What Obama said on international development in his State of the Union address

The agenda for the final two years of U.S. President Obama’s time in offices was set by Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Americans heard bold plans to continue economic prosperity and more on an initiative to make community colleges free to all. As always, the first section of the speech focuses on the United States. Then the president picks up on a few issues that relate to the rest of the world.

Top of the international list is national security and defeating terrorism. But that is not all. The president did find time to speak on a few issues that relate to international development and humanitarianism. Some are more subtle than others, like international trade policies, but they provide a sense White House priorities. Noticeably absent from the address was Nigeria. Increased attacks by the Islamist group Boko Haram have killed thousands, displaced more and have started to cross into Cameroon. Also missing were countries where ongoing conflicts have dragged on for more than a year, and have displaced millions of people – places like Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

But this is not about what was missing, it is about what Obama said on Tuesday. He hinted at coming changes to international trade rules. Negotiations are still under way among the United States and countries in Asia and the Pacific (China, Singapore, Australia, Japan, etc.) to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership. When finalized, it will set the rules for trade with major countries and importantly China. Leaked versions of the partnership drew opposition from a wide range of advocates, but it appears a final deal may be in the near future.

The few times Obama has directly addressed the U.S. foreign aid budget and international development goals, he has stressed the need to bring in the private sector and increase trade. Mentioning the importance of trade with Asia shows that he believes it is a strong engagement opportunity for the country. Though, in the speech, he couched his remarks on international trade on the importance of strengthening the American economy.

Other areas of note in the speech mention climate change, human rights (namely torture), stopping tax dodgers and continued efforts against Ebola in West Africa. Below are the sections, in order that they appeared, where Obama discussed humanitarian and development issues in his penultimate State of the Union speech. You can read his full prepared remarks here.

International Trade

Twenty-first century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas. Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages. But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.

Medical Research and Development

Twenty-first century businesses will rely on American science, technology, research and development. I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine — one that delivers the right treatment at the right time. In some patients with cystic fibrosis, this approach has reversed a disease once thought unstoppable. Tonight, I’m launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes — and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.

Tax Havens

As Americans, we don’t mind paying our fair share of taxes, as long as everybody else does, too. But for far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight. They’ve riddled it with giveaways the superrich don’t need, denying a break to middle class families who do. This year, we have an opportunity to change that. Let’s close loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America.


In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.


In West Africa, our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and health-care workers are rolling back Ebola — saving countless lives and stopping the spread of disease. I couldn’t be prouder of them, and I thank this Congress for your bipartisan support of their efforts. But the job is not yet done — and the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.

Climate Change

2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does — 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.

I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.


That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That’s why we’ve set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history. And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action. In Beijing, we made an historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.

Human Rights/Torture

As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained. It’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world. It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims — the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.

As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice — so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit. Since I’ve been President, we’ve worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half. Now it’s time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It’s not who we are.


Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hard-working mom is taken from her child, and that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.