COLUMN: Lessons from Obama’s State of the Union Speech

ImagePRESIDENT’S COLUM: Returning to The Australian after a long summer solstice, foreign editor Greg Sheridan dismissed President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address as a “lame, dreary speech”.

I don’t agree, not least because we have had some more than our fair share of lame and dreary speeches in Australia this year. But the real benefit of the State of the Union address to Congress was that it served as a salutary reminder that the Australian in the Asian Century white paper and the hastily-constructed speech by the Prime Minister on national security strategy make questionable conclusions.

Let’s start with one sentence which most of our mainstream media missed. “Tonight, I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union – because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs”.

Both the US and the EU have vowed to have this in place within two years – a tall order. But Jose Manuel Barrosso, president of the European Commission, correctly described such a possibility as a “game changer”.

It would, in fact, provide the greatest challenge to China’s economic rise, creating the largest trade bloc in the world, and uniting the continents that lead the world in technology, energy security, finance and banking, and the creative industries. It explains why Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has adroitly turned his back on his Euro-septic backwoodsmen and will campaign for Britain to stay in the EU. And it is likely to draw significant G20 countries like Russia, Turkey and India into close association with this bloc.

It is significant that Obama did not once mention China in his State of the Union address, nor did he refer to the so-called ‘Pivot to Asia’ canvassed by departed Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

What seems to have happened here is that for his second and final term Obama sees an economic refocus on a floundering and divided Europe – while also trying to develop a trans-Pacific Partnership with America’s friends in Asia – will serve his country better than acting as the global policeman. Don’t expect to see the Obama administration engage in conflicts involving ground forces anywhere in the world, let alone Syria, Egypt or anywhere else in the Middle East.

Having been attacked by many for entering wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is now being criticized for not sending troops to Syria or even Iran. This is criticism Obama will weather, because Americans have had enough of war, as George Friedman points out in this week’s interview with me.

The United States has lost the war in Afghanistan, just as the Russians did, and the British before that, brilliantly explained by historian William Dalrymple in his book Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan. Julia Gillard and Stephen Smith should read this book before making any more silly claims about achievement in Afghanistan.

Obama’s one sentence suffices: “ After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women are coming home”. If your son had died in Afghanistan, it would be hard not to feel bitter about what has been a fruitless operation. I thought former US Commander General Stanley McChyrstal showed appropriate sensitivity when asked about this by Leigh Sales on ABC’s 7.30: “If I were the father or a mother of a service member who’d been posted or a civilian who’d sacrificed themselves, it would be a difficult equation to not be emotional about”.

Obama did not seem as convinced as Gillard that the era of 9-11 is over: “Different al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian peninsular 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 to occupy other nations”.

It’s clear from this State of the Union speech that Obama – like many others – does not subscribe to the notion of the so called Asian century. He looks at the world as the world. This is a perspective that is now lacking in many Australian salons and public affairs groups. While it is essential that we engage closely and harmoniously with the countries in our region, we should also keep a sharp focus on what is happening elsewhere.

The AIIA’s national president, John McCarthy, one of Australia’s most able and experienced diplomats, and Michael Wesley, who led the Lowy Institute for International Policy until recently, will discuss the inadequacies of the Asian white paper and current security strategy at a special meeting next Thursday 21 February. Please come and join us if you can.

One final thought from the Obama State of the Union. He pledged to cut red tape and speed the issuing of permits in America’s buoyant natural gas industry. The Australian government, under the influence of the Greens, is doing exactly the opposite.

Colin Chapman is president of the AIIA in NSW

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