Possibly for the first time, “development workers” made it into a State of the Union address.
United States President Barack Obama’s annual speech, his last as commander-in-chief, dedicated roughly 10 percent of its nearly 5,500 words to global development issues and attempted to link those issues to U.S. leadership and national security.
Asserting that the U.S. is more threatened today by failing states than other rising world powers, Obama’s overarching message was one of multilateralism and smart power. Themes such as coalition-building and cooperation featured prominently throughout and they extended directly to the conduct of U.S. foreign assistance.
U.S. President Barack Obama may have delivered on his promise of a (barely) shorter State of the Union during his last such address as president, but it was still stacked with references to foreign affairs and development. Here's what he touched on — along with a few ways for you to catch up on each topic.
“American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world — except when we kill terrorists; or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling ... It means seeing our foreign assistance as part of our national security, not charity,” Obama said.
A president’s final State of the Union address rarely announces new plans or initiatives. As most pundits were expecting, Obama’s was more reflective and strategic than it was tactical and action-oriented. Obama said surveys prove America’s standing in the world has improved and stressed how adapting to change can usher in a more hopeful future.
Yet, for some development professionals, like global health writer Laurie Garrett, just hearing the right words was enough to call it a night.
Global health advocates could be among the most enthusiastic respondents to Obama’s farewell SOTU. The president highlighted significant progress in combatting HIV and AIDS and framed malaria eradication as a national foreign policy priority, a long-sought goal many feel could be achievable with renewed funding commitments.
“Right now, we are on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS, and we have the capacity to accomplish the same thing with malaria — something I’ll be pushing this Congress to fund this year,” Obama told the 114th U.S. legislature.
Obama highlighted what he views as America’s capacity to lead and rally other countries “on issues of global concern,” referencing the Ebola crisis as an example.
“That’s how we stopped the spread of Ebola in West Africa. Our military, our doctors, and our development workers set up the platform that allowed other countries to join us in stamping out that epidemic,” the president said.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was pleased to see the president’s acknowledgement of the role development and medical professionals played in helping to end the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa.
On several occasions, Obama tried to look beyond the divisive politics that has paralyzed Washington, D.C., and disenchanted many American voters. He called some of the differences between Democrats and Republicans “an honest disagreement” and expressed “regret” for not being able to reconcile them throughout the course of his administration.
But Obama did not budge on climate change, an historically controversial topic for Congress that often breaks along party lines. Instead, the president downplayed any lingering skepticism over the existence of climate change, made an unambiguous call to action, and touted U.S. leadership in recent international climate negotiations.
“When we lead nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change — that helps vulnerable countries, but it also protects our children,” Obama said.
Not everyone was willing to lend their congratulations just yet. Some have found the Paris COP21 agreement wanting in its ability to effect real change, questioning whether its basic structure as a voluntary agenda degrades the agreement’s genuine significance. For them, the lofty talk of climate action is outpacing the reality and the president could have been more detailed on what exactly is expected of Americans and U.S. companies and institutions.
Others raised specific concerns about the president’s treatment of the global climate challenge. Jonathan Greenblatt, former director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, expressed some disappointment over Obama’s lack of specificity in describing how the federal government might encourage new investments in renewable energy and other climate smart initiatives.
The president also described America’s moral obligation to fight poverty and bolster food security in Africa. But while he spoke about moving away from aid as “charity” and stressed the longer-term benefits of helping poorer nations, some prominent voices, like journalist Howard French, chided his use of stale rhetoric and references in his description of Africa and the continent’s problems.
There are different ways to assess Obama’s eighth and final speech. On the one hand, the speech elevated international engagement and highlighted the importance of foreign assistance like no other SOTU in recent memory. In this sense, Obama’s forward-looking messaging is likely to resonate well with both international partners and the global development community at large. The speech may even ignite some constructive policy shifts or help mobilize additional funds towards development causes, such as clean energy and malaria.
Conversely, the speech could be construed as grabbing for hopeful themes, while lacking the practical punch, even though this is somewhat normal for any president’s final SOTU. Considering the U.S. federal budget devotes only about one percent of its total to U.S. foreign assistance, the amount of time Obama spent on development issues could be more to inspire a future generation rather than promote or institute actual changes in the little time he has left in office.
Indeed, with one year remaining in his presidency, Obama has limited time to cement a global development legacy. Funding malaria eradication, leading by example on climate change, and advancing opportunities for migrants fleeing crisis would be major achievements. But to be successful, as Obama readily acknowledged, none of them will belong to the U.S. president alone.
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