Rhetoric and Reality in the State of the Union Address
You would not know from last night’s State of the Union that the world is an increasingly uncertain, unstable, and, yes, likely more dangerous place for the United States. In his annual address to the Congress and nation, President Obama sketched an image of a sunny world in which Russia is sheepishly isolated, Iran has its back to the wall and no exit to flee through, China is becoming contentedly enmeshed in the existing international system, Afghanistan is turning into a stable democracy, and radical Islamic terrorism in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is on its way to being “degraded and ultimately destroyed.” One would think from listening to the president’s speech that the United States is exercising clear and decisive international leadership while demonstrating the formidable brawn of American strength. The United States, one would have to conclude, is showing firm resolve against challengers to its interests and making sure misbehaving countries “play by the rules.”
Yet one could be forgiven for judging, a bit disconcertedly, that this doesn’t sound much like the world in which we actually live. Indeed, one could hardly but conclude this, for the real world is quite a different one. This world is one in which Russia continues to intervene actively in eastern Ukraine while holding on to Crimea, and in the meantime is preparing to be able to mount even more intervention operations like these in the future. This is a world in which Iran has refused to make a verifiable deal halting its nuclear program and continues to support anti-Western groups throughout the Middle East. It is a world in which China is by no means accepting the existing regional “rules” as we understand them, but rather looks likely to continue to press its claims—sometimes aggressively—in territorial disputes with its neighbors. It’s one in which Afghanistan remains beset by the Taliban and in which ISIL is far from eliminated, but rather is continuing to behead Westerners and kidnap Japanese. It’s also one in which North Korea is set on strengthening its nuclear and missile arsenals, and appears ready to lash out at the United States and its allies.
The real world is also one in which American leadership and resolve are seen to be in short supply. It is widely known, especially abroad, that judgments of the strength of U.S. will are at postwar lows. Indeed, it is something of an open secret that many keen observers believe that decision makers in places like Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang see this as a time of opportunity, one in which it makes sense to push on a reluctant and dilatory administration in Washington. Even allies and partners are questioning U.S. leadership in ways probably not seen since the 1970s. The recent imbroglio surrounding the U.S. failure to send a figure of sufficient stature to Paris for the rally against terrorism was only the most recent and indeed a relatively anodyne instance of Washington’s stumbling in its relations with its allies.
The president’s speech needs to be seen in the context of all this. For much of what he said, taken in a vacuum, was unremarkable, and some of it even good sense. The United States should indeed be chary about becoming embroiled in a new large-scale ground war. Washington should look to instruments other than the military one in addressing international threats and challenges. It should recognize the importance of coalitions and building global support for U.S. initiatives. It should take seriously issues like health pandemics and climate change. And so on.
But this is not a time just for calm words and pleasant platitudes about the importance of international cooperation and the crucial role of diplomacy. For this is a time when American interests as they have been understood since the Second World War are being tested in ways not seen for quite some time, and certainly not since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Eastern Europe, in the South and East China Seas, in the Persian Gulf, competitors to the United States are exploring how far they can push against the order that the United States has guaranteed—to great success—for many years. And this is happening at the same time as the sources of American power, above all America’s economic vitality, are under stiff challenge—just as global economic dynamism is shifting away from the North Atlantic and from traditional U.S. allies towards new players, many of them less than fully committed to the U.S.-led postwar order. Indeed, the overall trajectory for American power and prospects for leadership under current conditions is not a good one. Unless ugly structural economic trends are redressed and unless American defense resources are used more wisely, the United States could become relatively weaker even as countries like China become stronger.
Accordingly, the appropriate attitude for Americans today about foreign affairs should be one of urgency and amendment, not self-congratulation and sanguinity. Yet the president’s speech sounded more like a victory lap than a call to get our house in order. The right State of the Union would have touched on some of the sensible notes the president hit—like a careful and strategic application of the military instrument and like support for Trade Promotion Authority so as to enable passage of the vital TTP and TTIP trade deals—while making clear to the American people that all is not well on the international scene. And that State of the Union would have made a persuasive and compelling argument for the changes necessary to grapple with that reality. It would have tabled a real plan to lift the sequester that is hobbling the Defense Department; offered a serious strategy for deterring Russia, pressuring Iran to make a deal, and balancing China; and proposed a serious agenda for domestic economic reform designed to generate a sustained recovery that could guarantee American power for the long haul.
Sadly, this was not on offer. Clearly we will have to wait for a future State of the Union to hear such an agenda. But the sobering fact is that we—and those who count on us—cannot afford to wait too long.
Elbridge Colby is the Robert M. Gates Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.