Trump’s State of the Union and what we have to say about it

US President Donald J. Trump delivered his second State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington on February 5.

Atlantic Council analysts take a look at some of the foreign policy notes struck by the president and offer their analysis.*


Our take:

Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council: “In his State of the Union address, even as President Trump stuck to his narrative of US allies treating us unfairly, he avoided piling on and raising any question about US commitment to NATO. Let’s remember, allies are our comparative advantage. Notably, his first major foreign policy point in the address tackled burden-sharing head on, underscoring the centrality of this issue to the president’s priorities and worldview.

“The president declared victory on burden-sharing using NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s message that NATO allies have committed to spend an extra $100 billion on defense. ‘They said it could not be done,’ Trump said without mentioning that this increase reflects defense spending from 2016 through 2020. Despite doubling down on the message that ‘for years, the United States was being treated very unfairly by friends, members of NATO,’ the president’s pivot to the positive—we’re ‘getting other nations to pay their fair share—finally’—no doubt produced a sigh of relief from our allies.

“The president went on to justify his administration’s withdrawal from the INF while challenging US adversaries suggesting that perhaps the United States could reach a new agreement with Russia, China and other nations, ‘or perhaps we can’t—in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.’ This message echoed US strategy in the Reagan administration that accelerated an arms buildup to in turn accelerate the Soviet Union’s bankruptcy. However, today, while Russia is no financial position to sustain such a long-term competition, China very well may be.

“The speech also signaled the administration’s priorities for the remaining of Trump’s term: end the ‘endless’ wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan; reach a deal—and avoid war—with North Korea; and back democratic change in Venezuela keeping Russia, China, and Cuba at bay in the Western Hemisphere.”

Alexander Vershbow, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, a former deputy secretary general of NATO, and a former US ambassador to South Korea, Russia, and NATO: “Trump’s State of the Union addressed foreign policy issues in greater detail than expected, but did not break any new ground.

“There were no bombshells on transatlantic relations. Trump passed up the chance in his opening remarks to mention the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO alongside the anniversaries of D-Day and the first lunar landing. His only mention of the Alliance was in boasting about his success in getting allies to increase defense spending by more than $100 billion.  Allies can only hope that, with this declaration of victory, he will ease up on his criticism of NATO.

“Trump proudly defended his decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty in the face of Russia’s violation (‘I really had no choice’), but he left the door open a crack to negotiating a ‘different agreement,’ possibly including China—which allies and many Democrats will welcome.  But they will be worried by the specter of an all-out arms race in Trump’s threat to ‘out-spend and out-innovate’ Russia in the absence of a new agreement. There was no other mention of Russia or its ongoing aggression against Ukraine.

“Trump reiterated his previous claims of success in reducing the nuclear threat from North Korea and avoiding war. But he was cautious in describing the prospects for an agreement with Kim Jong-un at their second summit in Vietnam in late February, and described their relations as ‘good’—a far cry from his past professions of ‘falling in love.’

“He was similarly cautious on the possibility of a deal with the Taliban, while insisting ‘it is time’ to try for peace after nineteen years of conflict. While praising the valor of American troops who had created the conditions for negotiations, he failed to mention the sacrifice of US allies and partners in Afghanistan.”

“Trump’s declaration that ‘America will never be a socialist country,’ while aimed at Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will not sit well with Socialist and Social-Democratic leaders in Europe.”

John E. Herbst, director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to Ukraine.​

“The president’s  State of the Union speech was vintage Trump. The focus was on domestic issues, especially the humming economy and immigration, and foreign policy did not receive a great deal of attention. But his principal foreign policy message was the one he ran on as a candidate: the US is overextended abroad in wars that it has been unable to win.

“That message resonated with voters two years ago and is popular today. It is also a message – as played out in Syria and Afghanistan – that is not popular with much of the foreign policy establishment, including some officials in his own administration. But Trump is right on this one as a policy matter; hawks on both sides of the aisle failed to learn the lessons of nearly two decades of American misadventures in the Greater Middle East.  This is also good politics and a window into the future. It is no accident that none of the growing number of Democratic 2020 hopefuls criticized the president for his intended withdrawals from Afghanistan and Syria.”

Chris Skaluba, director of the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative: “The homage to living World War II veterans at the speech’s beginning and the vivid tributes to Holocaust survivors near the speech’s conclusion were artful and stirring reminders of the ties that bind the United States to Europe.  Unfortunately, they were incongruous with the President’s petty complaints about ‘unfair’ burden-sharing inside NATO and refusal to hold Moscow accountable for its electoral interference on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Nevertheless, the commentary on NATO was brief and grudgingly neutral while criticism of Russia for its INF violations was pointed.  Given the history here, this was the best outcome that could be expected and clearly better than possible alternatives.”

