Xenia Wickett
Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs

The State of the Union address made by the US President to Congress at the start of the year is addressed to domestic constituencies. This year, President Obama's speech included some clear messages for the rest of the world.

America is focused inward

President Obama sent a strong message that America is focused on 'nation building at home.' He reinforced the message that during his second term resources and capital, political and otherwise, will be invested on domestic initiatives rather than foreign ones. Obama's attention is concentrated on his domestic agenda, from the economy, to immigration, healthcare, jobs, education and gun control. Foreign policy issues in the speech were dealt with relatively briefly. This is contrary to many other second-term presidencies, such as that of Presidents' Clinton and Bush before him, whose agendas prioritized foreign policy over domestic.

The implication is that America is no longer willing to invest the resources to be the 'world's policeman'. If action is needed, as in the 2011 Libya war, allies will have to bear more of the burden.

Economics and trade remain paramount

First and foremost, the speech was about the US economy and how to get it back on track. Obama discussed job creation, education, and infrastructure – creating the building blocks to bring industry back to the United States and strengthen the US economy.

Obama also noted the danger of the upcoming sequestration that could result in further budget cuts of $1.1 trillion over 10 years – cuts that Congress kicked down the road in 2011 but that will come into play in March unless bipartisan agreement can be reached.

Trade also featured with Obama emphasizing the importance of moving forward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Asian-focused trade agreement. Unlike in his first term, the 'rebalancing' to Asia will likely now play out in economic more than military terms. Obama also announced that he wants to advance a trade agreement with Europe, and he may find the Republicans more amenable to advancing this agenda than Democrats.

Economics will be central to America's foreign policy whether it’s creating a level playing field, building trade links, or protecting against cyber espionage.

Security approached in a more targeted way

President Obama opened his speech almost immediately with reference to the military. He noted the damage that sequestration would do to military readiness. With regards to America's major foreign operation, Afghanistan, Obama announced that by February 2014, 34,000 US troops (approximately half of the total numbers today) will have pulled out, and he further made it clear that America's 'war in Afghanistan will be over' by the end of that year (but that the job won't be).  

Significantly, Obama also laid out a vision for how America’s security will be protected in the coming years. This will not be about more troops, but instead training and building the capabilities of other nations, and he named as examples Yemen, Libya and Somalia. He called for 'a range of capabilities' to be engaged against terrorism, and notably, laid out the importance of having transparent legal and policy frameworks to guide America’s counterterrorism operations.

The next four years will be characterized by a more modest and targeted use of the military (e.g. Special Forces, cyber warfare, drones) over large operations. 

Energy from an environmental lens

Despite the significant advances the US has made recently on accessing its oil and gas resources, Obama's emphasis was on renewables, particularly wind and solar, and the importance of protecting future generations from climate change. He noted that if Congress didn't act in response to this challenge, he would invoke executive orders. This was a moment of political reality – given the often strong resistance from Republicans (including Senator Rubio's response to the speech) it is very unlikely that Obama will be able to make any legislative progress in this area.

Significant strides in gaining a US signature on international environmental agreements are extremely unlikely in the coming years. However, progress could still be made if a subtler approach that does not demand formal action is supported.   

Partisanship is ever-present 

The speech, as with Rubio's response, highlighted the divisions between Republicans and Democrats. Congress is more deeply partisan than ever, and Obama made it clear that if Congress doesn't advance his agenda he will resort to executive action. While he would not be the first president to do this, if he resorts to it frequently he may set a dangerous precedent. Obama began his first term emphasizing cooperation, but his approach now is diametrically opposite. 

From the State of the Union speech, it is clear that politics is going to stymie any major initiative from the president, and political capital will be invested domestically rather than internationally.

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Read more:

The Next Chapter: President Obama's Second-Term Foreign Policy
Programme Report, edited by Xenia Dormandy, January 2013