In the modern American Presidency if someone is lucky enough to get a second term their focus tends to turn to foreign policy.  The Executive branch has more unilateral power in international relations than it does in domestic affairs, and after 5 years Congresses and Presidents tend to tire of one another. 

 

For this reason, many political observers where surprise by how little attention foreign policy got at this week’s State of the Union Address.  Instead, the President decided to side-step congress on domestic issues and focus on what he can do by himself on issues such as labor, employment, and energy policies. Only after forty five minutes did the speech turned to foreign policy.

 

Understanding what issues the President covered in the back end of this speech shows the administration’s priorities for foreign policy in 2014.

In the modern American Presidency if someone is lucky enough to get a second term their focus tends to turn to foreign policy.  The Executive branch has more unilateral power in international relations than it does in domestic affairs, and after 5 years Congresses and Presidents tend to tire of one another. 

 

For this reason, many political observers where surprise by how little attention foreign policy got at this week’s State of the Union Address.  Instead, the President decided to side-step congress on domestic issues and focus on what he can do by himself on issues such as labor, employment, and energy policies. Only after forty five minutes did the speech turned to foreign policy.

 

Understanding what issues the President covered in the back end of this speech shows the administration’s priorities for foreign policy in 2014.

 

The major foreign policy theme of last year’s State of the Union was the United State’s future role in Afghanistan.  One year later, and after bringing more than 60,000 troops home from Afghanistan the future of the U.S. presence in the country is very much in air. 

 

Domestic support for a continued role in the country is at an all-time low.  At the same time, instability in Iraq and the recent fall of Fallujah—the center of two of America’s bloodiest battles of the Iraq war—show the dangers of the “zero option.”

 

How this chapter of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan ends is largely out of the President’s hands.  Despite heavy pressure at the end of last year, he has not been able to get Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a security agreement, a task which seems increasingly unlikely. Navigating the end of U.S. combat troops while setting the country up to succeed will be Obama’s most difficult task in Afghanistan to date.

 

The biggest issue he addressed however, and the one to which he devoted the most time, was pushing for a nuclear deal with Iran.  He described the current negotiations as a chance to “resolve one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.” The President noted that Iran has already begun to eliminate their nuclear stockpile and stopped building new centrifuges as the peace process continues.

 

Congress is skeptical of these developments, and several leading voices in both parties would like to see the U.S. ramp up sanctions even if it means ending the current round of negotiations.  While any sort of legislative action in this direction would be vetoed, going through the motions would send mixed messages to Iran about the United State’s intentions, and could derail the talks entirely.

 

 In an attempt to silence opposition from both sides of the aisle, he raised the names of each party’s modern heroes and their struggles in a similar situation. “If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”

 

The theme of disarmament went further than just Iran.  Obama acknowledged America’s role in eliminating nuclear weapons around the world, and his effort to phase out the U.S.’s own aging cold-war era weapons.  He touted the U.S.’s role in eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, even as negotiations between the rebels and government seem to be going nowhere.

 

For a President who favors grandiose action over incremental change, the amount of time he devoted to disarmament in its many incarnations hints at what Obama sees as a tangible, positive policy steps he can take in 2014.  This is far from the big ticket foreign policy initiative of previous State of the Union’s which emphasized the U.S. role in encouraging the Arab Spring, doubling U.S. exports in five years and ‘pivoting’ foreign policy toward Asia.  At the same time, it is the kind of coherent, consistent, foreign policy priorities that the Obama White House has so far been unable to articulate.