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Hemmed in at home, Barack Obama turns to the world elsewhere

Like Reagan and Clinton, Obama's response to entrenched opposition in Congress is to look outwards.

By Andrew Hammond

Barack Obama gave a strong, comprehensive eighth and final State-of-the-Union address on Tuesday.  Brought forward because of the beginning of the forthcoming presidential primary election season to find his successor, Obama’s speech had a strong international edge as he set out an ambitious global agenda for “American leadership” in 2016 and beyond.

The reason for the foreign focus is clear.  With the Republicans controlling Congress, and just a year left in office, Obama can potentially have significantly more impact on foreign than domestic policy in 2016.

He already has multiple high profile trips in the diary, including to Japan in May for the G7 and China in September for the G20 summit.  The White House is also exploring the possibilities of historic stopovers in Cuba and Vietnam too. 

Obama made crystal clear in his speech that the Middle East will yet again attract particularly significant presidential focus in 2016.  He shrewdly observed that the region “is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation”, and that instability could “continue for decades” with some countries potentially becoming “safe havens for new terrorist networks; others will fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees”.

Rightly, Obama was keen to emphasise that “our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians”.  However, he re-asserted that “priority number one” is tackling the threat from terrorist networks, especially so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida which pose a “direct threat” to the US homeland. 

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Here, the president made clear that the depletion of so-called Islamic State’s territorial foothold and capabilities in Iraq and Syria will continue apace, beyond the approximately 10,000 air strikes and other counter-terrorism activity that he asserted have so far taken place. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, one poll in December found 60 per cent of the US populace disapprove of Obama’s handling of the fight against so-called Islamic State, and in 2016 he made clear in his speech that he will also double down on seeking a “lasting peace” in Syria that could lead to a more unified regional effort to combat the terrorist group.

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More controversially, Obama also highlighted last year’s landmark Iranian nuclear deal which he asserted has “avoided another war” in the region.  The White House believes that the agreement with Tehran not only opens up the possibility of a wider warming in bilateral ties, but also consolidating the president’s broader desire to enhance global nuclear security. 

As well as inter-state nuclear diplomacy, the administration has created the Nuclear Security Summit process to counter nuclear terrorism which the president has described as the “most immediate and extreme threat to global security”.  This forum’s next heads of state meeting will be in Washington this Spring.

As well as instability in the Middle East, Obama also highlighted the need to stabilise the national unity government in Afghanistan, headed by new President Ashraf Ghani and de facto-Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah.  

To this end, the White House recently announced that the present US force of some 10,000 troops will remain in place for much if not all of 2016 in the face of significant new Taliban insurgency.

In the Americas, the most eye-catching element of Obama’s agenda is consolidation of the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba.  Indeed, it is even possible that the president could visit Havana in coming months.

The president made clear that “50 years of isolating the country had failed…Recognise that the Cold War is over”.  And he urged the Congress to lift the Cuban embargo in 2016. 

In Europe, Obama has a multi-track security and economic agenda.  On the latter front, a top priority is finalisation in 2016 of negotiations for the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)between the United States and the 28-member European Union, a combined economic bloc accounting for around 50 per cent of global GDP. 

Moreover, the president will travel to Poland in May for a NATO summit meeting which will showcase the security dimension of his European agenda.  While the last months of 2015 appeared to see the conflict between Russia and Ukraine move toward stalemate, recent weeks have seen the conflict potentially heating up again, with Moscow widely reported as being responsible for cyber-hacking that resulted in a series of major power outages in Ukraine.

The fact that Obama’s presidency still has considerable foreign policy potency is underscored by the fact that several of his two-term predecessors have secured significant international achievements in the last year of their periods in the White House.  For instance, the last Democratic president Bill Clinton, who in his last year of office in 2000 also faced a Republican Congress, won landmark congressional approval in October 2000 for so-called Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China setting the stage for Beijing to join the World Trade Organisation about a year afterwards.

Similarly, Republican President Ronald Reagan, who faced a Democrat Congress in his last year of office in 1988, secured a number of significant international achievements, including at a key summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, that helped bring an end to the Cold War.  Indeed, in November 1989, only 10 months after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down paving the way for the collapse of Soviet Communism.

Taken overall, Obama’s strong and carefully calibrated speech underlines that he still has an ambitious foreign agenda and is intent on further major victories in the next twelve months.  Key potential achievements, includingconsolidating last year’s diplomatic breakthroughs with Iran and Cuba, will help define his presidential legacy in 2016 and beyond.