Unlike past State of the Union addresses, which have placed emphasis on future planning and challenges, the latest Obama speech was concrete and detailed; it urged people to reevaluate America’s strength and the opinion that Obama’s foreign policy is weak.
First, America is in decline but still shows signs of strong growth. In 2008, the financial crisis originating in America, as well as the two anti-terrorist wars, weakened its economic power and international influence. The Obama administration's promise of revitalizing economic power did not really appear in its first term. In the past two years, America’s economic recovery and increased employment have been signs of its overcoming the crisis. America’s self-healing ability is now more visible. It is becoming less dependent on oil and going full speed ahead in developing and utilizing new energies, making America a front-runner in the aggressive new economic revolution. The foundation is now created for relatively long-term economic development in the future. The short-term reduction in defense spending will completely reverse as the American economy recovers; its military advantage is hard for other countries to challenge and will only continue. It can be said that America’s apparent decline in the last few years will end early.
Second, American diplomacy may be in a quandary but it is still capable. Due to global defense cutbacks and the previous administration’s diplomatic legacy, the Obama administration’s effective areas and topics are often known for their volatility. The issues in the Middle East, North Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and the Asia-Pacific region have all demonstrated this. The Republican victory in the last midterm elections made more analysts believe that Obama would not be able to accomplish anything in the remaining two years. In fact, Obama’s efforts in establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, the China-U.S. climate change agreement, as well as other ground-breaking diplomatic maneuvers, were all unveiled in this period. The recent State of the Union address further confirmed America’s improved relations with Latin American countries, its joint efforts with China in adjusting to climate changes and its attempts at nuclear talks with Iran. Obama classified both the Islamic State and Russia as American targets, which demonstrated that American diplomacy is not compromising; whether these measures are wise and effective remain to be seen.
Third, is American policy toward China more inflexible or constructive? The State of the Union mentioned “China” three times, and “Beijing” once. Obama’s emphasis on America deciding the trade rules, not China, is in fact an acknowledgement of the decreasing difference between the two countries’ economic strength. Obama’s statement is pressuring Congress and supports his promotion of the free trade agreement between America and European and Asia-Pacific countries. It also aims to soothe domestic fears about a growing Chinese economy. Joint efforts by China and the U.S. on climate adjustment will not only mean a turning point in global climate talks, but are also key to whether the most important diplomatic goal in the Obama administration can be realized. Of course, Obama’s attitude about its joint anti-terrorism efforts with China is also a positive sign. It can be foreseen that China-U.S. relations will deepen and become more effective in collaborations in the coming year.
The recent State of the Union address is Obama’s high-profile summary of his past six years. It will help alter people’s view that the changes in Congress are stifling him. Of course, Obama is clearly aware that whether or not his foreign and domestic motions can be realized is dependent on whether America can establish a healthy political environment. American politics have been divided for too long and too deeply. If the polarized domestic atmosphere does not change, any American administration’s efforts to realize ambitious domestic and foreign political goals will be very difficult.
Original publication note: The author is a professor at the Institute of Diplomacy.