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Three notes on the State of the Union

Three notes on the State of the Union

1. The importance of Asia to America

Robert Kelly's outstanding contribution on the absence of Asia from Obama's State of the Union speech deserves a brief addendum. Here's a key excerpt from Bob's post: both security and economic affairs, the relationship is highly asymmetric, and those who tell you otherwise are trying to cover the weaknesses of many Asian states and their desperation for US attention with bravado that America 'needs' Asia. As I have been trying to argue on my blog for awhile, if Asians do not want the US in Asia, it is no big deal for US security, and it is an economic blow far worse for them than it is for America. And things are getting even more asymmetric as the US becomes energy independent because of fracking, so have fun fixing the Middle East, China!

I think this absolutely right, and there is a corollary which America's regional allies need to be aware of: in any disagreement between the US and China arising, say, from the South or East China Sea territorial dispute or Taiwan or the Korean peninsula, the stakes will be far lower for the US than they will be for China.

This is a factor that's never captured in simple judgments about the balance of military forces. Yes, the US will remain far and away the strongest military power in the region for the foreseeable future, but how high is the willingness to use it, and how high is the tolerance for losses? The answer to those two questions depend on what leaders and nations believe to be at stake. If Kelly is right that American security is not deeply affected by Asian geopolitics, then those tolerances will be quite low. 

2. Obama's slap at the Bush Administration's wars

This short section carried quite a sting: [fold]

I will not send our troops into harm's way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts. We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us -- large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.

My translation: al Qaeda practically dared us to invade Afghanistan so that they and the Taliban could kill our soldiers and sap our resources by engaging us in a useless war with no realistic prospect of victory. We not only obliged them, but opened up a second front by invading and occupying Iraq. It made us weaker and acted as a recruitment tool for the enemy.

3. Supporting the troops

There's a sobering conversation going on between James Fallows and his blog readers about the way Obama closed his speech, with a tribute to an injured soldier. Fallows says 'I don't think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014. It was a good and honorable moment for (Sergeant Cory Remsburg) and his family. But I think the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy. The vast majority of us play no part whatsoever in these prolonged overseas campaigns; people like Sgt. Remsburg go out on 10 deployments; we rousingly cheer their courage and will; and then we move on.'

I think Australians need to have a similar conversation about the way we honour (and forget) our soldiers, a conversation that I'm sure will be helped along by a new book from my colleague James Brown, Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, which will be launched in February.

Photo courtesy of the White House.

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