5 Foreign-Policy Takeaways from Trump’s State of the Union
The U.S. president’s third State of the Union address was perhaps his most significant. Here’s what he said—and didn’t say—about foreign policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s third State of the Union address was perhaps his most significant, coming a day after the chaotic Iowa caucuses inaugurated the 2020 election season and a day before his expected acquittal in an impeachment trial over issues that will undoubtedly resonate through to the election in November.
One big factor that will likely weigh heavily in the 2020 vote is Trump’s foreign policy, from the alleged misconduct toward Ukraine that precipitated his impeachment to his ongoing trade wars with China and other nations to his incendiary confrontation with Iran.
But apart from declaring several times that, in his view, America’s prestige around the world was higher than ever, Trump spent relatively little time in his 78-minute speech on foreign policy—no doubt with an eye toward his reelection campaign, which will depend largely on the performance of the U.S. economy. Trump didn’t mention Ukraine at all—though it has dominated headlines for the last several months—and referred only briefly to his policies toward China, Iran, and the war in Afghanistan.
On foreign policy as on domestic issues, the speech—in which Trump boasted, “The state of our union is stronger than ever before”—only deepened the already chasmic divides between Democrats and Republicans. Arriving at the lectern, Trump turned away when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi reached out to shake his hand. Pelosi burnished her own credentials as the Queen of Shade for her subtle digs at Trump. Speakers of the house have historically introduced the president by saying, “I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.” Pelosi omitted mention of “high privilege and distinct honor.” By the end of the speech she was ostentatiously ripping up her copy of the president’s remarks and flinging it on the podium.
Here are five foreign-policy takeaways from the speech:
1. What wasn’t mentioned was just as telling as what was.
Most strikingly, Trump made no mention of the foreign-policy issue that has dominated Washington for the last several months: His treatment of Ukraine and the impeachment ordeal that ensued. Democrats have charged him with abuse of power for allegedly holding U.S. security assistance to Ukraine and a White House meeting hostage to his demand that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announce an investigation of Trump’s 2020 rival Joe Biden. The president has insisted throughout that his now-infamous telephone call with Zelensky was “perfect.”
Trump also made no mention of North Korea, where two years of high hopes, glitzy summits with Kim Jong Un, and grueling negotiations over denuclearization have stalled out. After his first summit with the North Korean leader in 2018, Trump declared, “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” He didn’t repeat that claim on Tuesday night. Neither did Trump talk about Russia, Africa, or climate change, though he did make a single reference to planting trees to help the environment. As for Iran, the country he nearly went to war with only a few weeks ago, the president made only a passing mention, saying, “The Iranian regime must abandon its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and needs to work for the good of its own people. Because of our powerful sanctions, the Iranian economy is doing very poorly. We can help them make a very good and short recovery. It can all go quickly—let’s see which road they choose. It is totally up to them.”
2. Trump boasts of a new high in American prestige, thanks entirely to him.
Several times during the speech the president spoke in superlatives of how admired his initiatives are around the world. “Our country is thriving and highly respected again,” he said, touting the U.S. role as “No. 1 producer of oil and gas anywhere in the world” and calling the U.S. stock market “something every country in the world is looking up to, they admire.” Trump added: “Our military is completely rebuilt, with its power being unmatched anywhere in the world.”
But such descriptions are in contrast to a raft of surveys that show anti-Americanism is surging and Trump is deeply disliked and mistrusted around the world. According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, a median of 64 percent of those surveyed said they don’t trust Trump to do the right thing in world affairs, and just 29 percent said they had confidence in the American leader.
3. Trump touts military strength, but terrorist groups gain ground.
Trump boasted about investments in the U.S. military and U.S. operations that put terrorist groups on the back foot: A series of U.S. raids and airstrikes have killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; a top Iranian military commander with extensive links to terrorist groups, Qassem Suleimani; and reportedly the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Qasim al-Raymi. Under Trump, the U.S.-led coalition has destroyed the Islamic State’s physical caliphate. “America’s enemies are on the run,” he said.
But peace negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan have faltered, and the group now controls more territory than it did at the start of Trump’s presidency. And the Islamic State is also still active and even rising again in Afghanistan and other countries. Trump signaled a possible withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying “peace talks are now underway” but “it is not our function to serve other nations as law enforcement agencies.”
4. Which China policy?
Trump lauded the administration’s relationship with China amid a push to wind down the bilateral trade war. “We have perhaps the best relationship we have ever had with China,” he said. But less than a week ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “the Chinese Communist Party presents the central threat of our times.”
Trump also bragged of his recent trade deal with China, saying, “I also promised citizens I would impose tariffs to confront China’s massive theft of America’s jobs. Our strategy has worked. Days ago, we signed a groundbreaking new agreement with China that will defend our workers, protect our intellectual property, bring billions of dollars into our treasury, and open vast new markets for products made and grown right here in the USA.” But the deal fails to address the deeper structural issues that Trump had declared were the reason for the trade war. As Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson recently wrote, the deal is “a truce, not a free trade deal. … The United States began its tariff fight with China on the grounds of a so-called Section 301 investigation, which highlighted Beijing’s abuse of its state-led economic model, including via state-owned companies, industrial subsidies, and state-directed cyber-espionage. Other than some fresh Chinese promises to crack down on intellectual property theft (more below), the deal just signed doesn’t address any of those core concerns that supposedly motivated the Trump administration in the first place.”
5. Trump barely mentioned democracy and human rights, except for… Venezuela.
“We are once again standing up for freedom in our hemisphere,” the president said. It soon became clear why a president who barely mentions democracy was doing so now: Among Trump’s guests watching from the gallery was the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó. “Here this evening is a man who carries with him the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of all Venezuelans,” said Trump as he introduced Guaidó, who was greeted with a rare moment of bipartisan applause. In a bid to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Guaidó declared himself interim president last year and is recognized by nearly 60 countries, including the United States, as the leader of Venezuela. The Trump administration had begun to lose faith in Guaidó’s ability to dislodge the Maduro regime, according to Bloomberg, but his presence at the State of the Union where Trump described him as the “true and legitimate president of Venezuela” would suggest that the Venezuelan leader maintains Trump’s confidence.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack