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Foreign Policy In Obama's Second Inaugural Address

Diplomacy, Strong Military, Climate Change At Core Of Speech


Foreign Policy In Obama's Second Inaugural Address

President Barack Obama takes his second-term oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts. First Lady Michelle Obama holds two Bibles, one from Martin Luther King, Jr., the other from Abraham Lincoln.

Photo by Sonya N. Hebert/White House
Updated January 22, 2013

In his second inaugural address on January 21, 2013, United States President Barack Obama spoke mostly about domestic issues and using the collective strength of the American people to overcome obstacles. But he referenced some foreign policy issues as well.

Obama reaffirmed his commitment to diplomacy while keeping American military forces strong, and he pledged again to push ahead on global climate change problems. Many Obama supporters have complained that the president had done nothing on climate change during his first term.

The Military And War

Obama noted early in his speech that, "This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending."

Obama was alluding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing War on Terror that plunged the U.S. into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also alluded to a national "war weariness" that he inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush.

President Obama ended the Iraq War at the end of 2011. He has also directed that American troops be out of Afghanistan by 2014.

Peace, Not Perpetual War

Obama said, "We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war." He praised the service of American soldiers and lamented the suffering of American families who have lost loved ones in the wars. "The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm," he said.

Then he hinted at the direction of his foreign policy. "We are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well," Obama said.

This is not new for Obama, but rather a continuation of his foreign policy tendencies. Obama is more fond of talking than fighting. He said before his first term that he was willing to talk to virtually any of America's foes, a statement that immediately drew fire from Republican opponents.

He is also slow to move on many foreign issues, preferring to talk, deliberate, and think before taking action. Such was the case on his normalization of relations with Burma in 2012 after watching that country edge toward democratic reforms.

That meditative tendency also irritates some, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has for months wanted immediate U.S. action to halt suspected Iranian progress toward a nuclear weapon. Obama has urged Netanyahu's patience, saying he would not allow Iran to become nuclear capable.

"We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully - not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear," Obama said.

Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, echoes that position. Hagel disagreed with the prosecution of Bush's Iraq War, and he has advocated downsizing military agencies.

Peace Through Strength, Also

Obama is, of course, the man who ordered the strike that killed Osama Bin Laden, a 2009 surge in Afghanistan, and many successful drone strikes in the past couple of years. He is not squeamish about action when necessary.

"We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation," he said.

Obama also reiterated the doctrine of every president since Woodrow Wilson. "We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom," he said.

Climate Change

The president surprised many by giving climate change a prominent place in his address. "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."

Climate change policies become foreign policies when the U.S. recognizes a global responsibility regarding the issue. "The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult," Obama said. "But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries: we must claim its promise."

On January 19, 2013, the U.S. joined more than 129 other nations in a first-ever pact to limit mercury pollution, which largely comes from coal-fired industrial plants. In his first term, Obama got little congressional cooperation on climate change. Observers expect him to work more by executive order to make progress.

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