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America’s TBD Foreign Policy

America’s TBD Foreign Policy

When it comes to foreign policy, President Obama in his State of the Union address said little, but his words spoke volumes. Just days after Secretary of State John Kerry sought at the World Economic Forum to defend the Obama Administration against mounting charges of disengagement, the president’s remarks reinforced the impression of an administration lacking a foreign policy vision.

The impulse to downplay foreign policy in an election year in which the economy and domestic issues weigh heavily on the minds of the American people is understandable.  But to do so is misguided. 

The international backdrop against which President Obama delivered his remarks was one of tremendous tumult, likely only to grow more chaotic in the coming year and certain to impact American interests and prosperity. In Asia, signs of increasing tension between U.S. allies and an increasingly confident China dominate discussion, even as worries about instability in North Korea mount and a political crisis in Thailand deepens. In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war continues to exact a heavy toll in lives and roil the region, while attracting growing ranks of extremists who also pose a threat to Iraq, Lebanon, and more far-flung locales. 

In Europe, unrest has once again gripped Ukraine, many of whose citizens worry about a return to the Russian orbit. In South America, Venezuela and Argentina court economic catastrophe, which has contributed to the deep shudders convulsing emerging markets in recent days. With difficult diplomacy on Iran and Syria, elections in places like Turkey, Iraq, Brazil, and Indonesia, and a far-from-certain path to economic recovery all looming in 2014, these challenges are unlikely to abate soon.

In the face of this context of global turmoil and uncertainty, President Obama’s offering was modest. Rather than the "renewal of American leadership" he referred to in his 2012 speech, or the ambitions to "shape the world" of 2011, the President Obama briefly outlined an international agenda that was largely inward-looking and defensive, rather than proactive or positive.    

On the Middle East — typically the foreign policy topic which garners the most presidential attention in State of the Union speeches of late — the diminution of hope and ambition in comparison to the president’s speeches of past years was stark. This reflects not only the hard realities of the region, but of the administration’s inability thus far to match its rhetoric with decisive, effective policy. That the President found himself in the remarkable position of threatening to veto Iran sanctions — something that would have been unthinkable in prior years — reflects the deep skepticism he faces in Washington and among our allies in the Middle East and beyond regarding his administration’s commitment to defending shared interests in the region.

This skepticism — that the U.S. is increasingly reluctant to provide leadership, whether on political or economic issues — is heard not just in the Middle East but among our allies in Asia, Europe, and around the world. Despite claims one often hears to the contrary, our allies do not welcome disengagement by the U.S., but rather worry about the consequences that American diffidence or passivity would have for stability in their regions.

Americans are right to be concerned about the sustainability of U.S. global commitments, especially in a time of sluggish growth. But it is wrong to respond to these worries with false choices — to pose war as the alternative to a particular diplomatic deal, to pose aggressive unilateralism as the alternative to passivity, or to pose doing everything as the alternative to a too-modest approach. This inhibits rather than encourages a much-needed debate about American vital interests overseas and the most effective, economical strategy for advancing them. Such a strategy — one which shepherds rather than dissipates US influence, cultivates rather than alienates U.S. allies, and deters rather than encourages adversaries — is sorely needed. 

The president did not offer such a strategy in the State of the Union address, and likely had no intention of doing so given his other priorities. But if there is one foreign policy lesson to be drawn from recent years, it is that inaction and delay have consequences — the world continues to roil, and will not wait patiently for America to resume our mantle of leadership.