Obama's State of the Union address included 15 full paragraphs on foreign policy – much more than his inaugural address. While there weren't any revolutionary moments, Obama did make a number of significant statements on U.S. foreign policy.
Here's the full foreign policy section from Obama's speech. I've noted the major points with numbers, footnote style, with my explanation of what it means and why it matters. First, the top-line, one-sentence summary: The Obama administration is leaving Afghanistan even if fighting continues, taking a step back from Syria, offering diplomacy to Iran, ramping up cyber-security, seeking a trade deal with Europe and promising transparency on drones.
Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us. Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective (1) of defeating the core of al-Qaeda.
(1) Narrowed goals in Afghanistan: Under President George W. Bush and during the first years of the Obama administration, the United States could be said to have major goals in Afghanistan: first, "disrupting, dismantling and defeating" al-Qaeda; second, rolling back the Taliban, which sheltered al-Qaeda; third, building up Afghan governance and security forces strong enough to hold the country. Since then, he has narrowed those goals to just the first. His framing of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan reiterates his focus on al-Qaeda – and his decision to drop the Taliban and Afghan governance from the core objectives.
Already we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that, over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. (2) This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.
(2) Leaving Afghanistan: This is the big policy announcement from the speech: Obama will sharply reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the next 12 months, to about half of their current levels. The remaining troops will focus on training. This is not a shift in policy for Obama, but it does demonstrate his commitment to withdrawing from the now 11-year war. What happens after spring 2014 is still being debated within the administration. And the reference to "our war" in Afghanistan is really telling – you can bet that the war will continue after we've left.
Beyond 2014, America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change. We’re negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al-Qaeda and their affiliates.
Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. It’s true, different al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged, from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad or occupy other nations. Instead, we’ll need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. (3) And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.
(3) No wars, more drones: The above paragraph is a pretty neat summation of Obama's thinking on the use of force in his second term in office: no new wars, no big interventions, but lots of working through allies (including some less than savory, such as the Yemeni government) and "direct action." That phrase might be considered a euphemism for special forces and, yes, drone strikes.
As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That’s why my administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism efforts. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. And I recognize that, in our democracy, no one should just take my word for it that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, (4) I will continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.
(4) Transparency pledge on drones: Obama is promising to be more transparent in his administration's targeted killings program, which has been shrouded in secrecy and has lacked outside overview. It also contains two very controversial points: the legal authority to kill American citizens without due process (used deliberately only once, against Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen) and "signature strikes," in which the United States might launch a drone strike against a person or group exhibiting characteristics that are generally consistent with militants. The power to kill Americans – and the Obama administration's deep secrecy on how it explains and uses that authority – were highlighted by Obama's recent decision to nominate counterterrorism chief John Brennan to run the CIA.
Of course, our challenges don’t end with al-Qaeda. America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. The regime in North Korea must know, they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. (5) Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.
(5) Containment for North Korea: This is basically status quo in U.S. policy on North Korea, which emphasizes containing the country and its nuclear threat. In the past, Obama has hinted at a willingness to engage North Korea diplomatically. No mention of that here.
Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, (6) because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations. And we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.
(6) Diplomacy with Iran: Obama is reiterating his offer of diplomatic outreach to Iran to reach a negotiated settlement to the nuclear program. He also spent some time on this in his inaugural address. Although notice that he's immediately followed the offer by repeating that he is willing to do "what is necessary" – i.e. military force – to stop the nuclear program.
At the same time, we’ll engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals (7) and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands, because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead and meet our obligations.
(7) More nuclear cuts: The Obama administration secured some big mutual nuclear cuts with Russia in his first term, under the New START agreement. Obama, like President Ronald Reagan, is a believer in eliminating nuclear weapons from the world. Congress has been less eager to go along and nearly blocked New START.
America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber attacks. Now, we know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mails. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.
That’s why, earlier today, I signed a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses (8) by increasing information-sharing and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy. But now -- now Congress must act, as well, by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks. This is something we should be able to get done on a bipartisan basis.
(8) More cyber security: In the past week, a national intelligence estimate has revealed that the United States has been the target of a massive cyber espionage campaign, the largest source of which appears to be China, and Obama has signed an executive order to increase cyber defenses. He seems to be making cyber security a major priority – which appears to be in large part a reaction to the increasingly aggressive China-based hacking efforts.
Now, even as we protect our people, we should remember that today’s world presents not just dangers, not just threats. It presents opportunities. To boost American exports, support American jobs, and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks (9) on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union, because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.
(9) Trade agreement with Europe: Obama's goal of freer trade with Europe is about reducing tariffs, though they're already low, and other non-tariff barriers, such as food and product safety regulations. This would likely be good for the U.S. and E.U. economies, but it could also be tougher than it sounds.
We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all, not only because it creates new markets, more stable order in certain regions of the world, but also because it’s the right thing to do. You know, in many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades, by connecting more people to the global economy, by empowering women, by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve and helping communities to feed and power and educate themselves, by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths, and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation, (10) which is within our reach.
(10) AIDS-free generation: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton first referenced this goal in late 2011, a year after which the State Department released a blueprint for getting there. It's an ambitious goal but the head of the U.N. AIDS office has said that it's "entirely feasible."
You see, America must remain a beacon to all who seek freedom during this period of historic change. I saw the power of hope last year in Rangoon, in Burma, when Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed an American president into the home where she had been imprisoned for years, when thousands of Burmese lined the streets, waving American flags, including a man who said, “There is justice and law in the United States. I want our country to be like that.”
In defense of freedom, we’ll remain the anchor of strong alliances, from the Americas to Africa, from Europe to Asia. In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.
We know the process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt, but we can -- and will -- insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people. We’ll keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people and support opposition leaders (11) that respect the rights of every Syrian. And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace. These are the messages I’ll deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month.
(11) Softer rhetoric on Syria: Obama's pledge of "support" sounds significantly less aggressive than the Clinton- and Panetta-backed plan to arm opposition groups. His stipulation that the United States will support groups that "respect the rights of every Syrian" would seem to exclude a lot of the most powerful groups, some of which may be linked to al-Qaeda.