As resident foreign policy wonk, I’m supposed to focus on the section of the SOTU address in which President Obama talked about the threats and challenges that — just like jobs and factories — can “race across borders” in today’s interconnected world.
There were a few noteworthy points. The thread running through the foreign policy section was how the United States is working with the rest of the international community, particularly now that America has repaired our image and become more cooperative and less combative. Prominent in this category is President Obama’s signature initiative to safely lock down all the world’s nuclear material.
The president remarked on the peaceful secession process under way for South Sudan after its recent plebescite. Continuing this theme of American support for democracy and people’s power, he congratulated Tunisians for unseating a despotic regime. I thought his affirmation that “American Muslims are a part of our American family” was especially pointed after last year’s controversy around the planned Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. Likewise the president’s mention of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
More interesting between the lines in domestic sections
But most of the foreign policy section was pretty familiar, and I was more intrigued with all the talk of international competitiveness in the domestic policy sections. With all due respect to Paul Krugman’s good wonkish points about our economic ills being wider than the trade deficit, I think the competitiveness frame helps make some important points, mostly about action versus complacency. President Obama first made the point early in the speech, after talking about the fast-paced changes in technology and globalization that have made it tough on American workers:
Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies.
The president was weaving a narrative about challenges to the nation that must be met by the American people and their leaders and government. The conservative argument about the country’s predicament has an element of magical thinking: if government just gets out of the way, economic opportunity will gush forth. “This is the greatest country in the world, and government regulation and bureaucrats are holding us back.”
How does this relate to foreign policy? The conservative argument on foreign policy similarly relies on a presumption of greatness rather than a struggle for renewal. All we have to do is show resolve and moral clarity; “this is the greatest country in the world, and we don’t owe anyone any concessions or explanations.” The idea of American inherent rightness creates a major blind spot and undercuts what I call ‘political competitiveness.’
Which brings me back to my original point about working with the rest of the world on the basis of restored international credibility. As we’ve heard repeated many times, the problems of the 21st century world (climate change, stabilizing the global economy, nuclear proliferation) can’t be solved by any one country, no matter how powerful. The United States needs international support for anything it wants to achieve in these areas. And the key to winning that support is through hard diplomatic work, by rolling up our sleeves rather than resting on our laurels.