Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.02.04

Listening to the State of the Union in Chicago

JBPress on January 31, 2014

The outdoor temperature was almost minus ten degrees Fahrenheit at midnight in Chicago on January 28. Business means business in this great mid-western industrial center and I regretted that I might have spent too much time in Washington, D.C. where business means politics. Indeed, the real America starts outside the Beltway of the nation's capital.

I was a little surprised, however, to see that Chicago has not changed much since 1976 when I was a student in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) and a frequent visitor to Chicago. While the good news is that good-old Chicago is still here, the bad news is that its business world seems to have lost some of its dynamism.

Likely for this reason, political and economic leaders in Chicago seem to be more interested in promoting business. Here, foreign relations means international trade, not foreign policy as I know it. This does not mean, however, that people in Illinois are less informed on international affairs.

On the contrary, they are as well-informed as anybody in the United States. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, organized a book event by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the early evening of January 28. The floor was literally packed with an enthusiastic audience of more than 1,500, including myself.

The Secretary's remarks were very intriguing to me, not because he criticized many people in Washington, D.C., but simply because I could feel his deep respect for the men and women in uniform on active-duty, and especially for those on the frontline. This kind of sense of responsibility is only held by those who sign the deployment orders that send soldiers in harm's way.

At the event site, I bought a copy of his new book, "Duty," with some expectation of getting his autograph on it. Nonetheless, I finally gave up and rushed to my hotel room to watch President Obama's State of the Union address. It was the first time I had listened to the President's State of the Union in the United States outside the Washington D.C. area.

The State of the Union address is not a foreign policy speech. It has always been more domestic than international. Foreign policy students outside the United States have long been concerned and often complained about this without any result. However, now, listening to President Obama in his home state of Illinois, not in D.C., it was much easier for me to understand why.

In Chicago I concluded that ordinary Americans outside Washington, D.C. care little about international politics, even for good reasons, period. No wonder that President Obama used only 164 words of the nearly 7,000-word speech to talk about his foreign policy agenda outside of Iran's nuclear problem. The following are his actual remarks:

"Our alliance with Europe remains the strongest the world has ever known. From Tunisia to Burma, we're supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy. In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country's future."

"Across Africa, we're bringing together businesses and governments to double access to electricity and help end extreme poverty. In the Americas, we are building new ties of commerce, but we're also expanding cultural and educational exchanges among young people." At last, here comes Obama's reference to our part of the world:

"And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity, and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster-as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, 'We will never forget your kindness' and 'God bless America!'"

I want to say, "Is that all? No reference to China at all?" No, for very good reasons in the United States as I have already mentioned. However, many outside the U.S. don't agree. They will try to read the hidden intentions between the lines. Each country or region where U.S. forces are deployed naturally tries to measure the level of U.S. interest in them.

I used to do that at the Japanese foreign ministry but I will not spend much energy on that anymore. This week I learned a simple lesson in Chicago: that in the end, the United States government represents the ordinary Americans residing in the 50 states beyond the District of Columbia.