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The real state of the union: Foreign policy

Before the president’€™s speech, we invited 30 experts to offer straight assessments of the state of the nation in the form of brief reports, by subject. Keep returning for updates. The following concern foreign policy.

State of the Union 2014
Barack Obama

On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama will give his State of the Union address, fulfilling the Constitution’s mandate and American tradition. In preparation for the speech, we asked 30 authorities to offer their own brief thoughts on the many subjects that touch on our country’s predicament. On this page, you can read their views on foreign policy. 

For their perspectives on the economy, click here.

For their perspectives on civil liberties, click here.

For their perspectives on education, immigration and the environment, click here.

We will be publishing these reflections on a rolling basis, so keep coming back for more.

Solome Lemma
Courtesy of author

While the rest of the world is now awake to Africa’s economic prowess, the United States has largely been absent from the continent. Today, China is the leading trade partner for many African countries. Its annual $200 billion bilateral trade with Africa far surpasses that of the U.S. Simply, the U.S. is losing Africa to China.

Catching up with China underpins much of our current Africa policies. However, as we continue to engage with Africa more actively, we must also ensure that our investments are more than symbolic.

For example, the U.S. has created a $7 billion Power Africa Initiative to invest in the electricity and energy infrastructures in six African countries. While a promising start, in a continent where two-thirds of the population lacks access to electricity, this pales in comparison to the need. At least $300 billion is needed to ensure universal power access across Africa. This initiative’s success will require more resources and partnerships with African private and public sector actors.

America’s Africa policy must target young people — 65 percent of Africa’s billion people are younger than 35. In 2010, the U.S launched the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). YALI brings young African leaders to the U.S. for training opportunities. While it’s a good start to bolstering relations with Africa, building next generation leaders requires sustained investments in education, employment, and entrepreneurship opportunities in their home countries.

Security in African countries remains a central concern to the U.S. While helping to restore peace and democracy in South Sudan and Central African Republic, the U.S. has also continued to tackle the spread of terrorism-related violence throughout Africa. The Africa Command (Africom), which provides tactical and strategic support to African armies and governments, was in part setup to respond to this threat. However, Washington’s increasingly militarized engagement in Africa requires greater scrutiny from public and civil society actors. 

Solome Lemma is the executive director of the New York–based organization Africans in the Diaspora

Dariush Zahedi
Courtesy of author

So long as Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains in power, normalization of relations will remain unlikely. Although newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has sparked optimism about a potential breakthrough, the obstacles are formidable.

It is no secret that domestic opponents of a final nuclear deal in both the United States and Iran are working hard to scuttle negotiations. But looming behind them all is Khamenei. While the dire state of the Iranian economy has led him to authorize Rouhani’s pursuit of a face-saving nuclear deal, he will be extremely reluctant to take further steps towards full normalization. He profoundly mistrusts not only U.S. intentions towards Iran and the cultural interpenetration of American and Iranian societies that normalization would bring, but also the socio-economic fallout from such a reconciliation. 

Scott Field
Courtesy of author

Rouhani, like his mentor, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, favors a more liberal version of the “Chinese model” of development. It entails a full-fledged integration of Iran into the global economy, combined with more restrictive liberalization of the social and political domains. But this is not possible without normalization of ties with the U.S, something that Khamenei is likely to resist. 

Given the politically restive state of the Iranian middle class, not to mention the fate of the Shah (who also pursued a version of the Chinese model), Khamenei is likely to favor opening the economy just enough to placate the working class and ensure they do not join their middle class brethren in open revolt. Full integration and normalization would risk re-opening a Pandora’s box inside Iran that he only narrowly succeeded in closing after the Green Movement of 2009.

And creating self-inflicted internal wounds is something he can ill-afford at a moment of acute foreign policy turmoil. In Syria, Saudi Arabia is determined to roll back Iranian influence, Hezbollah faces an existential challenge from Sunni extremists, and next door in Iraq, Iran’s only Arab ally is struggling to wrest control of its western cities back from those same jihadists spilling over the border. And while Iran shares common interests with the U.S. in dousing these flames of extremism emanating from Syria, a pragmatic, limited partnership will suffice. Now is no time to let the “Great Satan” in the back door to cause mischief inside Iran.

