From a foreign policy and national security perspective, State of the Union addresses are terrible. They rarely focus on these two topics and, when they do, they tend not to engage the topic with the seriousness and rigor that it demands. This year’s address contained 6493 words, but only 855 of those words were dedicated to foreign policy and national security.
Part of it is just the medium: a laundry list of selective boasts about the past year stapled to a laundry list of impractical and hyper-partisan policy proposals. While domestic issues get the majority of airtime, the State of the Union tends to treat national security and foreign-policy issues in a superficial way. President Obama praised the official end of the combat mission in Afghanistan and vowed “to hunt down terrorists.”
“We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy, when we leverage our power with coalition building, when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing right now, and around the globe, it is making a difference.”
The promises that President Obama offered to assure us that he was fully in command of the global challenges we faced from Russia, the Ebola virus, the Middle East, and the Pacific Rim would be more convincing if even one of the defining challenges of the past year had been adequately anticipated in the 2014 State of the Union.
President Obama assured us that he is leading a coalition of the willing to stop the terrorist group the Islamic State. Likewise, his boast in 2015’s State of the Union about standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin would sound less hollow if 2014’s address had discussed the challenge posed by Putin.
To be sure, he did make a bit of foreign-policy news. Obama said he would finally ask Congress for a use-of-force authorization against the Islamic State, and he promised to veto popular legislation to impose conditional sanctions on Iran. But beyond that, there was not much for the foreign policy and national security community to engage with. In fact, there may be more commentary on the interactive, Twitter-ready way the White House communications office put out the speech for bloggers than there will be on the foreign-policy sections.
Unfortunately, his speech was very light on the matters that concern veterans. For every call to hire a veteran, there was deafening silence on the issues of veteran suicide and VA backlogs and scandals. Perhaps one day, the State of the Union address will treat foreign affairs as equal with domestic issues. We are in a global society, and what happens elsewhere will surely have an effect on us here at home.