State Of the Union’s Foreign Policy: Addressing Today’s Challenges Working for Tomorrow’s Opportunities

February 13, 2013

Last night’s State of the Union address set out a two-part clear vision for America’s role in the world. First, America will engage with security challenges effectively, by completing transitions away from combat in Afghanistan and towards a sustainable, values-led counter-terrorism policy; stand firm on diminishing the role of outdated nuclear weapons and lead global opposition to those who seek to acquire them; and prepare to meet the new challenges of cybersecurity. At the same time, the world presents a host of opportunities for engaged American leadership:  expanding trade, addressing climate change, combatting poverty, partnering with democratic reformers in ways that promote others’ interests – and our own.


Safely concluding U.S. combat in Afghanistan to put Afghans in the lead for their own security.  In the State of the Union speech, President Obama committed, “This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”

This approach fits squarely with what top experts have been advocating for some time as an appropriate, effective way forward. As Lieutenant General David Barno (ret.), former commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, has previously explained, “A deep reduction in U.S. conventional forces would make clear that the Afghan security forces –and President Hamid Karzai — were unequivocally taking ownership of the war.” Further, the Afghanistan security forces are sufficiently capable to provide for their own security. “Best estimates put the Taliban strength today at about 30,000 fighters. By next month, Afghan army and police forces will have reached their target strength of 352,000. In the next few years, they will be supported by unchallenged U.S. airpower, drones capable of downloading video or missiles, and adept counter-terrorist strike units.” [Barack Obama, 2/12/13. David Barno, 9/25/12]

Move to sustainable  counterterrorism policy. The president announced, “Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations… I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

Outside analysts have called for greater movement towards sustainability, focusing on long-term effectiveness, rebuilding social structures that can counter extremism, and eschewing tactics that spur local resentments, and bring US values into question. Peter Juul of the Center for American Progress explains, “the United States should formulate a broader-based and sustainable counterterrorism strategy that looks beyond the demise of Al Qaeda central and the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, in order to better use the full range of tools the United States possesses to combat an increasingly fragmented but dangerous menace.” As one senior administration official said, “We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us… [but] It’s a necessary part of what we do… We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’ ”[Barack Obama, 2/12/13. Peter Juul, 2/6/13. Washington Post, 10/23/12]

Reducing the role of outdated nuclear weapons, and preventing the spread of nuclear materials. President Obama said that “we will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands – because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead.”

Bipartisan security leaders and senior military officials have long said that the U.S. has far more nuclear weapons than needed. As the Center for Public Integrity reports that administration officials have developed a plan to reduce the United States’ nuclear arsenal by one-third or more through negotiations with Russia. A study by the Commonwealth Institute shows that the reduction in long-range (“strategic”) weapons alone could save over $100 billion over a decade. [Barack Obama, 2/12/13. Center for Public Integrity, 2/8/13. Commonwealth Institute, 6/11/10]

Improving cybersecurity for an information-dependent age. President Obama stated, “America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber-attacks. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.”

The New York Times reports, “President Obama signed an executive order on Tuesday that promotes increased information sharing about cyberthreats between the government and private companies that oversee the country’s critical infrastructure, offering a weakened alternative to legislation the administration had hoped Congress would pass last year. The order will allow companies that oversee infrastructure like dams, electrical grids and financial institutions to join an experimental program that has provided government contractors with real-time reports about cyberthreats. It will also put together recommendations that companies should follow to prevent attacks, and it will more clearly define the responsibilities for different parts of the government that play a role in cybersecurity.” [Barack Obama, 2/12/13. NY Times, 2/12/13]


“Now, even as we protect our people, we should remember that today’s world presents not just dangers, not just threats, it presents opportunities.” ~Barack Obama

Expand trade that lifts standards, creates jobs for working Americans. In his speech last night President Obama announced the intentions to complete one trade deal with Asia, while opening negotiations on another deal with Europe: “To boost American exports, support American jobs and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership.  And tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union — because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.“

