North Korea effectively hijacked the world’s news cycle on Tuesday after Pyongyang said they conducted their third-ever test of a nuclear explosive, leading to immediate speculation about what President Barack Obama will discuss in his State of the Union speech in the evening.
With much of the world now focused on what the less-democratic of the two Koreas is doing with its weapons, it’s only natural that Obama’s speechwriters may be scrambling to include language about nuclear proliferation in Tuesday night’s address.
Thomas Whalen, a political historian and presidential scholar at Boston University, and Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, both said this was a likely scenario.
“It’s on the national radar; it’s in the press today,” Zelizer said. “The last thing [Obama] wants to do is open himself up to criticism and questions on why is he ignoring this.”
“I think it will just be a continuation of the administration's line of containment and lessening the prospect for nuclear proliferation,” Whalen said, responding to a question on how the speech might treat the issue. “That seems to be the big issue; the problem [for Obama] is that rather than controlling events, events seem to be controlling [him]."
“The overall message will be ‘a wise use of military power and strength,” Zelizer added. “You’ll get some acknowledgement that this is unacceptable, and we will take decisive action against it. He knows the Republicans will be talking about this, so I’m sure his speechwriters will want to anticipate this.”
“It’s an increasingly dangerous picture of the world,” Whalen said. “I think this took everyone by surprise, and the fact that [the North Koreans] are working on long-range capabilities means this is an issue that won’t be going away anytime soon.”
An extended mention or discussion of the problem probably won’t be warranted, however, as the speech is likely to focus mostly on domestic and economic issues. Any major foreign policy subjects that Obama mentions will probably involve the announcement that 34,000 U.S. troops are coming home from Afghanistan.
Indeed, Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said that if there was going to be any mention of nuclear arms in the speech, it was probably in place before the recent events in North Korea.
“I don’t think it changes much, “O’Hanlon said. “If the president were going to talk about nuclear arms, he would have to use language that says ‘the world’s still dangerous and we have to keep a safe, dependable arsenal.’ That would have been the case anyway, but the North Korea test gives him a hook to talk about it.”
Overall, as O’Hanlon wrote in an op-ed for Politico on Monday, foreign policy probably won’t factor into the speech very much at all.
“I’d be surprised if Iran or Syria were brought up,” O’Hanlon said. “If he were to talk about Syria or Mali, it would raise the question about why he’s not doing anything. He will try to get the conversation back to the economy and say something like ‘These small and not-so-small crises may pull on our heartstrings, but the only way we can continue to be a global leader is if we focus on the problems at home.’”
The State of the Union will be broadcast at 9 p.m. EST Tuesday.