Obama's address: Where's foreign policy?

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Story highlights

  • Isobel Coleman: Obama mainly addressed domestic issues: economy, immigration, energy
  • He spoke very little about and offered nothing much new on foreign policy, she says
  • Coleman: He talked about ending Afghanistan War, spoke briefly about Iran, Syria, China
  • Coleman: His reinvigorated free trade agenda seems to be the boldest move

President Obama's State of the Union address predictably focused on his domestic priorities.

Immigration reform, a laundry list of economic initiatives including infrastructure improvements (Fix it First), clean energy, some manufacturing innovation, a bit of educational reform and the rhetorical high point of his speech -- gun control.

As in years past, foreign policy made up only about 15% of the speech, but even within that usual limited attention, Tuesday night's address pointed to few new directions.

Isobel Coleman

On Afghanistan -- America's longest war -- Obama expressed just a continued commitment to bringing the troops home, ending "our war" while theirs continues. On Iran, there was a single sentence reiterating the need for a diplomatic solution, which makes me think that a big diplomatic push is not likely. On North Korea, boilerplate promises to isolate the country further after its provocative nuclear test, and on Syria, a call to "keep the pressure" on the regime, which means more watching from the sidelines as the horror unfolds.

Notably, China was mentioned only twice -- once in the context of jobs, and another time with respect to clean energy. Nothing about managing what could very well be this administration's most vexing but critically important bilateral relationship.

Obama's call for a reinvigorated free trade agenda was his boldest foreign policy statement of the evening. He is right to note that free trade "supports millions of good-paying American jobs," but his pledge to pursue a "comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership" -- a free trade agreement with Europe -- will run into significant opposition from organized labor, especially given ongoing weaknesses in the economy.

Without fast track negotiating authority, the prospects for such a deal are minimal. Fast track authority, which allows the president to negotiate trade deals that Congress can then only approve or disapprove but not amend, expired in 2007, and it would require quite a breakthrough for Congress to approve it again. Still, despite these challenges, an agreement is worth pursuing.

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    Aside from a free trade agreement with Europe, there was little else in this State of the Union that hinted at foreign policy ambition. But unpredictable events have a way of derailing America's best laid plans to stay above the fray of the world's messiest problems. Who could have predicted just a few months ago that Mali would get a mention in the State of the Union? Iraq -- not uttered once tonight -- could re-emerge as a formidable crisis; Iran, Pakistan and North Korea also have tremendous potential to erupt.

    While this administration seems determined to focus inward on getting America's economic and fiscal house in order, I doubt events in the rest of the world will be so accommodating.

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