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Around the Halls: The State of the Union and Foreign Policy

President Obama's first State of the Union address was a pivotal moment for Obama's presidency, where he articulated policies and initiatives that will define his first term. Scholars from around the halls of Brookings offer their thoughts on what the speech means for U.S. foreign policy, and how it is likely to be received in other parts of the world.

In this edition:

  How China Likely Reads the State of the Union Speech
Kenneth Lieberthal, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy

China sees President Obama as bogged down in domestic political troubles and unable to put together workable majorities in the Congress to achieve his major domestic policy goals.  Internationally, Beijing worries about potential American protectionism, pressure on China to further open its markets and to revalue the RMB, and potential US inability to deliver on climate change goals after pressuring China to take on serious greenhouse gas mitigation obligations.

There is little in President Obama’s State of the Union Address to change any of these assumptions and concerns.  The address clearly reflected the president’s need to reconnect with the American public.  Republicans did not applaud even his tax reduction ideas.

Obama stressed job creation and exports, not free trade overall. He mentioned Panama, Colombia, and South Korea (with all of whom the US has unratified free trade agreements), along with the Asia Pacific Partnership, but did so in terms of export oriented jobs.  China would take little comfort from that.

Obama’s sober prognosis about the US economy likely confirmed to Beijing that the US will remain highly dependent on China to purchase American debt instruments, to absorb US exports, and to stimulate the global economy.

And on climate change, the president effectively confirmed that full cap and trade legislation is unlikely to clear the Senate, feeding long standing Chinese suspicions that America is asking a lot of China but will itself prove unable to do serious work on carbon reductions.

Obama stressed reforms needed to achieve long term US national competitiveness.  That is language Beijing understands. The question Beijing will ask is whether the president can get the measures adopted that are needed to move this goal ahead.

Beijing will therefore especially focus on whether this address has begun to lay the basis for Obama to regain the initiative -- or will domestic political conflict enervate the president and the country in 2010?  China’s analysts will be looking closely at American post-speech analyses and actions to parse this critical question.

  The War in Afghanistan
Vanda Felbab-Brown, Fellow, Foreign Policy

While foreign policy issues were given relatively little emphasis in President Obama’s State of the Union Address, one statement, central to U.S. foreign policy and national security, was striking: the President’s reiteration that U.S. troops would start coming home from Afghanistan in 2011.

Setting a specific timeline for the Afghanistan strategy was a highly controversial element in the President’s December speech that outlined the outcome of the strategic review of U.S. objectives and efforts in Afghanistan. Even as the President recommitted his administration to a broad counterinsurgency and state-building effort in Afghanistan and a multifaceted surge of resources, he emphasized in his December address that by July 2011, the U.S. was planning to start handing responsibility to Afghan security forces and reducing U.S. troop levels.

Immediately concerns surfaced that by establishing a specific timeline, the strategy would be undermined. Such a timeline would encourage the Taliban to either fight harder or simply wait out the U.S. and NATO military effort. Doubts also arose whether Afghan security forces can be sufficiently augmented and trained by that time to resume responsibility. Subsequently, high members of the administration rephrased the timeline as not mandating that all or any of the 30,000 surge troops would start leaving Afghanistan, but rather that evaluations will begin regarding whether a transfer to Afghan security forces can indeed start and whether any troops can be brought back to the United States.

Nonetheless, during the State of the Union speech, the President once again reiterated his original phrasing that in 2011, U.S. troops will start coming back from Afghanistan. His statement indicates how much domestic support in the U.S. has plummeted for the continuing U.S. effort in Afghanistan. It reveals the deep constraints the domestic political and economic situation in the U.S. will impose on the design of foreign policy in the next year or two even with respect to some of the most vital issues affecting U.S. national security, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  Verifiable Strategic Arms Reduction
Steven Pifer, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy

In the short foreign policy section of his speech, the President cited the administration’s effort to confront “perhaps the greatest danger to the American people, the threat of nuclear weapons.”  That reflects the importance he attaches to the issue, which was the centerpiece of his major speech last April in Prague.  It also reflects a White House expectation that nuclear arms control will shortly produce a foreign policy success:  a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) follow-on agreement that reduces U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons in a stabilizing and verifiable manner.  Indeed, the afternoon before the State of the Union address, the administration announced that Presidents Obama and Medvedev had talked and agreed that the treaty is nearly done.  Moscow is making similar optimistic noises.

Once the President has signed the new treaty, he will need the support of at least eight Republican senators to ratify it.  If the sharply partisan fighting that has roiled the health care debate spills over into national security, the new treaty will be toast.  That would be a big setback … both for the administration and for U.S. national security. 

The President thus gave a bipartisan cast to his nuclear approach, linking it to the vision of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan of a world free of nuclear arms.  If the White House can focus the ratification debate on the merits of the START follow-on treaty and keep politics out, it should handily succeed in winning Senate approval.  The new treaty will entail modest reductions below those in the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) signed by Presidents Bush and Putin in 2002.  In sharp contrast to SORT, which had no provisions for verification, the new treaty will be verifiable.  In 2003, the Senate voted 95-0 to ratify SORT.  Many of those 95 are in the Senate today; if they now choose to oppose the START follow-on agreement, what rationale would they offer?