The State of the Union and the Atlantic Alliance

Republicans will remember President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address for the many veto threats it contained against legislation to reverse the affordable care act, to restart the deportation of illegal immigrants, to weaken banking regulation, or to impose new sanctions on Iran while negotiations are still ongoing. Democrats will remember those commitments as well, but they will also focus on the President’s promise to promote more equitable growth, to create new jobs, to provide greater access to childcare, to reduce the cost of higher education, and to protect the environment.

These debates are interesting for non-Americans, but they are less important than the other message Obama tried to deliver about his vision for American leadership. This message is somewhat different from the notion of leadership that Obama offered on the eve of the intervention in Libya when he spoke to the American people on 28 March 2011. Obama has lost none of his interest in building coalitions and working with allies, but he is more attentive to the need for the United States to lead from the front than to lead from behind. He is also more insistent that the United States should seek to use diplomacy rather than relying on its overwhelming military capacity or ‘unique capabilities’. And he is eager to return to the argument that following American values is not only a good example for the rest of the world but also the best way to keep America safe at home.

The big question is how much he can persuade a Republican-controlled Congress to support this agenda. That will require the Congress not only to allow space for the President to conclude negotiations with Iran and to provide support in closing down the detention facility in Guantanamo, but it will also depend upon whether the Congress will agree to authorize the use of force against ISIS, to underpin the President’s climate change agreement with China, and to grant the Obama Administration the trade promotion authority necessary to complete the trans-Pacific partnership and the trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership. These are the areas that people outside the United States will want to watch for progress. They are also potentially areas where the Obama Administration should be able to find some basis for cross-party support – particularly insofar as trade liberalization is concerned.

The problem is that the two debates overlap. The polarization between Republicans and Democrats on domestic matters tends to complicate any possibilities for bipartisan action vis-à-vis the outside world. This is hardly an original insight. Domestic politics always plays a role in foreign policy. What is striking is how quickly it came to the surface once the Obama finished his address. Republicans denounced the speech as a ‘missed opportunity’; Democrats trumpeted it as a rallying cry for the next presidential contest (and a necessary touchstone for any future Democratic candidate). The prospect of principled, collaborative, and ‘smart’ American leadership was immediately diminished in the process.

Nevertheless, there is still much that the Obama Administration can accomplish both in terms of trade and also in dealing more broadly with China, Russia and the Middle East. The trick is that if Obama cannot get cooperation from Congress, he will have to rely more heavily on America’s allies in Europe. The sanctions regime toward Russia will provide a crucial test. Obama goes to some length in his State of the Union to explain how a policy of consistent pressure has begun to have an impact on Russian policy toward Ukraine. Now it is up to Europe’s heads of state and government to decide whether that pressure should be maintained or diminished.

[NB: This post is actually an article I wrote for the on-line Italian magazine, Formiche.  They were very generous to let me post the English-language version.  You can find the Italian version here.]