All told, while the state of U.S.-Iran relations has improved and may continue to improve in 2014, the change will be measured in shades of imperfection.

Dariush Zahedi is the director of the Berkeley Program on Entrepreneurship and Development in the Middle East at the University of California at Berkeley. 

Scott Field is a visiting scholar at the Institute for International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.


John Batchelor

Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program received prominent, stern mention in President Barack Obama’s last four State of the Union messages. Employing ominous metaphorical language, such as “Iran is more isolated,” and “tougher and tighter sanctions,” and “crippling sanctions” and last year’s “we will do whatever is necessary, ” the President has pushed Iran toward entente.

It is easy to anticipate that the 2014 SOTU will underline the diplomatic agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plust Germany) at Geneva on November 23, 2013. What’s more, it is right to expect that the president will speak optimistically that, as the Iranian regime provides guarantees to UN inspectors, so will the sanctions lift for the Iranian people.

However, the facts of the last five years counter the Obama administration’s optimism. Iran now has 19,000 centrifuges extant and a full throttle ahead nuclear enrichment program, including new model centrifuges, that is concealed in military sites from any UN inspection  Iran continues construction of a new plutonium-making nuclear plant at Arak. Iran has long been suspected of a weaponization program that includes warhead miniaturization as well as ICBMs in hardened sites

Most importantly, Iran is dominated by a religious dictatorship, backed by military force that uses violence against its own people as well as terrorism and sabotage against Iran’s neighbors and especially against US ally, Israel.

The true State of the Union with regard to Iran reads grimly: Iran, in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a predatory tyranny that prosecutes war and threatens global peace and stability in league with its conspirators, the rogue regimes of Syria and North Korea.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

Annette Heuser
Kaveh Sardari

The United States, the world’s sole superpower, has an overwhelming foreign policy to-do list. From the groundbreaking talks with Iran, to the civil war in Syria to emerging revolution in Ukraine, Washington depends on international partners more than ever to deal with these challenges. The Europeans, still Washington’s closest allies, are an economic powerhouse, but are reluctant to assume a foreign and security policy role that can match that of the U.S.

This essential partnership, however, is strained. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the traditional lifeline for the transatlantic partners, is in erosion due to a waning appetite among all members for military engagement. To make matters worse, the recent NSA scandal has affected the fundamental tenet of their relationship: trust. President Obama’s announcement last week of tepid reform of American intelligence services has deeply disappointed Europeans. They would have liked to see a legally binding commitment to circumscribe intelligence-related activities in Europe.

Political debates in the U.S. and European capitals are dominated by false perceptions of one another’s interests and motives. The only major strategic project in the pipeline is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which aims to create a free-trade zone between Europe and the U.S. But it is already overshadowed by European negativity and suspicion following the NSA spying allegations. For the first time, anti-American sentiments in Germany’s mainstream media seem to mirror the mood of the broader public in a country that saw itself as Washington’s closest ally. Across Europe, in fact, the level of disappointment with the U.S. is unprecedented.

The transatlantic political establishment is losing its ability to read and understand each other and, more importantly, to genuinely trust each other. That must change. The U.S. and Europe will be unable to solve global security issues if they cannot overcome their own bilateral insecurities.

Annette Heuser is the executive director of the Bertelsmann Foundation, a pan-European think tank based in Washington, D.C. 

Barbara Slavin
Courtesy of author

From the interim nuclear agreement with Iran reached late last year to tensions with the military-backed Egyptian government to ongoing negotiations in Geneva to solve the Syrian crisis, the United States remains deeply engaged in trying through diplomatic means to resolve conflicts roiling the Middle East. 

Civil war is raging in Syria, with no end in sight. More than 130,000 people have died since 2011 and half the population is either internally displaced or refugees. Islamic militants have hijacked the rebellion, while the regime of Bashar Al-Assad stands accused of grotesque human rights abuses, from using chemical weapons and barrel bombs to starving political prisoners. Under a Russian-brokered deal that averted U.S. military strikes, the Assad regime is relinquishing its chemical weapons. But Assad rejects any suggestion that he must agree to step down as part of a political transition.The ongoing Geneva II “peace” talks have served mostly to expose divisions between Syrian factions and their external patrons. The U.S. helped deliver moderate Syrian opposition representatives to the conference but rejected participation by the Iranians. 

