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Survey of newspaper editorials on Obama’s State of the Union address

(Sankei: January 27, 2016- p. 6)

 

 By Tsugumasa Uchihata

 

 In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama reiterated that the U.S. is not the world’s policeman and stressed the approach of working with the concerned countries in dealing with major international issues. Sankei Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun, which were looking to the U.S. to exercise stronger leadership amid the worsening international situation, clearly indicated their disappointment.

 

 The U.S. president’s State of the Union address spells out his policy in the next year. The greatest topic of interest for Japan is foreign policy. Although Obama cited concrete achievements of his administration, such as the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba or the nuclear agreement with Iran, he failed to touch on major issues that need to be dealt with at present, including North Korea’s development of nuclear arms and China’s unilateral maritime advances. Sankei commented that “overall, our impression is that the speech was without doubt unsatisfactory.”

 

 The speech came only one week after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test. Obama had won a Nobel Peace Prize for advocating a world without nuclear weapons, and in his State of the Union address in 2013, delivered after North Korea’s third nuclear test, he had pledged to take “firm action.” Sankei’s editorial asserted that “North Korea committed an outrageous act, as if in contempt of his last speech,” and demanded that “the U.S. president adopt a tougher stance and take the lead in facing this pressure.”

 

 Obama cited going after the terrorist networks as his top priority. He indicated his determination to make every effort to destroy the Islamic Sunni extremist group Islamic State (IS). However, Yomiuri was unconvinced, claiming: “Obama has not spelled out how this will be done. As things stand, it will probably be difficult for him to produce any significant results in the remaining year in his term of office.” It voiced the criticism that “the limitations of the approach of refraining from taking military action and emphasizing international cooperation unless the U.S. or its allies are facing a direct threat have become evident.”

 

 Negating the U.S.’s role as the world’s cop has been the trademark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Sankei and Yomiuri are critical of this stance. Obama asked in his address: “How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?” Yomiuri commented: “It is also questionable that he simply indicated the continuation of his halfhearted policy.” Sankei noted that “the power vacuum resulting from the U.S.’s negation of its role as the world’s policeman became a factor that has given rise to a ‘dangerous time.’ China’s rise and North Korea’s plunging into its nuclear test are not unrelated to this.”

 

 On the other hand, Mainichi Shimbun showed understanding for Obama’s position. Its editorial pointed out: “Obama argued for the need to make selective decisions on whether the U.S. should deal with issues alone or with other concerned nations. Such prudence is not wrong. The U.S. will not be able to handle all the issues brought to it.” However, it also noted that “many issues require the U.S.’s involvement” and admitted that we can’t help feeling insecure about the world’s future,” thus pinning hope on the U.S.’s power.

 

 Commenting on Obama’s question, “How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?” Asahi Shimbun observed that “this is a question that Obama has been asking throughout his term and he has not found the answer.” It expressed the following opinion: “This shows that Obama has been agonizing over the U.S.’s position in a multipolar world, an issue he will probably entrust to the next president.”

 

 In light of Obama’s mention of the TPP accord, urging Congress to ratify the agreement at an early date, Nikkei’s editorial focused on discussing the TPP, which will have a major impact on the Japanese economy. It claimed that “the U.S. Congress’s ratification will be more difficult to achieve than what is thought in Japan.” It called on Japan to “cooperate closely with the Obama administration and stress to the world the importance of establishing a fair and open economic sphere.”

 

 Primaries and caucuses for the U.S. presidential election will be held in various states from next month to choose the Democratic and Republican candidates. If the candidates are made to deliver a State of the Union address, what will they say on foreign policy? Will they warn China and North Korea and emphasize the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance? We will watch the election campaign closely.

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