State of the Union 2012: America’s Back; Where Next?

In President Barack Obama’s third State of the Union address, foreign policy predictably took a backseat to the President’s domestic proposals. It is, after all, an election year, and aside from the wonks that read blogs like this one, there are few votes in foreign policy. In total, only about one-tenth of the President’s 7000-word speech were explicitly devoted to foreign affairs. Most of them served as warnings to contenders for his seat not to distort with his record; the rest leave the world with the distinct impression that the United States intends to keep its place as the sole superpower, but not much else about its agenda.

As could be expected, the biggest and boldest lines, and most applause from members of Congress, were given over to the dramatic killing of Osama bin Laden in March. For a President that is inexplicably being painted by his opponents as weak on foreign policy, it served as a strong, and repeated, reminder of the national security priorities and responsibilities of the Commander-in-Chief. President Obama even chose to open the text of his address with an explicit reference to the raid, saying “For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country”, and garnering the first standing ovation of the night in under two minutes.

Response to the rest of the President’s foreign policy agenda received a more muted response. The Republican candidates remaining in the race, aside from Ron Paul, have repeatedly attempted to hit the Administration’s Iran policy as weak and ineffective. Last night, the President forcefully pushed back on this idea, vigorously defending the policy of imposing sanctions on the state to spur negotiations. He further stated clearly that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal”, an implicit challenge to the Republicans’ narrative.

However, in his next line, which has been under-appreciated, the President sought to push back on the meme that has been making the rounds, which believes that the United States’ goal in sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program is a cover for regime change. The President clearly stated that should Iran meet its obligations it would be able to “rejoin the community of nations”. Whether Tehran believes this to be the case is another story.

As has come to be expected from Presidential speeches, there was a substantial section of the State of the Union given over to the advocacy of democracy. At this time last year, a much more subdued response was given to the protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, with President Obama notably excluding the protests in Egypt from his delivery.

Last night’s speech was much more full-throated in support of the changes in the region, praising the removal from power of Mubarak and Saleh in Egypt and Yemen, though not by name. Moamar Qaddafi’s fall from grace was particularly highlighted. And a strong warning was issued to Bashar al-Assad of Syria that “forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied”.

In a departure from past States of the Union, where democracy was an ideal that had to be modeled and shaped by the United States, this year’s speech noted that “Yes, the world is changing; no, [the United States] can’t control every event.” Despite this ratchet down in rhetoric, the President in that same stanza made clear that the United States is not in decline and that anyone who says otherwise “doesn’t know what they’re talking about”. These bursts of patriotism are a clear dispelling of claims that the President frequently ‘apologizes for America’ that have been made over the last three years.

As noted earlier, the vast bulk of the text was devoted to the economic condition of the country, highlighting bright points in a sluggish recovery. I’ll leave the majority of those sections, and those dealing with energy investment and climate change, to members of the team better versed in these matters. I will note, though, that China was among the few countries mentioned in the speech, particularly during the President’s announcement of a new Trade Enforcement Unit, an agency which I immediately pictured as acting as a domestic version of the WTO.

Unfortunately, in focusing so heavily on the domestic, this State of the Union included precisely zero mentions of the United Nations. None. Also left out of this speech: Africa. Even Burma, whose democratic shift has been impressive, garnered praises in the address over the entire continent of Africa. All told, the United States’ many global commitments aside from providing security and encouraging democracy went unsaid. This was a speech which intended to make clear that priority for the United States in the near-term will be “nation-building at home”.

Last night, the President announced boldly “America is back”. This push, this pronouncement of a strong and growing United States, will be used to strengthen his already strong hand on foreign policy against his rivals for the White House. This leaves unanswered, though, how the US intends to use its restored footing at home in its endeavors abroad. It seems that will have to wait for the release of the President’s FY13 budget request. Once that comes out, it will duly be pored over by analysts and NGO workers domestic and foreign alike, looking for hints of, now that America is back, where it will be going next.