Egypt is less violent but hardly stable. Back under military rule, only three years after President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, Egyptians have rubber-stamped a new constitution and are preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections that will likely offer limited choices. The government has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition force, and is even going after weak secular liberal groups such as the April 6 movement. Meanwhile, the government crackdown on “terrorists” is only fomenting more terrorism. Odds are that the current army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will run for president and become Egypt’s next pharaoh. Money from the Gulf States is barely keeping Egypt’s anemic economy afloat while the U.S. tries to retain leverage through continuing aid to the military.

The only relative bright spots in the region are Yemen and Tunisia, which appear to be making progress toward greater political pluralism. Nevertheless, the U.S. must do what it can to encourage more representative government throughout the region if the Middle East is ever to achieve  prosperity and real stability.

Barbara Slavin is a Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of a 2007 book, “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.”

Kent Jones
Courtesy of author

The United States continues to be the richest and most productive country in the world.  Yet global economic leadership does not come from economic isolation. The U.S. is strong because it is open to the world economy. 

This year marks the 20th anniversary of NAFTA, a historic agreement that has strengthened the U.S., Canadian and Mexican economies. The U.S. is now negotiating two important new regional trade agreements: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with several countries in the Asia-Pacific region and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union.

As the country emerges from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, these agreements offer the best opportunity to expand U.S. trade and restore prosperity, not only at home, but also among its trading partners. The Trade Promotion Authority bill, key legislation needed to conclude the negotiations and move the agreements toward final ratification require bipartisan congressional support. These agreements could spark renewed interest in a global trade agreement with the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The U.S. must also deal with its often difficult relationship with China. Yet the economic rivalry between two the countries creates enormous opportunities.  High-level trade talks with China should begin this year to address several divisive issues in the U.S.-China trade relations, and to seek mutual benefits of economic cooperation and partnership.

Meanwhile, the U.S. must not shy away from the challenges of a changing world economy, or from its important leadership role in it. One of the greatest challenges facing global trade policy is a disruptive regime of global exchange rates. The U.S. and other G-20 countries, in conjunction with the WTO and the International Monetary Fund, should meet to discuss a new system of currency discipline that will restore global order to exchange rates.

Kent Jones is a professor of economics at Babson College in Massachusetts. 

Justin Logan
Matthew Barrick

Remember the pivot to Asia?

In 2011 and 2012, the president’s State of the Union addresses mentioned a U.S. pivot to Asia. The comments garnered considerable media attention. But in 2014, amid fretting from Asia hands in Washington, the pivot, always more marketing than substance, appears dead.

Its death has upsides and downsides. The upside is that Asian states, who believed the pivot, are now being forced to look into the abyss of regional conflict. Reckless and provocative behavior from both China and Japan is raising alarm throughout the region. But it is also helping U.S. allies to come to grips with a dire reality: while they prefer a free ride, uncertainty about U.S. policy is prompting them to increase their own defense spending, a salutary development from the view of a cash-strapped United States.

The downside is more important. The main virtue of the pivot was the idea of moving away from the Middle East and Europe. Predictably, American clients in those regions viewed this feature as a bug, complaining incessantly to Washington about being ignored. Even as the pivot has foundered, the United States’ Middle East partners are still unhappy about U.S. retrenchment, which they define as America’s pursuit of policies different from ones those states prefer.

The Middle East is largely irrelevant to U.S. security. Neither Israel’s existence nor oil markets require Washington’s meddling in the region, and terrorism is a limited problem that military intervention only inflames. With the pivot, the U.S. tried to shift its focus toward Asia, but it is now allowing itself to be pulled back in by events in Syria, Iran, and Israel/Palestine.

In order to revive the pivot to Asia, U.S. policy makers would need to stop trying to micromanage events in the Middle East. Ultimately, as former Secretary of State Clinton noted in 2011, “the future of politics will be decided in Asia,” not the Middle East.

Justin Logan is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author, most recently, of “China, America and the Pivot to Asia.”