The President of the United States is required to issue an annual report to the Congress on the current state of the union—so demands the U.S. Constitution. But for many decades that report has become relevant not only for the Congress, but indeed for the entire world. Reading the tea leaves of the president’s report becomes important for many global leaders seeking to decipher what the priorities of the president will be in the forthcoming year. Despite the fact that the State of the Union speeches are mostly directed at the domestic agenda of the country, references to foreign policy directions become signals from the White House about what it will choose to pursue, and what it is prepared to push against potential opposition. Sometimes the references are dressed in warnings, while others are billed as new initiatives.
Obama chose to speak to both of those options. He warned Iran about its nuclear weapons ambitions and mentioned North Korea’s recent nuclear tests as provocations that call for a forceful response. However, on a more positive note he announced efforts to create a new trade framework between the U.S. and Europe to promote more growth on both sides of the Atlantic.
The new trade initiative was no surprise to most of those who have been preparing for this effort for quite some time. In fact, the thought behind the creation of a transatlantic marketplace has been on the agenda in Brussels and in Washington for many years. Chancellor Merkel tried her hand at pushing the agenda forward back in 2007 by introducing the so-called Transatlantic Economic Council—which then sat, for the most part, in limbo as the economic crisis began to take full hold of the governments in Europe and in Washington over the next few years.
So now we have another chapter in an ongoing saga which stretches back for several decades to push for a more unregulated and more inclusive opportunity to enhance trade and investment across the Atlantic. No one doubts the benefits of achieving a greater synergy by allowing millions of Europeans and Americans to engage in a more robust economic relationship. However, one can raise the question of why such an opportunity has not been able to be realized already. The answers here are fairly straightforward. The interests involved in such a complex equation are extremely difficult to synchronize, from food regulation to agricultural subsidies to standards across a wide range of products.
The response to this pronouncement has been well orchestrated in Brussels and Berlin, being labeled a win-win equation for Europeans and Americans. The negotiations will inevitably be long and hard, with the U.S. side pressing for progress in “one tank of gas,” as Vice President Biden recently put it in Munich. Whether two or three tanks are required is unclear—but probable.
The stakes in this initiative are high on both sides of the Atlantic. One important dimension mentioned by the president is the challenge of increased competition in an enhanced transatlantic market place and the corresponding need to upgrade the educational capacity of the labor force in all countries involved.
The Germans took particular note when President Obama demonstrably praised the experience in Germany with regard to education and vocational training programs, effectively calling for applying such an approach in the U.S. The fact that many German companies operating in the U.S. have been engaged in such practice for many years is widely known. American corporations have been less concerned with such efforts up to this point. Nevertheless, many are well aware that one of the biggest challenges moving forward is securing an adequate labor pool, as issue the Germans have been able to address reasonably well for a long time.
In the foreign policy arena, the president can project out over his full four year term in setting down markers dealing with both threats and opportunities. His overtures to both allies and foes will set the tone and the parameters of the key challenges facing the U.S. How friends and foes respond will determine the choices ahead. Iran has already rejected a U.S. proposal for direct talks. North Korea has just carried out a nuclear test to demonstrate its defiance. The precarious situations in the Middle East require continuing U.S. engagement, with America seeking new openings and options, including the continual drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Overtures in the direction of the Pacific, in terms of both trade and military presence, will continue.
In his speech, President Obama was nevertheless making overtures primarily to his domestic audiences about the challenges the United States faces at home and the importance of solving them. He knows he needs Congressional support to meet these goals successfully. As in all State of the Union speeches, his intention was to inspire the country at large, while mobilizing the sources of support to forge a consensus behind his policies in Washington. The staying power of that pitch will depend on how the president follows up his speech between now and November of 2014, when the midterm Congressional elections might reshuffle the political equation in Washington—a shift that could make the president either weaker or stronger in his final two years in office.
President Obama delivered a State of the Union speech that also offered a snapshot of his take on the state of the world. For those watching from outside the U.S., the snapshot might seem like a narrow one. But it offered insights into which issues and concerns will weigh on American minds—including those of the president and his congressional colleagues—for the next two to four years. It may not inspire or delight everyone, but it definitely is an overture for the debates ahead.