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  • The 2014 State of the Union: A new era of American restraint abroad?

    By Claire McNear, on 29 January 2014

    By Claire McNear

    In last night’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama appeared to signal the advent of a less aggressive American grand strategy, saying that the nation “must move off a permanent war footing.”

    Arguing that American security “cannot depend on…military alone,” Obama said that he “will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow [them] to be mired in open-ended conflicts.”

    By all accounts, it’s been a tough year for Obama – he has faced intense scrutiny for everything from the NSA and PRISM revelations to the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The annual State of the Union address is a rare opportunity for the commander in chief to dictate conversation, and, to some extent, subsequent policy debate. For Obama, this might have been his last real chance to do so – by next January, national attention will have shifted to the contest for Obama’s successor (indeed, some are out of the gate early, however strangely). The 2015 speech will come nearly three months after the midterm elections, which is often when you start hearing the words “lame duck” murmured in dark Capitol corners.

    State of the Union addresses typically focus largely on domestic affairs – and this one did, highlighting education issues and the financial recovery, with some of the night’s biggest applause coming after announcing a proposal to increase the federal minimum wage – though they can serve as a springboard for foreign policy. See, for instance, George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, which (in)famously laid out the so-called “Axis of Evil” – Iran, Iraq, and North Korea – which Bush credited, along with “their terrorist allies,” with “arming to threaten the peace of the world.” That speech served as a cornerstone of the philosophical justification of the War on Terror, and, a year later, of the US-sponsored invasion of Iraq.

    Obama used last night’s speech to reinforce the idea of a new, quieter era of American foreign policy. In discussing Iran, which recently reached a short-term agreement with the international community to cease uranium enrichment in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions, Obama applauded the virtues of diplomatic negotiation over force. “For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” he said, adding that the success of the Iranian agreement would mean the resolution of “one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.” Though much has happened (and not happened) since then, this is the same leader who said in 2007 that as president he would “engage in aggressive personal diplomacy” with Iran, and sit down with Iranian leaders (among others) without preconditions.

    Still, Obama made a point last night of saying that there are limits to any diplomatic overtures – he will readily use force where American national security is threatened, and this may be the fatal flaw of any quieter strategy. “As commander in chief,” he said, “I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office.”

    Protection of the American people remains a fuzzy objective; shortly after hinting at a new international reticence, Obama laid out a wide-ranging list of international items that will “help promote [America’s] long-term security,” among them democracy-building in Tunisia and Burma and support of American allies in the Asia-Pacific.

    The latter goal has been a tricky one for the United States over the last year, as tensions flared between China, Japan, and South Korea. In 2011, the Obama Administration and State Department signaled a policy shift in the Asia-Pacific region: the United States would redouble its diplomatic efforts there (i.e. away from the Middle East), more or less as a response to Chinese economic and military growth. This strategy was originally referred to as a “pivot” to Asia, though government and military officials now use the softer “rebalance” instead, which some have worried signals a similar softening of commitment to Asian allies. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Sheila A. Smith was quick to note that last night’s State of the Union failed to address either a pivot or a rebalance – instead, she wrote, just plans to “continue to pursue American interests.”

    Does Obama’s speech mean we will see a more restrained America? According to a recent Pew survey, an incredible 52% of Americans said they believe “that the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” (this number usually falls between 20 and 40%). Outright isolationism is rather unlikely, to put it mildly, but Obama seemed to understand that his audience last night was war-weary: he noted that all US troops have left Iraq, with another 60,000 back from Afghanistan.

    American restraint is, perhaps, relative. Some 37,500 American troops remain in Afghanistan today along with a smaller cohort of NATO and other international partners; an agreement sent before Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (which officials say he may well reject) would leave 10,000 American troops in the country after the end of this year, when the NATO mission officially concludes. And while the last US troops left Iraq in December 2011, the US Embassy in Baghdad retains a staff of nearly 6,000, and thousands more American contractors remain in the country.

    Still, we can take President Obama’s speech as an indication that the United States of 2014 is serious about a commitment to diplomacy over force wherever possible. The recent diplomatic détente with Iran may come to be one of the greater foreign policy victories of the Obama White House. In his speech, Obama directly threatened Congressional Republicans, who have been making noise about disrupting the Iran negotiations by introducing a new sanctions bill. Obama’s eagerness to use diplomacy, coupled with an American public dreaming of an era of isolationism, could signal a new era of American restraint.

    Also of note:

    – Also mentioned was Guantanamo Bay, the United States’ 12-year-old exercise in illegal detention and public condemnation, with Obama calling for this to be the year that the prison is finally closed. The President promised to close the prison within a year of taking office in January 2009; 155 detainees remain imprisoned as of this month.

    – Obama stopped just short of criticizing Russia for its recent anti-gay statements and policies. “[W]e believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation,” he said. “And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” This received raucous applause, but seemed not to get quite where it meant to – Team USA’s official White House delegation, of which the President and First Lady will not be a part, features two openly gay athletes, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow. As the delegation was personally selected by President Obama, their inclusion has been widely viewed as a rebuke of Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has urged gay visitors to “leave kids alone,” whilst the mayor of Sochi has declared that there are no homosexuals in the city. So we can see the latter bit of Obama’s comments as meant to be less about the glory of manly sports, and more about reminding his Russian counterpart that Team USA will be bringing along red, white, and blue as part of a wider spectrum.