United States President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 12.
In his speech, Obama focused on a number of ideas, including the fact that America has never stopped being great, that diplomacy is a better way to deal with conflict, and that all Americans — regardless of differences in their religion, origin, or political ideology — need to work together to improve the country and the world.
Barring all political spin, it was a good, inspiring speech that reminded us that America has done great things in the past, and it is capable of doing great things in the future.
But how did the African continent fair in this particular State of the Union address?
Obama mentioned Africa twice during his address. The first was while he was discussing terrorism and foreign policy. Even without terrorism, he said, “instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world,” not just in the Middle East, but pretty much everywhere in the world, including “parts of Central America and Africa and Asia.”
Conflict, he pointed out, wasn’t just about terrorism. While new terrorist networks could form in these places, many “will just fall victim to ethnic conflict or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees.”
Foreign policy was an important centerpiece in the speech, and his mention of Africa reflects that. The President cautioned about becoming the world’s police force.
“We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis,” Obama said. “Even if it’s done with the best of intentions. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us.”
The solution, he said, is to encourage countries to “pull their own weight.” It’s not a bad idea — to provide these kinds of help, to be diplomatic, and to cooperate with the people and countries around the world. In crisis situations, this would involve teaching those in other countries to rebuild themselves, providing the skills and the tools to do so. After all, this is what the Allied Powers did in Germany and Japan following World War II.
While the President did not use these specific examples, he mentioned other examples and cases where such an approach has been successful: helping Syrian local agencies fight the Islamic State or ISIS, convincing Iran to roll back its the nuclear program, opening relations with Cuba, and “stopping the spread of Ebola in West Africa.”
The reference to Ebola in West Africa was an interesting statement for the President to make.
There had been criticism about how the West handled the Ebola crisis, particularly with the involvement of the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO’s response had been criticized as slow, and the WHO apologized and promised transparency in the future.
Of course, the U.S. is not the WHO, and its role in managing the outbreak was different. This is because the U.S. is not the world’s police force, as Obama insinuated in his speech. While one of the main functions of the WHO is to track and manage the outbreak of diseases, its other role is to provide aid. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) sent aid workers to West Africa less than a week after the WHO initially announced the outbreak.
But it’s hard to define and even claim success in stopping the spread of the disease when the epidemic lasted almost two years and more than 11,000 people died as a result. Of course, as Obama stated, it could have been worse. “Hundreds of thousands — maybe a couple of million lives were saved.” Possibly, possibly not. This is, of course, speculation.
But regardless of how many lives may or may not have been saved, the U.S. played an important role in helping to bring the outbreak under control. The lives that we know were saved are more valuable than any maybes or what-ifs. As the President said, “our military, our doctors, our development workers — they were heroic.”
As I see it, there is no argument with this.
The U.S. is still involved in Ebola recovery, even though the WHO has officially declared the epidemic to be over.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is still working in West Africa to prevent future outbreaks, and their goals and methods sound very much like the “pulling their own weight” that Obama spoke about: they want to help strengthen people’s access to doctors, vaccines, and prenatal care for women. They also want to help reopen schools and get farmers back on their feet. Providing access to health care is not the only factor in rebuilding after the outbreak of a deadly disease, and it isn’t the only factor.
Preventing Ebola from happening again is another issue. The president’s statement that the U.S. stopped Ebola might be a little far-fetched, but hopefully, his idea to help and cooperate with crisis areas in order to put them back on their own feet will come to pass.
It isn’t surprising that Africa wasn’t a huge point of focus for the President during the State of the Union this year. It would have been even better to hear something about strengthening economic relationships with the continent. The bulk of the Obama administration’s relationship with the African continent has been focused on economic and security issues.
But it is somewhat understandable why the bigger connections were left out. It is Obama’s last year as President, and his goal is to wrap up any loose ends and things that he hasn’t yet accomplished during his presidency. Of course, the President can’t mention all of his accomplishments and future plans in a single, hour-long speech.
As evidenced by his actions and activities with Syria, Iran, Cuba, and other places, Obama has invested much time in foreign policy and international relations over the past seven years. It would be surprising if this trend doesn’t continue. We’ll have to wait and see what, if any, new plans he has for the African continent this year.