Obama on foreign policy, global health and development: Nearly nada

President Obama gave his State of the Union address last night and, apparently, most people heard him talk mostly about salmon (and hope) and very little about the world outside our borders.

Here is a “word cloud” created by NPR based on listeners’ response to the speech:

State of Union word cloud

Now, it turns out the welfare of salmon is pretty important — to us here in the fish-focused Pacific Northwest as well as an indicator species of overall ecosystem and environmental health.

But the health and well-being of the rest of the world actually has more of a significant impact on the state of our union. So it was disappointing to hear so little from Obama on that front. Basically, the little he did say was mostly just about our military adventures. President Bush, by contrast, almost always included significant remarks on foreign policy and development issues in his annual address.

Is isolationism coming back into vogue?

The Washington Post called the speech thin on foreign policy (which may be generous) and ABC News says international affairs appears to be fading as a priority for Obama if public remarks are any measure.

Given how little Obama said on these matters, Foreign Policy magazine decided to read between the lines and do a humorous translation of what was implied. For example:

Obama said: “We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.

FP Translation: “We haven’t pushed that whole ‘democracy’ thing with Arab dictators but we can’t just come out and say we support their crackdowns on protesters, now can we? I guess we can burn the (former) government of Tunisia but I’ll stop short of mentioning the tear-gassing of students in Egypt….”

According to GlobalPost, rather than look at how we should collaborate and work together with other nations Obama says we should simply work harder to compete and best other nations. Not mentioned in this article was the President’s oddly characterizing our situation today as a “Sputnik moment” — a reference to the beginning of the U.S.- Soviet Union space race.

Great, yeah, we could sure use a Cold War right now.

Basically, Obama said very little about foreign policy and, unless I missed it, nothing much about global health or development.

This is disappointing, given all the previous statements this Administration has made about how important efforts are in these arenas to improving our standing (and national security) in the world.

Such lack of attention also may further open the door to the current push by some in Congress to cut back on foreign aid, given the implication that what happens outside our borders matters little to our future prosperity and safety.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.