January 30

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress. He is on Twitter: @katulis.

President Obama’s State of the Union address focused mostly on domestic issues. Yet how Obama talked about his foreign policy agenda underscores a crisis of purpose about U.S. engagement in the world.

To advance his national security agenda in the next three years, Obama should offer a more cohesive strategic argument for global engagement, one that more clearly articulates the values informing his policies. Economic challenges at home, including slow job growth, have made many Americans more selective about which global problems they think the United States should take on. A Pew poll released last month found that most Americans think we should mind our own business internationally.

It won’t be sufficient for the administration to state how the president intends to approach particular national security questions: He needs to articulate whythey matter and what’s at stake. Obama has done this before; his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech made a compelling moral and strategic argument for U.S. engagement in the world.

To be sure, Obama outlined sound and pragmatic positions Tuesday on most of the leading foreign policy questions of the day. He made a measured case for more time to pursue nuclear talks with Iran without overselling the prospects for success. He also sketched out how his administration is addressing questions about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance and drone strikes while remaining vigilant to the threats posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

But missing was the connective tissue between the different elements of his foreign policy agenda. It sounded like a “to do” list of chores in search of a broader argument for why these policy proposals matter. The lack of an overarching worldview is partly why Obama made only passing mention of the Syria conflict and said nothing about the complicated changes in Egypt. It is important that Obama used his stirring recognition of Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg to rally support for our veterans — but it’s not clear what the president would like to see as the end result of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in which Remsburg served.

At the start of its sixth year, the Obama administration runs the risk of remaining intellectually stuck, cleaning up the inheritance of the Bush years. Yet major global changes, including the rise of other powers and widespread social protests for dignity, require a forward-looking moral framework for U.S. engagement. A clearer vision is necessary to rally public support and votes in Congress for key agenda items, such as a possible nuclear deal with Iran and proposed future trade deals with Europe and Asia. It is important for Obama to do this because Republicans are sharply divided on foreign policy and Obama’s own party looks for him to lead.

The administration’s planned release this year of a new national security strategy offers a chance to make a clearer argument for global engagement with three core elements.

First, it must make a case for how its global economic agenda, including proposed trade agreements with Asia and Europe, would benefit Americans and expand growth while meeting the president’s aspirations of reducing domestic inequality.

Second, it must demonstrate how the government will keep Americans safe while protecting our core values. Obama’s record here is mixed: He has brought troops home and kept the homeland safe, but threats from terrorist networks have morphed abroad. The principles Obama has outlined for reining in NSA surveillance and drone strikes must be applied with real actions to rebuild confidence in U.S. leadership.

Third, Obama must tell the world more clearly what we stand for and what costs we are willing to bear to advance the causes of freedom and dignity — and not shy away from the toughest cases. From Ukraine to the Middle East to China, the struggle to advance freedom endures, and many see a growing American reticence to engage on this complicated front. Egypt will present an important test — in the coming weeks, the administration will face calls on whether to certify that Egypt is on a path toward democracy.

Many people in this country and abroad are still looking for U.S. leadership in the world. Vague notions of turning the page on the Bush years, pivoting to new regions of the world and rebalancing to the wider global arena are not sufficient arguments to make a case for global engagement. Obama has a sound set of policies, but if he wants to achieve great things in the world in the next three years, he has to sharpen his argument and answer the question many are asking about his foreign policy: What’s the big idea?