To be clear: Obama's priorities seem to be in the right order. Yet the weight he gave each priority in his address to the nation was skewed too much toward domestic priorities. Put another way, prioritization is not the same as single-mindedness.
Before going on, though, it should be stated that his domestic policy seemed well-organized, smart, and focused on the right areas. Beside the immediate stimulus plan, Obama said that he would focus his energy on three areas: energy, health care, and education. He talked about instituting a carbon cap in the US market and making clean energy technology profitable. Although he shrugged off the specifics of a health care plan, Obama rightly stressed the importance of universal health care for competitive business and the significance of preventive health care. (A note: Obama has made a clear political commitment to obtaining universal health care within a year when he said health care reform "will not wait another year." If he fails, then this could drain a good bit of political capital.) In education, Obama declared that the high high school drop rate would be reigned in and that significant college tuition credits would be given to students in exchange for volunteering. These are all positive steps to take.
And attending to all three issues is imperative for the long-term health of the US economy. But so is a global system of free trade, a halting of climate change, and stable international relations. Of course, none of the the latter concerns can be attended alone.
Yet of Obama's 5,902 words spoken last night, 515 were in reference to foreign policy. That's 8%. In an hour-long speech, that is about 5 minutes.
I don't want to overplay the numbers; they are relatively arbitrary by themselves. But it gives you an idea of the lack of attention given to foreign policy.
More importantly is what the remarks lacked in substance. In three sentences, Obama said that he would soon be unveiling his policies for Iraq, Af-Pak, and the general struggle against terrorism. Then he paid respect to American troops and spent a couple sentences denouncing Guantanamo and torture.
For the moment, let's forget that he provided no specifics on the important issues above. Understandably, this was not the forum to discuss the nitty-gritty of securing the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. As promised, Obama will likely roll these details out in the coming weeks.
Then the president went on to make a valiant -- but failed -- effort at presenting a grand foreign policy. He stated that the US needs the world just as the world needs America -- a true statement. Obama declared that a "new era of engagement has begun" in which the US will negotiate with friends and foes alike, using "all elements of our national power" to tackle global problems in concert with other nations. This sounds very near to Joseph Nye's concept of smart power. (Clinton invoked the term explicitly in her confirmation hearing -- see page 4.) Obama even goes on to give the approaching G20 meeting in April as an example of how the US must engage with the world.
But neither engagement nor smart power is a grand strategy. They are tools in a foreign policy toolbox. They are means to an end. But what end?
Sure, we want a stable Afghanistan, a democratic Iraq, a stop to climate change, peace and development in Palestine, etc. Everyone can agree that they want the most pressing problems resolved. But it is not enough for any country, especially a global superpower, to leap from crisis to crisis, reacting to flashpoints as they present themselves. The US must have a vision. America must actively shape the world it wants to see five, ten, or twenty years from now.
And on a bureaucratic level, a lack of grand strategy is destructive. If the scores of policy planners in the State Department, Defense Department, and Commerce Department are not linked by a common overarching strategy from the White House, then the administration risks disparate and conflicting policies across issues and regions. Policy planners must have general guidelines from which to work.
Far be it from me to declare the grand vision for the United States, but there are various strategies that could be pursued by the US for, let's say, the year 2025. (Conveniently, I will pose them as rhetorical questions.) Should the US still be the unquestionable, sole superpower? Should a more robust system of international law regulate state behavior and begin to shape a more powerful world government? Should a multipolar system of 4 or 5 global powers be working together to provide international security? Should all failed states be nonexistent?
I have a thousand of them. It is easy (and quite fun for policy wonks) to come up alternative visions for the world. But this should not be an academic exercise. It is a governing necessity.
After last night's speech, we all know what the ideal US economy would look like under the Obama Administration: buildings powered by solar panels, booming clean energy companies without the burden of employee health care, and a population dominated by a highly educated workforce.
But based on last night's remarks, I defy you to tell me what the ideal international order would look like under the Obama Administration. You cannot. And that is the missing piece.