As David  Ignatius commented , “Combined with the North American Free Trade Agreement in Latin America and the ­Trans-Pacific Partnership in Asia, this could create a global trading system that might be an enduring part of Obama’s legacy. What’s appealing in particular about the trans-Atlantic initiative is that it could be a big job creator for economies on both continents that are still recovering from the effects of the recession. It would enhance trade and investment flows that are already powerfully established. There’s an estimated $2.7 trillion in cross-investment between Europe and America, and trans-Atlantic trade in goods alone totaled an estimated $674 billion in 2010. Trade between the United States and Europe isn’t a matter of sweatshop competition; labor standards in Europe are, if anything, higher than in the United States.” [Barack Obama, 2/12/13. David Ignatius, 12/5/12]

Engaging to address “high probability/high consequence” threat of climate change. In the speech last night, President Obama stated, “But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change… Now, the good news is we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth.  I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.  But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

Climate change and energy insecurity have long been recognized as grave national security concerns. A 2007 report from the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded think tank for the military that is led by an advisory board of retired generals and admirals, found, “Projected climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security. The predicted effects of climate change over the coming decades include extreme weather events, drought, flooding, sea level rise, retreating glaciers, habitat shifts, and the increased spread of life-threatening diseases… Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.” As General (ret.) Gordon Sullivan, former Chief of Staff of the Army said, when asked to compare the risks of climate change with those of the Cold War, “The Cold War was a specter, but climate change is inevitable. If we keep on with business as usual, we will reach a point where some of the worst effects are inevitable… If we don’t act, this looks more like a high probability/high consequence scenario.” [Barack Obama, 2/12/13. CNA, 2007. Gordon Sullivan, 2007]

Investing in the future by combatting poverty. The President stated last night, “We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all — not only because it creates new markets, more stable order in certain regions of the world, but also because it’s the right thing to do…  So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades by connecting more people to the global economy; by empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve, and helping communities to feed, and power, and educate themselves; by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation, which is within our reach. “

Combatting global poverty is an investment in the future that crosses lines of party and nation.  Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has stated, “We live in a dangerous world and a world of opportunity. Increasing our diplomatic and development resources is absolutely critical and money well spent to deal with the dangers and seize the opportunities.” And Powell’s successor at the Department of State Condoleezza Rice similarly stated, “For the United States, supporting international development is more than just an expression of our compassion. It is a vital investment in the free, prosperous, and peaceful international order that fundamentally serves our national interest.” [Barack Obama, 2/12/13. Colin Powell, 2/1/10. Condoleezza Rice, 10/21/08]

What We’re Reading

The Afghan government welcomed a decision to bring home half of the 66,000 American troops in Afghanistan within the next year and said its forces are ready to take responsibility for the country’s security.

Thousands of Egyptian riot police and conscripts went on strike to demand the interior minister’s resignation.

Lebanese protesters prevented diesel and kerosene tanker trucks from crossing to Syria.

Iran said it has begun installing a new generation of centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment facility, a move that will allow it to vastly increase its pace of uranium enrichment.

China summoned the North Korean ambassador and delivered a stern protest after following its nuclear test.

The United Nations’ top human rights official faulted Sri Lanka for failing to investigate reports of widespread killings and other atrocities toward the end of its bloody civil war.

Turkey has drafted changes to its penal code to boost freedom of expression in line with EU demands.

Angela Merkel’s main political challenger attacked her record in a speech, accusing the chancellor of stealing policy ideas and cynically profiting from reforms introduced by his Social Democrats (SPD).

The Venezuelan government’s decision to devalue the currency is the latest in a line of controversial actions taken in the public absence of Hugo Chavez.

Commentary of the Day

Shadi Hamid explores the role of Ennahdha in Tunisia is unique to the role of equivalent Islamist parties in the transitioning Middle East.

Jeffrey Lewis explores how to deal more effectively with noncompliance on international standards for nuclear nonproliferation.

David Forman urges making Pentagon dollars go further by reconceptualizing the strategy-budget process and looking at internal costs.

João Vale de Almeida encourages movement on an U.S.-EU trade pact.

Bookmark and Share