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Top Foreign-Policy Takeaways From Trump’s State of the Union

What the president said—and didn’t say—about America’s place in the world.

U.S. President Donald Trump, with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence looking on, delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 5. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence looking on, delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 5. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump spent much of his 2019 State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday night urging lawmakers to overcome partisan gridlock and touting the strength of the U.S. economy under his administration. But he also devoted some portions to foreign policy. Here is the rundown of what he said and, just as tellingly, what he didn’t say:

North Korea: Trump announced his long-awaited second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be on Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam as he pushes forward nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now in my opinion be in a major war with North Korea,” he said. “Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.”

The U.S.-Mexico Border: Trump devoted more time in his address to border security than almost any other topic. He urged Congress to pass a bill that addresses border security and funds his long-promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, saying “walls save lives.” The political impasse over the wall sparked the longest government shutdown in U.S. history and stoked diplomatic tensions with Mexico. Trump confirmed he will send 3,750 additional U.S. troops to the border with Mexico to prepare for the “tremendous onslaught” of immigrants entering the country illegally. (The number of immigrants living in the United States without authorization dropped to the lowest it’s been in a decade last year.)

NATO: For over two years, Trump has hounded U.S. allies in NATO to spend more on defense, saying they are taking unfair advantage of the United States and even privately questioning whether the United States would stay in the alliance. In his State of the Union address, he took a more positive tone, saying the United States has secured over $100 billion in defense spending from allies. Perhaps much to the relief of nervous European allies, his mention of NATO started and ended there.

Russia: The president reiterated his decision last week to withdraw from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. Trump alluded to negotiating a new agreement, which would include China. The treaty withdrawal sparked fears of a new arms race. The president did little to ameliorate the concerns, vowing to “outspend” and “out-innovate” other nations.

Venezuela: Trump reiterated the U.S. opposition to embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Last month, Trump recognized opposition figure Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela amid the country’s economic turmoil and political strife that has sparked a massive refugee crisis. Many other countries in the region and European allies have done the same. Thus far, Maduro has dug his heels in, refusing to cede power, and it remains unclear whether Trump’s diplomatic gamble will pay off. Trump followed his remarks on Venezuela by vowing that the United States “will never become a socialist country.”

Trade: The president has made withdrawing from and then renegotiating treaties a signature of his trade policy. After pledging to reverse “decades of calamitous trade policies,” Trump said he had great respect for the Chinese leader Xi Jinping and that a new trade deal with China was already under discussion.  

The Islamic State: Trump celebrated the defeat of the Islamic State, adding it was time to bring U.S. troops home from conflict zones in the Middle East. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said.

Afghanistan: Continuing the theme of withdrawal, Trump thanked U.S. troops for their service in Afghanistan and said that the time had now come for a political solution to the problem. Following the president’s announcement in December 2018 of plans to withdraw U.S. troops, the United States met with representatives of the Taliban for peace talks. The Taliban now control more territory than at any time since the U.S. invasion of 2001 and are estimated to have some 60,000 fighters.

Iran: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the president reserved his harshest words for Iran. In a short section in which he reaffirmed his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, he described the country as a “radical regime” and “the world’s leading sponsor of state terror,” adding: “They do bad, bad things.”

 

Here are some of the major foreign-policy issues Trump did not mention:

Climate Change: Trump is a noted climate change doubter who withdrew the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accords, and so it’s no surprise that he was silent on the issue. But the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change continues to pile up, and with it predictions of disastrous consequences around the globe. A U.S. government report released in November 2018—one the Trump administration ignored—warned that the U.S. economy could lose thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century from the impacts of climate change, including extreme weather.

Middle East Peace Plan: From the start of his presidency, Trump vowed to secure what he calls the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, where generations of U.S. leaders and diplomats have failed. But more than two years into his presidency, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—the point man on negotiations—have remain tight-lipped about what their plan entails. The rollout of the plan has reportedly been delayed again until after Israeli elections in April.

Global Democracy and Governance: While Trump touted certain countries’ aspirations for freedom in his address, notably Venezuela’s, he made no reference to the troubling backslide of democracy worldwide. The nonprofit group Freedom House concluded recently that there has been a steady decline in political freedom and civil liberties worldwide for over a decade.

Africa: Trump spoke of China and North Korea, on Mexico and Venezuela, of Europeans and Russia, and the Middle East and Afghanistan. He made no mention at all of Africa, the home of some of the world’s fastest-growing countries and economies; nearly one-sixth of the world’s population; several of the world’s worst humanitarian crises; and a growing number of U.S. military showdowns against militant groups.

Robbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@ak_mack

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