The world seems like a relatively safe place from President Biden’s point of view.
A host of high-stakes foreign policy challenges and national security threats, including Chinese spy balloons and a slow-burning resurgence of Islamic terrorism, were all but absent from Mr. Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. For a president who prides himself on the number of foreign leaders he has dealt with, he dedicated precious little time to the dangers facing America and its allies during heightened tensions around the world.
He made no mention of Iran or its nuclear program, no mention of North Korea, no mention of the Islamic State, al Qaeda or other extremist groups beyond an early throwaway reference to U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. The price of insulin got as much attention as the threat from China in Mr. Biden’s address and was mentioned much earlier.
A speech so light on foreign affairs is even more surprising given the president’s supposed gravitas on the issue, a reputation he earned after a dozen years as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Biden has insisted that experience makes him an especially qualified commander in chief, and he would surely tout his foreign policy credentials in his still-hypothetical 2024 reelection campaign.
If Mr. Biden plans to make foreign affairs a centerpiece of the second half of his term, he didn’t show it Tuesday night.
He made no mention of Afghanistan, which fell once again under the iron grip of an extremist Taliban government that rolled back women’s rights and failed to rein in terrorist operations after Mr. Biden withdrew U.S. troops in August 2021.
Iranian dissident groups privately grumbled that Mr. Biden’s address made no mention of the regime in Tehran, the stalemated talks over a new nuclear agreement or Mr. Biden’s plans to deal with Iranian challenges to U.S. allies and interests across the Middle East.
“It is a first for a U.S. president to reduce the United States’ global role to an afterthought” in a State of the Union speech, Marwan Bishara, a senior political analyst for Al Jazeera, said in a commentary Wednesday.
Most glaring Tuesday night was the omission of the sage of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance balloon, which flew over North America last week and became another flashpoint in the increasingly tense U.S.-Chinese relationship.
Mr. Biden spoke only in broad terms about the incident, which dominated news coverage for days leading up to the State of the Union and brought withering criticism from lawmakers and national security analysts who said the administration made a grave mistake by waiting to shoot down the balloon. Mr. Biden let the spy craft travel coast to coast before giving the order to take it out Saturday over the Atlantic Ocean.
“I will make no apologies that we are investing to make America stronger. Investing in American innovation, in industries that will define the future, that China intends to be dominating,” Mr. Biden said.
“Investing in our alliances and working with our allies to protect advanced technologies so they will not be used against us. Modernizing our military to safeguard stability and deter aggression,” the president said. “Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world, anyone else in the world. I am committed to work with China where we can advance American interests and benefit the world. But make no mistake about it: As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”
China insisted that the balloon was on a civilian mission to collect weather data, but the U.S. said its trip across sensitive sites from the Canadian border to the Atlantic Coast was a spy mission.
To be fair, the president did not shy away from discussing the competition between Washington and Beijing that is defining the 21st century. Yet he virtually ignored the significant fallout from the balloon saga and how it would impact the economic, diplomatic, cultural and military aspects of the U.S.-Chinese relationship.
Just hours before the State of the Union, Pentagon officials revealed that Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe refused phone calls from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in the days since the shoot-down. That refusal represents a serious breakdown in communication at the highest military levels of the world’s two top powers.
The icy diplomatic relationship between the countries also took a significant hit. A planned trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing for high-level talks last weekend was abruptly canceled after the balloon was spotted high over the western United States.
Critics say Mr. Biden missed an opportunity to send a stronger message to China and only scratched the surface of the Russia-Ukraine war, which is nearing its second year.
“Forget great-power competition. Forget China violating American airspace and largely ignore Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II. I will rest soundly knowing the commander of the free world is on top of the dastardly problem of resort fees,” said Michael Rubin, a former Defense Department official and now a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. He was referring to Mr. Biden’s State of the Union proposal to curb exorbitant fees at the nation’s entertainment venues.
“We were safer as a country before that speech than we are after it,” Mr. Rubin told The Washington Times.
Lawmakers also criticized Mr. Biden for skirting the issue of the Chinese balloon. They said the American public would have welcomed an explanation from the president on how he intends to keep the homeland safe from communist surveillance.
“Americans who expected to hear about our vulnerability to spying by our top adversary, China, walked away without him even addressing the issue,” Rep. Barry Loudermilk, Georgia Republican, said in a statement.
Al Jazeera’s Mr. Bishara and others said the Biden speech, pitched to the interests of middle-class American voters and widely seen as an opening argument for a 2024 reelection run, largely skirted foreign policy because there would have been little political upside for the president to address intractable issues.
“Hence the president, who seems keen on pursuing a second term, dialed down the costly global bravado in his speech and instead focused on ‘made in America’ growth and prosperity,” said Mr. Bishara, citing one theory for the speech’s imbalance.
ForeignPolicy.com ran its analysis of the speech under the headline “Spoiler alert: Foreign policy won’t be a U.S. election issue.”
Mr. Biden did speak at relative length about U.S. aid to Ukraine and its role in rallying the Western world to help Kyiv battle Russian invaders. Although the president essentially promised indefinite U.S. military and financial help to Ukraine, he offered no detail on Washington’s big-picture plans to help bring the conflict to an end.
“I spoke from this chamber one year ago, just days after [Russian President] Vladimir Putin unleashed his brutal war against Ukraine. A murderous assault, evoking images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II,” Mr. Biden said. “Putin’s invasion has been a test for the ages. A test for America. A test for the world. Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty?
“One year later, we know the answer. Yes, we would. And we did,” the president said. “Together, we did what America always does at our best. We led.”
Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova attended the speech. Mr. Biden addressed the ambassador directly when he pledged continued U.S. support.
“Ambassador, we’re united in our support for your country,” Mr. Biden said. “We’re going to stand with you as long as it takes.”