In argot-obsessed Washington DC, last week’s acronym of choice was SOTU—State of the Union—the annual address to the joint houses of the US Congress, by the President of the US, or POTUS.
Predictably, the first SOTU of President Barack Obama’s second term—like his inaugural address—was focused on domestic issues such as the economy, infrastructure, immigration, energy and gun violence. According to pundits, only 15% of the speech was devoted to foreign policy and even that did not contain any new initiatives. Foreign policy was, clearly, sequestered.
On Afghanistan—the longest war in US’s history—Obama’s proclamation that “by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over” had a “mission accomplished” ring to it even though in reality this task is far from done. Moreover, the absence of any reference to Pakistan and its role in either Afghanistan or as the headquarters of terror central reflects a blinkered outlook.
Similarly, his obligatory references to North Korea, which had defiantly set off its latest nuclear bang the night before the SOTU, and Iran were feckless. While he avoided the “axis of evil” trap that ensnared George W. Bush, Obama’s claim that “America will continue to lead the efforts to prevent the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons” rang hollow in the absence of any details.
In addition, the much-touted pivot to Asia-Pacific found no mention (except in the Trans-Pacific Partnership for trade), making it, perhaps, the shortest-lived foreign policy initiative. Instead, the inevitability of a US pirouette between its eastern and western interests was underlined by the call for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union and its renewed engagement with the Middle East, particularly in the countries undergoing transition. Even in the latter case, while “steadfast” support for Israel was reiterated, Palestine was not mentioned at all.
The SOTU also made brief but pointed references to engage Russia to further reduce its nuclear arsenals; combat climate change, and address the growing threat from cyber attacks. Finally, the commitment to eradicate “extreme poverty” was a little-noticed nod to the efforts of the post-2015 high-level panel under the UN tasked with this onerous responsibility.
While Obama’s address covered a wide foreign policy swathe, it was singularly lacking in any grand vision, as was evident in the Prague agenda of his first term. This partly reflects the deliberate emphasis on pressing domestic challenges and partly acknowledges the challenge of getting any significant foreign policy initiative passed through a deeply divided Congress.
It is not surprising then that India finds no mention at all in the long address. Nonetheless, many of the foreign policy concerns outlined in the SOTU are also of vital interest to India, notably Afghanistan. It will be in the interest of New Delhi and Washington to work closer together to stabilize Afghanistan post-2014.
Besides, the lack of new initiatives also provides an opportunity for India to enhance its strategic relations with Washington. For instance, an Indian initiative on Iran (as also advocated by visiting French President Francois Holland) might benefit not only India-US relations but also the cause of non-proliferation, which India frequently avows to strengthen.
India does not have to succeed in finding a solution to the Iranian imbroglio; it merely needs to be seen to have tried its best. Here the approach of China to North Korea and the six-party talks is instructive: Beijing has always taken credit for merely prompting to convene the talks while conveniently blaming its failure on others.
The inability of New Delhi and Washington to work together on these issues of common interest might condemn India-US relations to a detrimental drift, which can only be summed up by an unprintable acronym.
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W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.