It's a time-honored tradition: When a U.S. president gives his State of the Union address, interest groups pore over the carefully crafted remarks line by line, word by word, to assess the administration's priorities and blind spots. The exercise plays out, if to a lesser degree, overseas as well: The day after President Obama's sixth address, news outlets in Kiev, Beijing, and Tehran are picking apart references to their countries.
State of the Union addresses haven't always been such a spectacle. U.S. presidents have delivered them since 1790, but until 1913 these addresses were submitted as annual reports to Congress. When Woodrow Wilson became president, he turned the constitutionally required update on the nation's well-being to an in-person speech.
In Tuesday night's State of the Union address, Obama named 13 nations: Afghanistan, Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Mali, Palestine, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Yemen. Each has been named in previous State of the Union addresses; one, Tunisia, was first mentioned in Thomas Jefferson's 1805 State of the Union address for its role in Mediterranean piracy. This time around, the circumstances were just a tad different.
Which countries have presidents mentioned the most in their State of the Union addresses? Which regions of the world get the most attention? And what trends can we discern over time?
First, a look at country mentions over time, broken down by region and plotted in two-decade increments (i.e., the 1800s covers 1800-1819).
I've highlighted five regions: Asia, Africa, Europe (including Russia), the Americas (North, South, and Central), and the Middle East (including North Africa's Muslim-majority countries, Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan). I also didn't count presidential references to regions (e.g., "Europe" or the "Middle East").
The graph features two large spikes that are worth exploring. One appears between the 1820s and 1840s, when the young nation stepped up its efforts to establish diplomatic relations with European powers. The Americas also feature prominently during this period as the Spanish Empire disintegrates. Early American presidents, who viewed Simón Bolívar as a revolutionary in the mold of George Washington sought cordial relations with these nascent nations, which they frequently called "sister republics." (The Monroe Doctrine, which sought to check further European expansion in North and South America, was established in 1823.)
Around 1840, there's a sharp drop-off in country mentions as the national discourse turns toward deepening sectional tensions over slavery. In his first State of the Union address in 1861, Abraham Lincoln named only one other foreign power: Britain. But from there, other nations are only mentioned with increasing frequency as new embassies are established and distant powers like China and Japan open up.
But what about that big drop-off in the early 20th century? Foreign nations, it seems, are mentioned far less frequently after the State of the Union became a live speech in 1913. The change in format, along with post-World War I isolationism and the sharp turn to domestic policy following the 1929 Wall Street crash, appear to have fueled the initial decline. Other countries were only mentioned by name eight times in the 1930s—Franklin D. Roosevelt liked to paint in broad strokes—a 95-percent decline since the 1900s. Britain exemplifies this trend, as show by the graph below.
Britain is by far the most frequently mentioned country in State of the Union addresses, whether as Great Britain, England, the British Empire, or the British Commonwealth. Early presidents mentioned America's former colonial overlord in every State of the Union address between 1806 and 1886—a whopping 80 consecutive years.
Disputes over claims in the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, and ongoing border disputes with British Canada dominated 19th-century American diplomacy. After the Civil War, presidents most frequently discussed trade negotiations with both Britain itself and with its vast empire. After the two world wars, presidents mentioned Britain far less often, and it soon was superseded by variations of the common phrase "our European allies."
Although France was the first foreign power to formally recognize the United States, it was not the first country to be mentioned in a State of the Union address. That honor goes instead to Holland, now known as the Netherlands, whose loan of 3 million florins (a significant sum at the time) to the United States featured prominently in George Washington's December 1790 report to Congress.
France, like Britain, is nevertheless discussed frequently in the 19th century and early 20th century. Like many European powers, its mentions decline after World War II, when American presidents began to speak of Europe as a cohesive whole. The 1930s, 1980s, and 2000s are the only decades in which America's oldest ally has not been mentioned in the annual address.
Russia's standing in American foreign policy has also varied widely over the course of U.S. history (for the purposes of the graph above, Russia includes the Russian Empire, revolutionary Russia, the Soviet Union, and the modern Russian Federation.). Nineteenth-century presidents spoke glowingly of the tsars for arbitrating the Treaty of Ghent between Britain and the United States after the War of 1812. Mid- to late-20th-century presidents, in stark contrast, condemned what they called "the Soviet empire" and vowed to contain the expansion of communism around the world. Thanks to the Cold War, Russia is one of the few European powers mentioned more frequently in the 20th century than in the 19th.
John Quincy Adams first mentioned China in 1825, although it would be many years before an American envoy would make the long trek there and establish formal diplomatic relations with the country. The Qing Dynasty's great wealth, despite its internal weakness, led successive 19th-century presidents to pursue closer economic and diplomatic relations with the Middle Kingdom.
After that internal weakness led to revolution and civil war, China's prominence in American foreign relations faded until it joined the Allied powers in World War II. "Red China," as Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower called it, then became a geopolitical foe during the Cold War. Richard Nixon's 1972 visit re-calibrated relations once again, and presidents spoke of it thereafter first as a foreign policy success and then subsequently as a rival. President Obama invoked the latter characterization once again last night when he boasted that the U.S. was now a better place to invest than China.
First mentioned as Persia by James Buchanan in 1857, Iran's prominence in State of the Union addresses is far more sporadic than the countries above. In the 19th century, geographic distance translated to only intermittent diplomatic relations between the two countries. Only during the Cold War does Iran's geopolitical value elicit more than an occasional reference. Eisenhower cited the 1953 overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in his 1954 State of the Union address as one of the "heartening political victories [that] have been won by the forces of stability and freedom" the prior year.
But Iranian public outrage toward America's clandestine role in ousting Mossadegh helped fuel the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and Iran remained a fixture of State of the Union addresses thereafter as an international villain. George W. Bush even included it in his "axis of evil" in 2002, and Obama made his third-consecutive reference to the Islamic Republic on Tuesday night when he discussed ongoing multilateral efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program.
World War II marked the beginning of two distinct trends in State of the Union addresses. First, presidents began to refer to regions of the world like the Middle East or discrete groups of countries like NATO more frequently. Second, America's role overseas meant that explicit condemnations of foreign adversaries became more common.
As a result, the foreign-policy sections of recent State of the Union addresses typically feature catch-all phrases like "our partners overseas" for allies, a few paragraphs of condemnations of rogue regimes, an overt jab at an international rival or two like China or Russia, and warnings about active and potential sources of instability in Africa and the Middle East.
International gloom doesn't suit the galvanizing State of the Union addresses that presidents now prepare. That may explain why 11 modern State of the Union addresses have not mentioned a single foreign nation. George W. Bush's first State of the Union address only devoted a paragraph to foreign policy:
Our nation also needs a clear strategy to confront the threats of the 21st century, threats that are more widespread and less certain. They range from terrorists who threaten with bombs to tyrants and rogue nations intent on developing weapons of mass destruction. To protect our own people, our allies and friends, we must develop and we must deploy effective missile defenses.
Eight months later, al-Qaeda operatives flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing more than 3,000 people. More countries were mentioned in the decade of State of the Union speeches that followed than in any other decade since 1900.
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