mentioned nation in the entire address. Mr. Obama took lengths to seek to challenge China over the next few years. While there was an acknowledgement of cooperation in a recent deal on climate change, it was made clear that America would continue to challenge China in issues ranging from maritime border disputes to trade policy, with the President specifically calling on Congress to grant him new trade promotion authority to help “write the rules” for trade in Asia.

New Age of Rapprochement
Beyond recalling past accomplishments and future battles, the President also chose to lay out his path towards a more diplomatic approach using the examples of Iran and Cuba. Mr. Obama praised the progress made in negotiations with Iran and asked for more time for talks to bear fruit, even threatening to veto any additional sanctions that come to his desk, despite notable support for sanctions from Democrats. On Cuba, arguably his most controversial foreign policy decision of late, he asked for the help in establishing an embassy and lifting of the embargo. These approaches go along with a major theme of the President’s address, which was the importance of diplomacy and smart leadership over force.

However, with much of the President’s past rapprochements faltering, like his work with Myanmar, or failing, such as his reset with Russia, it will be interesting to see how this perception of a more focused approach will turn out.

Investing in Global Humanitarian Responses
One note of bipartisan praise in the address was on the issue of Ebola in West Africa. The President applauded Congress for their work to respond to the disease, yet made it clear that the work was not done. Yet, in a somewhat surprising note, the President made a surprising call not only to Congress, but to the world at large. Mr. Obama asked the world to “build a more effective global effort” to respond to challenges like this, calling for investment in development and poverty eradication. This focus on a global response could mean that the US may lead a charge to improve or increase existing UN or other response infrastructure, such as the underfunded WHO or 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 rising threats from terrorism around the world. Beyond mentions of ISIS and recent attacks in Paris and Pakistan, little was made about rising instability and the growing power of certain groups. 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 instability in Yemen means that more action needs to be taken.

One other topic not touched upon was the President’s pivot towards Asia, a major policy shift early in his presidency that has seemed to have been shelved by an administration that has become distracted by a redeployment to the Middle East, battles brewing in Eastern Europe and steps made in our own hemisphere. The president made little mention of his Asia policy beyond mentions of China and generalities of the region. This may signal that the pivot towards Asia may have been stalled for the remainder of the President’s term.

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