Jamie Metzl, nonresident senior fellow for technology and national security in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security: “The State of the Union struck a more conciliatory tone than most of President Trump’s previous speeches. The real test, however, will not be whether or not he can read from the teleprompter for an hour and a half, but whether he will fundamentally shift from being a divider and a sower of fear into a uniter seeking to bring the country together. If the president’s words have a true meaning, we should hope to see evidence of a 180-degree turn over the coming days. It doesn’t seem very likely, but we should all cheer if it miraculously happens.

“The speech called for a ‘principled realism’ in American foreign policy but did very little to articulate what America stands for internationally in positive terms.”


What Trump said: “Two weeks ago, the United States officially recognized the legitimate government of Venezuela, and its new interim President, Juan Guaido.”

“We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom — and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.”

Our take:

Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center: “President Trump rightfully called out the tremendous efforts of Interim President Guaido in such a short time and under such difficult circumstances. But given the incredible domestic, regional, and global consequences of what’s at stake in Venezuela, more focus should have been devoted to rallying more Americans to get behind the importance of why Maduro must leave power and leave now.

“Restoring democracy in Venezuela has been and must remain a bipartisan issue. The president’s using Venezuela as an example to then deriding socialism in the US however sets the wrong tone. Venezuela cannot become a partisan issue deployed for domestic political gain. The stakes are just too high for the Venezuelan people.”

Paula Garcia Tufro, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center: “Tonight, President Trump reaffirmed US support for the Venezuelan people and recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. His comments were consistent with US statements to date, and with growing support from the international community for Interim President Guaidó. However, critically missing from the State of the Union address was a clear US strategy to support Venezuela’s democratic transition beyond today’s humanitarian and political crisis.”


What Trump said: “As we speak, large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States. We have just heard that Mexican cities, in order to remove the illegal immigrants from their communities, are getting trucks and buses to bring them up to our country in areas where there is little border protection. I have ordered another 3,750 troops to our southern border to prepare for the tremendous onslaught.”

Our take: 

Jason Marczak: “More Central American migrants and refugees will continue to come north until conditions improve in country. When faced with the real threats of daily survival people have no choice but to leave. The US must continue to be focused on improving conditions in country so people can stay with their loved ones. It’s a long term strategy that can bring transformative results. But the solution will not come overnight.”


What Trump said: “In Afghanistan, my Administration is holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban. As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troops’ presence and focus on counter-terrorism… We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement — but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace and the other side would like to do the same thing. It’s time.”

Our take:

James B. Cunningham, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a former US ambassador to Afghanistan: “There are no ‘endless wars.’ Did we ever describe the Cold War, which was often not ‘cold,’ that way? Trump is right to seize the possibility of finding a negotiated solution, and to gear all US, Afghan, and international efforts to that end. But clarity about the US commitment to a solution which the vast majority of Afghans will accept, and to counterterrorism, is crucial.  The Taliban must understand that a political solution, which reflects today’s reality in Afghanistan, is the only way forward.  This will not be easy, nor quickly achieved.”


What Trump said: “My administration has acted decisively to confront the world’s leading state sponsor of terror: the radical regime in Iran…To ensure this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons, I withdrew the United States from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal.  And last fall, we put in place the toughest sanctions ever imposed by us on a country. We will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants death to America and threatens genocide against the Jewish people.”

Our take:

Barbara Slavin, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative: “In brief remarks on Iran, the president asserted that his decision to withdraw from what he called “the disastrous Iran nuclear deal” last year would insure that “this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons.” However, his policy of “maximum pressure” and sanctions against Iran may have the opposite effect if Iran stops complying with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action because it has not received the economic benefits it was promised.

“Trump also used Iran’s hostile stance toward Israel as a segue into a condemnation of anti-Semitism. He was incorrect, however, when he accused Iran of threatening “genocide” against the Jewish people. Iran opposes the state of Israel, accusing it of oppressing Palestinians, but does not threaten Jews as a people and still has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel.”


What Trump said“We are now making it clear to China that after years of targeting our industries, and stealing our intellectual property, the theft of American jobs and wealth has come to an end… But I don’t blame China for taking advantage of us — I blame our leaders and representatives for allowing this travesty to happen.  I have great respect for President Xi, and we are now working on a new trade deal with China. But it must include real, structural change to end unfair trade practices, reduce our chronic trade deficit, and protect American jobs.”

Our take: 

Marie Kasperek, Deputy Director in the Global Business and Economics Program: “It is interesting to me that he focused so little time on China. The language is relatively neutral and he simply made clear that any trade deal with China needs to address/include three main elements: structural changes to end unfair trade practices, reduction of the trade deficit with China, and protection of American jobs. He does mention the “billions of dollars“  that the Chinese are now paying the US because of tariffs. Chinese of course do not pay the tariffs. US importers and consumers do. In fact, there is a net loss because the “gains“ are offset by the agricultural subsidies that the US administration is paying US farmers who have lost money due to the tariff war.”

