The global implications of Barack Obama’s speech


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The US president’s swan song has eloquently, though incompletely, spelt out an ambitious but essential vision for a new world order

The annual state of the union (SOTU) address by the sitting president to the US Congress is invariably a laundry list of the government’s legislative agenda aimed primarily at a domestic audience. Rarely does a SOTU have global implications, such as when president James Monroe outlined the so-called “Monroe Doctrine” in 1823 or when president George W. Bush coined the ill-conceived “axis of evil” phrase in 2002.

In contrast, President Barack Obama’s eighth and last SOTU, while shunning the traditional list of proposals, sought to outline a vision for America’s future. Echoing president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 speech, which outlined “four essential human freedoms”, Obama sought to address “four big questions” that will determine the future of the US. While the speech was explicitly aimed at Americans at home, these questions also have global implications, particularly for India.

The first question focused on equality and security in the new economy. While Obama inevitably highlighted his efforts to reduce economic inequality and enhance opportunity for all Americans, a recent study revealed that in 2012, the richest 1% of Americans owned 42% of all US wealth. Similar income inequality is also evident in China, Brazil, South Africa and India. While India has emerged among the top 10 economies, it remains home to over 30% of the world’s poorest, and Obama’s words, doubtless, resound with Indian leaders as they seek to bridge this gap.

The second question identified the need to make technology work, especially to solve climate change challenges. Here, Obama extolled the need to “reignite the spirit of innovation” at the national level. This concern preoccupies Indian policymakers equally as they grapple, on the one hand to provide basic services to its citizens—some 300 million remain without electricity—while preventing devastating consequences for the climate on the other. Apart from the need to kindle the spirit of innovation, India is also confronted with a lack of adequate investment and access to technology. Despite this convergence of beliefs, there remains a great divergence between the US and India on how best to work together.

Third, and perhaps most pertinently, Obama pondered how to keep the US safe and “lead the world without becoming its policeman”. He surmised “the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with … new realities” and argued that it is “up to us to remake that system”, inevitably in partnership with others. This sentiment strongly echoes the concerns of Indian leaders of all parties that the existing international structure to maintain peace and security—especially the United Nations Security Council—is well past its sell-by date and desperately needs to be reformed with the help of the US. Again, despite this common vision, its implementation appears to have fallen victim to the divergence between US diplomats in Washington and the US mission to the UN in New York—which ironically appears to be greater than the convergence between US officials in Washington and Indian counterparts in New Delhi on UN Security Council reform.

Finally, stymied by a hostile opposition in Congress, Obama wondered “how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us” and pleaded the need to “fix our politics”. This too would resonate in democratic capitals around the world, especially New Delhi, where even the most sensible and essential policy initiatives by the government have been blocked by a vitriolic opposition keen to score a political victory at the price of a national defeat. Clearly, the two democracies could work together to make this political method of governance more effective.

Obama’s swan song has eloquently, though incompletely, spelt out an ambitious but essential vision for a new world order. Sadly, the prospects of its implementation under any of his successors appear bleak.


This article first appeared in Mint on January 18, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.