State of the Union: Why Obama Used Foreign Policy to Address Domestic Challenges
WASHINGTON -- As he campaigned for the U.S. presidency in 1952, Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower argued that he would seek to bring "security with solvency" to the American people. Eisenhower realized that the challenges posed by the Soviet Union could too easily stress America's finite resources and a strategy to face that threat consider the economic roots of America's military power and influence in the world. For Eisenhower, economic power was the indispensable source of American global leadership.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, U.S. President Barack Obama seemed to recognize Eisenhower's insight. Obama focused largely on the economic challenges still facing the United States -- but framed those challenges in the context of recent national security victories and the achievements of the World War II generation. While Obama did focus on domestic affairs, he both opened and closed his address by praising America's men and women in uniform -- one of the few points drawing bi-partisan applause -- and took stock of a broad set of foreign policy and security challenges that face the United States today.
He also made clear that the new U.S. defense strategy would also balance security with solvency -- saving nearly half a trillion dollars but maintaining the type of first-rate military required to deal with current and emerging threats. Obama’s address included a call to learn from the shared sacrifice, partnership, and teamwork that the U.S. military demonstrates day after day, to include that shown in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden in May of last year -- clearly the most significant national security event of the past twelve months.
Obama was assertive in his description of his vision of America's role in the world but realistic when considering the complexity of the challenges ahead. In stark contrast to much of the isolationist rhetoric of the Republican primary debates, he argued that America continues to be a strong, ascendant world leader with a "steadfast" commitment to allies around the globe. Of course, Obama noted the end of the war in Iraq and the determination to transition to Afghan leadership. He also acknowledged the "wave of change" brought about by the Arab Spring and issued a sharp rebuke to the Assad regime -- noting that they would soon discover "that the forces of change can't be reversed and that human dignity can't be denied."
He praised the power of partnerships that have enabled a unified approach to counter the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons but was realistic in his assessment of whether this in and of itself would provide the solution. Coming a day after U.S., British, and French warships entered the Persian Gulf despite threats from Iran; Obama reiterated that while he hoped for a peaceful resolution, "no options" were off the table. It is telling that while facing a tough re-election in a poor economy, Obama has chosen to frame domestic problems within the context of foreign policy successes.
It is a clear indication that even while Washington focuses on a Presidential election campaign, the administration will not abdicate the responsibilities the United States has as a global leader.
Mark R. Jacobson is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund. He has formerly served at the Department of Defense and on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The views expressed are his own.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.