The one substantive foreign policy point in Obama’s inauguration speech

January 21, 2013

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President's Obama's inaugural address is already making headlines for its points on domestic policy and social issues. But what did the most important national leader on Earth, the commander-in-chief of the world's most powerful military, have to say about foreign policy? Almost nothing, surprisingly enough.

Obama dedicated only one brief paragraph to foreign policy, in which he made three points, only one of which seemed particularly substantial. Here's my annotation of that paragraph, divided into Obama's three foreign policy statements.

1) "We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear."

This is the substantive point, because it seems to be a thinly veiled reference to U.S. policy on Iran. The Obama administration has clearly favored a diplomatic approach to ending Iran's nuclear ambitions, though with the option of a last-resort military strike. His nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel, a skeptic of military strikes on Iran and strong proponent of diplomacy first, was seen as a continuation of this approach. The fact that Obama included this in his inaugural address, however subtly, suggests that he may reattempt diplomatic outreach to Tehran.

2) "America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crises abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation."

This isn't revolutionary but telegraphs that Obama will continue to emphasize international cooperation in solving major problems, for example as he did in supporting a United Nations-backed intervention in Libya. The bit about being "the anchor of strong alliances" is a nod to the strategy of asserting global leadership through diplomacy, for example in Europe, and to balancing against other states, most notably China, by allying with its neighbors. This, in other words, is the line about Obama's much-vaunted "pivot to Asia."

3) "We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice — not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice."

This Wilsonian boilerplate appears in just about every presidential inauguration speech. The U.S., in this thinking, is a beacon of democracy and hope for the world that leads by example. It's an implicit argument that strong U.S. foreign policy comes from being successful at home.

This last section, along with his brevity on foreign policy, seem to strongly suggest that Obama plans to emphasize domestic policies in his second term. The New Yorker's Steve Coll, discussing Obama's Cabinet appointments on a podcast last week, likewise suggested that the president's new foreign policy team is one designed to manage foreign policy problems rather than to transform them and to, in Coll's starch assessment, "keep the world at bay."

It's always easy to read too much into presidential addresses. But it's hard to miss the degree to which Obama appeared to skip over such foreign policy challenges as the Arab Spring's transformation of the Middle East, particularly with regards to the still-raging civil war in Syria.

On still ongoing war in Afghanistan, Obama only said, "A decade of war is now ending." That's a pretty clear reiteration of the administration's plan to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. Whether the country is ready to stand on its own at that point does not seem to be a major factor in that plan.

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Max Fisher | January 21, 2013