As former speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill once said, “all politics is local”. United States President Donald Trump adhered to this motto when he delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, reserving approximately 80 percent of his 90-minute-long speech for domestic policy issues. He focused specifically on the Tax Reform Act and shrinking unemployment figures, and repeatedly congratulated himself for taking steps towards “building a safe, strong and proud America”.
In the brief moments that he touched upon foreign policy, he carefully avoided delving into salient issues like Syria, Yemen, the Gulf crisis or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He avoided commenting on these significant foreign policy challenges either because his administration failed to produce coherent strategies to tackle them, or he simply did not want to taint an opportunity to brag about his “successful” first year in office by addressing thorny issues. Instead, he stuck to his usual talking points and criticised the Iran nuclear deal, praised the US military’s success in its war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and attacked “the cruel dictatorship” that is North Korea. He briefly mentioned his widely condemned decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but rather than using this opportunity to respond to the controversy, or explain how this move fits into his plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he chose to launch an attack against the countries that voted against him in a UN vote about the issue.
In his first State of the Union address, Trump also took a page from the Cold War playbook and resurrected the idea that the US is the protector of global freedoms. Just like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon frequently did in the 1980’s, he shaped the sections of his speech that deal with foreign policy around advocacy of freedom and American morality. He told the gruelling story of North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, and equated his yearning for freedom on the other side of the globe to the construct of freedom that is deeply rooted in America’s exceptionalism and historical collective memory. He asserted it was “that same yearning for freedom that nearly 250 years ago gave birth to a special place called America.” He also mentioned the recent protests in Iran against the government, and emphasised that “America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.”
Trump has perpetuated this pro-freedom narrative for more than one purpose. First, by presenting himself as a protector of human rights and freedoms, he implicitly countered his critics’ argument that he is undermining the values of American democracy by his nativist, racist, misogynist, and Islamophobic positions. After all, there is growing conviction in the international community that Trump’s America has relinquished its commitment to human rights and other liberties.
Second, by taking a pro-freedom stance in his first State of the Union speech, Trump sought to affirm his extreme right-wing and Evangelical base’s attachment to the idea of American exceptionalism, and ultimately positioned himself on a high moral ground close to his idol Reagan, who once said “Freedom is not the sole prerogative of a chosen few; it is the universal right of all God’s children.” Of course, Trump’s moralistic call for freedom in Iran and North Korea was contradictory to his anti-globalist motto of “keeping America first”, but it seems irony is lost on his supporters.
A brief analysis of Trump’s address at the Congress proposes a few revealing observations:
First, Trump’s realpolitik mindset that was apparent throughout his address showcased his preference for muscle-flexing military superiority as a deterrence strategy. By stating that he believes “weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense”, the president clearly demonstrated his inclination to focus on his country’s “hard power” capabilities, and to neglect its considerable “soft power” resources. In his address, Trump expressed his intention to “modernise and rebuild our nuclear arsenal” and asked Congress to “fully fund” the US military, even though the US military spending – at 16 percent of the federal budget – already exceeds the military spending by China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japancombined. However, he refrained from mentioning cultural and educational exchanges and other forms of public diplomacy between nations. The decades-long practice of soft power by certain agencies, such as the State Department, the International Institute of Education, and the Smithsonian, has already been waning after he imposed a 40 percent cut on international programs at the State Department.
Second, Trump’s speech signals a selective resurrection of the Cold War paradigm, not against Russia the heir to the Soviet Union, but a nouveau Trumpian “axis of evil”. In his State of the Nation address, Trump sought to overdramatise his stance on Korea, Iran, and ISIL, and praised himself for speaking against Iran’s “corrupt dictatorship”. He also vowed to impose sanctions on “communist and socialist dictatorships” in Cuba andVenezuela. But he did all this without indexing his strategy of containment, let alone deterrence. He advocates for a sharper, defensive realism, but does not seem to have a coherent foreign policy strategy beyond simplifications based on us vs them dichotomies.
Third, Trump avoided addressing several elephants in the room. He uttered the word “Russia” only once as one of the two economic rivals of the US, and avoided any mention of Russian rivalry in the turbulent Middle East and beyond. Many Americans remain uneasy about Russia’s growing influence in the region amidst Trump’s isolationism, and criticise his lack of strategy in Syria, beyond his loud criticism of his predecessor Barack Obama’s failure to act against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Since his decision to fire dozens of cruise missiles at the government-controlled Shayrat airbase in Syria, in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town that killed scores of civilians, Trump has drifted between five conflicting policies: Assad must go, Assad can stay, fight ISIL first, let the Russians and Iranians fight our enemies, and let’s see what Russia wants in Syria. Trump’s address, which coincided with the Kremlin-hosted Sochi meeting on Syria, failed to clarify which one of these five strategies -or any strategy at all- the president is currently pursuing in Syria. Earlier this month, Pentagon implicitly gave green light to Turkey’s military operation in Afrin, which is targeting Kurdish groups that allied themselves with the US in the fight against ISIL. In a recent phone call, President Trump urged his Turkish counterpart “to de-escalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees”. All this raised new questions about the US’ lack of strategy in Syria, yet the president did not clarify his administration’s stance on Turkey’s cross-border operation. In fact, he did not mention Turkey or the Kurds even once throughout his address.
Fourth, the State of the Nation address showed that Trump’s political radar does not seem to detect the upcoming crises in the Middle East and beyond. It showed that the president is not planning to adopt an informed, pro-active foreign policy strategy to lift up the US’s standing in the world. The president claimed that his administration is “strengthen(ing) friendships around the world, while restoring clarity about our adversaries.” Unfortunately, this oversimplified us vs them dichotomy did nothing to ease the concerns of political observers about Trump’s tendency to “distort reality” to fit his “personal myth of greatness”. In his address to the nation, Trump called for a “new American moment”, possibly in an attempt to carve himself a place next to true American statesmen in history books. But, as one commentator rightly put it, in the end, his first State of the Nation address did nothing but prove that “Donald Trump is the only politician in American history who looks smaller when surrounded by the trappings of the presidency”.