The U.S. State of the Union: Moving On from War

The biggest announcement from Obama's address was a drawdown of the U.S.'s decade-long war footing.
By: /
January 29, 2014

As expected, President Obama’s 5th State of the Union Address focused primarily upon a domestic agenda. As the executive continues to struggle against partisan opposition in Congress, Obama made clear that he would take steps to bolster the American economy, secure energy independence, reform immigration, and increase access to education. But after years of the State of the Union focusing upon issues of war and peace, foreign policy wonks had to wait until the last moments of the address to learn of President Obama’s vision of a more nuanced foreign policy.

The most important announcement of the address was President Obama’s confirmation that 2014 would be the final year of a sizable troop deployment in Afghanistan and limiting any future role in the country to, “carry[ing] out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaeda.” President Obama’s appetite for conflict has long been diminished as he has spent his presidency dealing with two wars alongside fears that these very same conflicts were inspiring the next generation of militants. And while President Obama made clear that terrorist threats have evolved and remain a prescient danger – listing threats posed by groups in Yemen, Mali, Iraq, and Somalia, respectively – he countered, “I will not send our troops into harm's way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts.”

This proposed drawdown of the United States’ decade-long war footing offers a new opportunity for diplomacy and American foreign policy in 2015 and explains Obama’s continued reluctance to get embroiled in the continuing Syrian civil war as well as his soft words concerning continuing unrest in the streets of Kiev: “In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully and to have a say in their country's future.” This softening was also reflected in renewed called for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison and his promise of hitherto unclear reforms of the U.S. intelligence community’s surveillance programs to protect privacy rights.

Reflecting a move toward diplomacy and engagement à la JFK or Ronald Reagan, President Obama made clear that he would veto a mooted congressional bill to increase sanctions on Iran while imploring Iranian leaders to take advantage of détente by continuing to take concrete action to drawdown its nuclear portfolio of uranium in the hope of re-engaging Iran into “the community of nations” eleven years after former President George W. Bush first categorized Iran as a member of “the axis of evil.” This willingness to engage in seemingly intractable international political dilemmas was also clear in Obama’s announcement of U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s recent attempts to secure a lasting agreement between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of providing “an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the state of Israel.”

In dealing with these “sexy” topics of international affairs, President Obama more or less ignored a variety of immediate international challenges both across the oceans and much closer to home. The most glaring omission from the Address was his very own “pivot to Asia,” the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, and the United States’ relationship with China. The Address contained only two barbs directed toward China concerning its threat as a competitor while Japan and South Korea both failed to get a mention at all. This is somewhat surprising given the real geopolitical challenges in East Asia and its importance to the U.S. and global economy. States undergoing political transformation were also given short shrift with Tunisia the only state mentioned by name and Egypt conspicuous by its absence despite obvious U.S. interests in Cairo. Meanwhile, Europe and its constituent states – with an alliance the “strongest the world has ever known” – were also largely ignored outside of the potential of the Transatlantic Trade and Partnership Agreement to bolster American exports. This omission is much less surprising given recent disagreement and the well-developed relationships between the U.S. government and European capitals but does not excuse the Address’s failure to comment on relations in its own neighbourhood.

Canada and Mexico failed to get a mention, despite a declining balance of trade between NAFTA countries. Indeed, this omission may justify Ottawa’s attempts to escape the gravitational pull of its neighbour and Mexico’s fears that “insourcing” will lead to its “outsourcing.” In facing the common challenges posed by transnational crime, drug cartels, and illegal immigration, there was not one word on this most obvious of stages. If nothing else, this was a missed opportunity.

Taken together, the focus of the address upon the end of a U.S. in war time and the omissions noted above paint the picture of a United States focused upon moving past the spectre of war and towards its own re-engagement with the international community on the world’s hardest challenges. More than any other, this State of the Union Address offered a glimmer of the future of a diplomatic foreign policy less reliant upon its military might. Come 2015, we will begin to have a sense of what tactics the Obama administration might employ and whether negotiations, sanctions, and limited military operations are enough to uphold both fundamental tenets of international law and America’s national interest.