Following last night’s State of the Union address — the last of Barack Obama’s presidency — experts from the nonpartisan Stimson Center analyze and provide context on the president’s remarks:
Johan Bergenas, Director, Partnerships in Security & Development Program:
Last night, President Obama said that “In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states” and that the United States, as a result, needs to rely on a smarter foreign policy approach that “uses every element of our national power.” Indeed, issues of conflicts, terrorism, climate change, illicit trade, environmental crime and global poverty undoubtedly hang together, but there is little evidence that the U.S. government and the private sector are equally systematic in integrating their solutions to solving the world’s most difficult problems. In reshaping our national security toolkit, we need to better integrate military, security and development organizations and identify cross-cutting governmental and public-private sector partnerships to create more connected responses to the world’s hardest challenges.
Barry Blechman, Co-Founder:
President Obama rightfully took credit for stopping Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons in his speech last night. This is a huge accomplishment that not only defuses the risk of an extremely dangerous confrontation between Iran and United States, but is a major reinforcement of the non-proliferation regime. Overall, however, the president — who at the outset of his administration promised to work for, “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” — has compiled a miserable record when it comes to nuclear weapons. He has retired only 500 or so nuclear weapons from the U.S. stockpile, far fewer than his three predecessors. He passed up several opportunities to revise U.S. nuclear doctrine and targeting so as to limit the role of these weapons. And he has launched a hugely expensive program to replace existing nuclear warheads, the facilities that produce them, and the missiles and aircraft that would deliver them. Costing nearly a trillion dollars over the next 30 years, this program will cut into the budgetary resources available modernize and maintain the readiness of U.S. conventional and cyber forces — the forces that actually protect, rather than threaten, our security.
Brian Eyler, Deputy Director, Southeast Asia Program:
President Obama referred to Vietnam as the “quagmire” of a history lesson that should inform our foreign policy today. It would have been timely to announce how his administration has turned the U.S.-Vietnam relationship into a robust economic partnership with critical strategic implications for U.S. foreign policy. Further, U.S. leadership and clean energy technology innovation was also a focus of the speech. A rapidly growing ASEAN will be the largest market for U.S. renewables and sustainable energy exports in the coming decades. The U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific should be retooled to build a strong foundation for U.S. investment in ASEAN energy.
Brian Finlay, President & CEO:
The United States truly is the most powerful country in the world and no longer faces the existential crises that once dominated our politics. Yet the institutions of government are hamstrung. America’s political competition — which once ended at the water’s edge — today saps our ability to lead internationally, and to become more prosperous and secure as a nation. By focusing in 2016 on what has made America great — the unleashing of private potential — we can more effectively and pragmatically address the grand challenges of our time, from climate change to terrorism. It’s time for those who sat in that chamber, listening to the State of our Union, to recognize that they are quickly becoming supporting actors to the national security enterprise.
Aditi Gorur, Director, Protecting Civilians in Conflict Program:
President Obama rightly emphasized that civil wars and humanitarian crises in places like Africa and the Middle East were matters of national security for the United States, and reiterated his strategy of working with the international community to rally global responses to these challenges. Over the last year, under President Obama’s administration, the U.S. has taken important steps to lead the U.N. toward more effective peacekeeping. These steps include the release of a new presidential memo on peacekeeping at the end of last year, committing the U.S. to greater support for U.N. peacekeeping missions, and President Obama’s leadership of a U.N. summit to generate more troops and police to meet increasing demand. Now the question remains how the Obama administration will implement these ideas in its final year. Without some major reforms, and significant support, the U.N. cannot shoulder the burdens that the U.S. and other major powers hope to place on it.
Laicie Heeley, Fellow, Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense Program:
The president delivered a strong argument for patient and disciplined American leadership. Our national security strategy should reflect this call, focusing on every element of our national power and the right tools to fit the job. The president’s final budget request, due out in just a few short weeks, should reflect the values he’s espoused in his address. That means prioritizing investment in weapons that address 21st century threats and making the tough trade-offs necessary to ensure the U.S. military is best equipped to fight future battles, not those of the past.
Nathaniel Olson, Research Analyst, Managing Across Boundaries Initiative:
The president’s call for congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) unofficially launched a high-stakes, high-profile struggle. TPP is a sweeping trade and investment deal whose provisions include several important innovations. It reflects a need to keep pace with the continued evolution of technology and global value chains. But it also is driven by a growing recognition of the strategic stakes in setting the “rules of the road.” Substance aside, the TPP holds broader geopolitical significance for the Asia-Pacific region and the U.S. commitment to it.
Alan D. Romberg, Distinguished Fellow, East Asia Program:
While the president made a couple of fleeting references to China, they were not in a context of strategic competition or even regional tensions, but primarily in a domestic political context of either promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on the Hill or rebutting the notion that the U.S. is weak and has lost its leadership role. Although the president stressed that American strength is not diminished, the principal focus of his call for leadership, far from being a call to arms, was on “rallying the world around causes that are right,” including climate change, where the U.S. and China are cooperating. Maintaining these strategic perspectives in the coming months will depend importantly on how Beijing pursues its interests in the region. Early tests may come following Taiwan’s election this weekend and in how China uses the newly expanded facilities it has created in the South China Sea.
Rachel Stohl, Director, Conventional Defense Program:
By failing to include a vision for the appropriate and accountable use of drones, President Obama ignored what has become a central pillar of his counter-terrorism policy over the past eight years. The omission is particularly troubling given the lack of transparency, oversight, and accountability of the U.S. drone program and the legacy that this administration seems destined to leave. In addition, the lack of a clear strategy to stop the flow of weapons to terrorists and other rogue actors also misses an opportunity to increase transparency in the global arms trade, promote more responsible arms transfers, and keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists and human rights abusers. Competing priorities and a very crowded agenda make progress on conventional weapons issues even more unlikely and challenging, and without clear direction from the president, it is unlikely action will be taken.
Yun Sun, Senior Associate, East Asia Program:
In his last State of the Union address, President Obama rightfully pointed out the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in setting the rules in the Asia-Pacific region so that “China doesn’t.” The bid for the Congress to approve the TPP is a push in the right direction. However, it remains debatable how effective the U.S. has been in stopping China from changing the rules in many other arenas, such as in the East and South China Seas and in terms of multilateral development institutions. The next administration will have a very long way to go shaping China’s behaviors.