The State of the Union Address

President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, J
President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, listen. (AP Photo/Larry Downing, Pool)

Here are some quick reactions to President Obama's State of the Union address:

"[T]he United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth."

Agreed. The challenges that confront China, America's putative superpower replacement, are far greater in number and severity. This judgment does, however, raise a basic question: better-positioned to do what? What are America's long-term strategic objectives? Relative U.S. decline has created a paradox: by exposing America's growing inability to underpin the international system, it has also cast greater light on the (present) inability of any other country or coalition to replace the U.S. in that role.

"[W]hen ninety-eight percent of our exporters are small businesses, new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create more jobs."

2014 will be a crucial year for negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). A successful conclusion of those talks would strengthen America's economic outlook and could help to revitalize a global trade agenda that's widely seen as being on life support. The administration should seize on the (tentative) interest that China has expressed in joining the TPP. It may well be convinced that the U.S. is attempting to encircle it diplomatically and exclude it economically; regardless, when opportunities arise for the U.S. to counter that perception without endangering its own national interests, it should avail them.

"[T]he nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow."

Because the major focus of the president's address was America's economic recovery, strong statements such as this one were to be expected. His own record, moreover, reveals that he rejects a zero-sum conception of international affairs. Still, it's difficult to imagine that any country will wield economic dominance: more likely is that the "great convergence" between developed and developing countries will produce a global economy that's even more multipolar than today's.

"America is closer to energy independence than we've been in decades."

True, but it remains far away. In its recent report, Oil Security 2025, the Commission on Energy and Geopolitics predicts that "[w]hile rising domestic production and greater self-sufficiency in oil could create opportunities to strengthen American interests, the United States will remain heavily dependent on oil and the global oil market."

"We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us."

This line was one of the president's strongest. In late 2004, Osama bin Laden boasted about Al Qaeda's ability to lure the U.S. into costly wars:

All that we have to do is to send two mujahideenn to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses...This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers... we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.

The terrorist threat to international security has evolved significantly in the past decade: the New York Times explained recently that "[a]s the power of the central leadership created by Osama bin Laden has declined, the vanguard of violent jihad has been taken up by an array of groups in a dozen countries across Africa and the Middle East." But bin Laden's point is as true today as it was then.

There were some notable foreign-policy omissions in the president's address, five of which come to mind:
  1. The "Is America in decline?" debate (in his 2012 State of the Union address, he declared that "anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about");
  2. U.S.-China relations (given Xi Jinping's ascension to power and the imperative of forging "a new type of relationship between major countries");
  3. Sino-Japanese tensions (given the rapid deterioration in relations between the world's second- and third-largest economies);
  4. U.S.-Russia relations (given unrest in Ukraine and the upcoming Sochi Olympics); and
  5. U.S.-India relations (given the fallout from the Khobragade row).