President Barack Obama, in his first inaugural address in 2009, said “the world has changed, and we must change with it.” The extent of a transformed domestic and international landscape was clear in his second inaugural address this week. Inaugurals are important opportunities for public diplomacy and his message will appeal to international audiences, but it was clearly tempered by four years of real-world experience. Obama talked at length about ongoing need to achieve equality and opportunity here at home, but gone was much of the soaring rhetoric targeted abroad that captivated international audiences four years ago.
Unlike previous second-terms where Presidents have been challenged politically at home and tried to pad their legacies abroad, Obama’s domestic is clearly going to animate his final four years in office. He outlined an ambitious agenda – a grand bargain on the budget that preserves social equality and promotes economic opportunity, enhanced gun regulation and immigration reform. These issues, along with energy and the environment, have important international dimensions as well.
If engagement was the international watchword four years ago, this time it was collaboration and the need to continue to strengthen the capacity of the international community to tackle major global challenges. He reemphasized a commitment to end a decade of war, rejecting the notion that U.S. security requires “perpetual war.” He renewed America’s support for democracy in a dramatically transformed international landscape.
Those pledges will be tested over the next four years in places like Syria, Mali, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt.
Saying “no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation,” President Obama committed to continued emphasis on collective action through formal alliances, major international organizations, regional structures and informal groups of like-minded nations. The past four years revealed the strengths and limitations of such an approach, with decisive international action in Libya but severe constraints in Syria. Patient and determined action with regional partners appears to be paying off in Somalia. That is a potential model for action in and around Mali, but more resources will need to be committed, and quickly.
Obama said four years ago that his national security strategy involved the “prudent use” of American power. The weight of effort against extremist groups shifted from large-scale deployments of U.S. ground forces to the aggressive use of technology, from unmanned drones to a computer worm. This strategy netted important accomplishments, such as the elimination of Osama bin Laden, but has generated international concerns regarding overly secretive actions that may be rewriting the laws of war and setting potentially far-reaching precedents. The administration is said to be codifying its approach within an American “playbook,” but it remains unclear to what degree this involves genuine partnerships with admittedly weak allies like Pakistan or Yemen.
Obama in his inaugural address encouraged resolving “differences with other nations peacefully, not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” This approach will surely be tested in the coming months regarding the U.S. approach to Iran and whether sufficient time will be devoted to what will undoubtedly be a lengthy and difficult negotiation.
The United States will continue to support democracy “because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” But emerging democracies like Egypt will have a much different look and feel. The United States should help guide Egypt regarding vital elements of an enduring democracy – building effective institutions, protecting minorities, including all segments of society including women, tolerating and encouraging political dissent and peacefully transferring power following free and fair elections. But the United States will have to be patient, recognizing that the path forward will not be a straight line. The final construction should be consistent with long-term U.S. objectives, but will not have a stamp that says “made in America.”