“He mentions that he wants to pass the US reciprocal tariff act, which means that in case the administration would deem a tariff by another country unfair (too high), they would be allowed to raise tariffs on the US side to the same amount. This bill just looks like a quick fix that allows the administration to raise tariffs unilaterally to circumvent potentially longer and more complex tariff negotiations with other countries.

“The proposed bill is a violation of the US commitment to the WTO’s most-favored nation principle. While President Trump might think that he will gain leverage in bilateral trade negotiations by increasing tariffs on products from certain countries, he will end up with angered trading partners and likely a(nother) case against the US at the WTO.”


What Trump said: “Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure. I know that the Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill — and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future. This is not an option. This is a necessity.”

Our take:

Bart Oosterveld, C. Boyden Gray Fellow on Global Finance and Growth and Director of the Global Business and Economics Program: “As it has been since the beginning of this administration, infrastructure investment remains a promising area for potential bipartisan cooperation. Democrats have historically supported infrastructure investment packages and a push towards a funded comprehensive plan is possible in the new Congress.”

Marie Kasperek: “Infrastructure is not a new item on the agenda. Critical for its advancement and ultimate success are a clear plan of how it will be funded. Newly elected chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Peter DeFazio, has already indicated that he wants an infrastructure package from the House by June 2019. A large infrastructure spending plan was one of President Trump’s key campaign promises—more than half way through his current term, he will want to make strides in this area, especially if he wants to run again for president in 2020.”


Our take:

Bart Oosterveld: “The president made no mention of the ongoing high deficits and continued rise of the government’s debt burden. While treasury debt has a unique position in global debt markets, and the United States can fund itself at will at debt levels higher than other countries, the affordability of such a debt load will be pressured as interest rates continue to rise and will pressure other items in the federal budget.”


What Trump said: “As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula…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…And Chairman Kim and I will meet again on February 27 and 28 in Vietnam.”

Our take:

Jamie Metzl, nonresident senior fellow for technology and national security in the Scowcroft Center for Security and Strategy: “President Trump officially announced that he would be meeting with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in late February in Vietnam. Ironically, the greatest fantasy for what this engagement with North Korea might achieve would only be a fraction of what was previously negotiated with Iran and which President Trump has walked away from.

“President Trump’s assertion that, had he not become president, the United States would have been at war with North Korea is simply preposterous. The real danger America and its allies faced when Trump became president was that North Korea was building its nuclear arsenal. Trump has done nothing to slow North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and has significantly decreased American and international leverage over the North Korean leadership.

“In many ways, the Donald Trump presidency has been a great gift to the North Koreans. North Korea is significantly stronger than it was two years ago and the United States is in a far weaker position.”

Robert A. Manning, resident senior fellow, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security: “In the case of North Korea, he highlighted modest achievements – the return of American hostages and Kim Jong Un’s cessation of missile and nuclear tests (largely because no more were viewed as necessary) – and then argued that “if I had not been election President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.” In fact, it was Trump’s ramping up of rhetoric with “little Rocketman” in exchanges with Kim and incendiary language of “fire and fury” if Pyongyang did not stop its provocative actions, that manufactured a sense of crisis.

“Though Trump is correct that previous diplomatic efforts over the past twenty-five years have failed to end North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. In fact, since the Trump-Kim Summit last June in Singapore there has not only been no progress in denuclearization, but as DNI Dan Coats told Congress recently, there is evidence that North Korea is quietly continuing work on its nuclear and missile programs. Trump must be given credit for his unconventional diplomacy: he is the first US President to meet with a North Korean leader, and his 2nd summit at the end of February may result in actual steps to dismantle North Koreas nuclear and missile program. But despite the failures of previous efforts to get rid of Pyongyang’s WMD, US extended deterrence has worked well for seventy years and continues to deter North Korea. There is no necessary reason why there would have been a war but not for Trump.”


What Trump said: “We have unleashed a revolution in American Energy – the United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world. And now, for the first time in sixty-five years, we are a net exporter of energy.”

Our take:

David Livingston, deputy director for climate & advanced energy of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center:

“If by “we,” President Trump means a complex, decade(s)-long, and multifaceted combination of technological advancement, favorable property rights, robust capital markets, and the entrepreneurial leadership of private firms building off longstanding public investments, then this portrayal of the shale revolution in the United States is indeed accurate and impressive.

“The shale revolution has far-reaching consequences that continue to unfold, and started far earlier than the current administration. Being a net energy exporter not only affords the United States additional leverage in foreign policy (as evidenced by a more aggressive recent usage of energy sanctions), but also complicates the relationship between the US economy and oil prices, calling into question conventional wisdom on the role of OPEC, optimal US decarbonization strategies, and a range of other topics.

“Though President Trump did not mention climate change in his speech, the United States is also well-positioned – largely due to past investments and private sector ingenuity – to compete in key aspects of the clean energy race, but this edge is at risk of being lost without equal leadership and smart policy support from the US government.”

*Please check back for more analysis.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.

Image: US President Donald J. Trump delivered his second State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington on February 5. US Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are in the background. (Reuters/Jim Young)