Nothing new, nothing particularly soaring. It almost read as if it was a placeholder for better text. In that, this speech was a marked contrast to Bush’s second inaugural, which was principally about foreign affairs.
The encouraging thing about this relative neglect of foreign policy in the address is that it suggests that foreign policy in the second term won’t be an extremely ambitious or ideologically-driven one. Bush’s Second Inaugural promised a foreign policy that was both of these things, and to the extent that the Bush administration pursued the goals outlined in that address it managed to cause a great deal of harm. We will have to hope that Obama’s boilerplate in the speech is evidence that he intends to eschew grand projects overseas in the next four years.
There was a brief nod to the virtues of engagement, and there was a line earlier in the speech rejecting perpetual war, but taken together these two lines were more likely to cause his audience to shake their heads in amazement. Obama’s attempts at engagement have sometimes been consistent and successful, but they have also sometimes been sporadic or half-hearted. Certainly, it’s better to hear praise for engagement in a presidential address than the contempt for it that we heard from Romney last year, but it’s not clear what, if anything, this will mean for U.S. relations with authoritarian states in the future. One of Obama’s campaign slogans was that the “tide of war is receding,” but as we saw over the last year conflict spread into Mali. War has been consuming most of that country partly because of a decision that Obama made to launch a destabilizing war in Libya. We may hope that the U.S. withdraws as quickly and completely from Afghanistan as possible, but for most of the next two years a large American and allied military presence will still be there. It would be a welcome development if Obama repudiated perpetual war in practice, but for the overwhelming majority of his time in office and at least half of his second term the U.S. will be engaged in hostilities in other countries.