Prior the 2015 edition of the State of the Union (SOTU), the Republican party was presenting it as the ‘final act’ of the Obama presidency. But with the rapidity of the world events, the domestic debate and so forth, it could be, according to David Brooks, in fact the ‘beginning of the final act.’ As demonstrated throughout his address, he talked about the values at stakes rather than laying out a list of proposals – as in previous SOTU -.
President Obama opened his speech by drawing a dark picture about the turn of the new century caused by terrorism and the financial crisis. But he quickly underlined how the American economic engine is as good as once was in the 1990s with recent growth and a shrinking deficit, that unemployment levels are as low as prior the crisis, and America is energy independent. The tone of the speech was very celebratory in some ways as he directly challenged a divided Republican party. The 2015 SOTU was the moment of turn around, a legacy speech in some ways.
The bulk of his foreign policy section came around the end of his address and consisted in reaffirming America’s commitment to ‘smart power,’ meaning a combination of hard power with ‘strong diplomacy’ – for whatever it means -. According to Obama, the question is not about whether the US acts in the world, but how. In order to illustrate his foreign policy vision, he selected three themes:
- first, the fight against terrorism. Obama underscored that the US won’t be going to war like it did in Afghanistan and Iraq (as a side note, President Obama highlighted the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan without getting into great details). But instead the US will lead coalitions on case by case basis. Nevertheless, Obama re-stated his call to Congress to authorize the use of force against ISIL. The Congress was very quiet on responding to his call. Aside from this comment, ISIL was not a large part of the speech and it does not appear that the US will be widening its military efforts in the Middle East. Europeans may have to jump in (read here an analysis on the question).
- second, President Obama took the example of Ukraine, Cuba, and Iran in order to demonstrate American leadership in leading the world. In the case of Ukraine, he claimed that the US is “upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small.” However, the example of the US standing against Russia in protecting Ukraine seems ill-advised. Russia is still very active in Eastern Ukraine and the war is still going on. The sanctions adopted by the EU and the US may need more meat in order to change radically Russian foreign policy. Certainly Russian economy is showing serious signs of weaknesses, but will it change the way Putin frames Russian national interests and the direction in Russia’s foreign policy? So the link between Western sanctions affecting the Russian economy does not imply that Putin will change his foreign policy anytime soon.
- third, President Obama addressed several topics affecting American national security such as cyber-security and cyber-threats; public health with the example of Ebola; and climate change. Among this laundry list of topics, President Obama addressed the question of climate change in greater depth. Obama re-called that 2014 was the warmest year on the planet and rejected the arguments raised by climate change deniers in Congress. Even the Pentagon, in an earlier report, wrote that climate change poses a direct threat to national security. The Pentagon wrote that “In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.” However, he did not include a statement calling the Legislature to prepare and think about American strategy prior the December Paris Summit on Climate Change.
Ultimately, the speech was stronger on domestic policies than on foreign policies. Once again, there is a lack of overarching foreign policy strategy aside from the perpetual mention of smart power. The problem is that smart power, like hard and/or soft power, is an instrument of foreign policy not a strategy. One cannot base a foreign policy on ‘smart power’ (even Hillary Clinton underscored such discrepancy). The foreign policy section appeared more like a list of issues and crises without a clear strategic thinking. Such weakness provides a confirmation to the beliefs and perceptions by a majority of Americans that Obama is ‘not tough enough’ on foreign policy. As illustrated in the chart below, his numbers have declined. In a matter of six years, more than 50% of Americans feels that Obama is not tough enough. A lack of direction in Obama’s foreign policy may have contributed to the belief that Obama has not been tough enough in office.
Since taking office, President Obama was dealing a tough domestic, economic and fiscal situation. But the world has not stopped spinning and the US has been over the last six years in search of a clear strategy going from the pivot to Asia, to retrenchment, to leading to behind, now to strong diplomacy. The feeling from the 2015 edition of the SOTU is that the Obama administration will be dealing with foreign policy on case by case basis. Forget about getting a menu, it will be à la carte from now on.
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