President Donald Trump used his State of the Union address to appeal for political unity, offering Americans a choice between “greatness and gridlock” while claiming to have shown strength facing down international threats from Iran to North Korea.
But political scientists said the speech masked an essential point: Trump’s foreign policy has exacerbated many of the problems he’s trying to solve, claimed credit for progress to which it is not entitled and alienated key allies along the way. And those foreign partners – and even the foes – from Asia to Europe, from Latin America to the Middle East, voted with their rhetoric Wednesday by meeting Trump’s speech with silence.
In fact, with the exception of a spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who welcomed Trump’s announcement of a second summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam, Feb. 27 and 28, few said it warranted paying close attention.
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“My review of Trump’s second SOTU? Mostly the usual spurious assertions related to foreign policy,” said Karin von Hippel, a former senior counterterrorism adviser in the U.S. State Department and now director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank that specializes in defense and military affairs.
Hippel noted Trump’s speech did not even really mention his national security strategy and assertions such as that NATO members were spending more on defense because of pressure on the military alliance by his administration failed to acknowledge that non-U.S. spending on NATO has been increasing since 2015, before he took office.
“Trump said the U.S. would be at war with North Korea if it weren’t for him, even though it is hard to imagine another leader ratcheting up the rhetoric to such a dangerous level,” Hippel said, referring to various incendiary barbs traded between Kim and Trump before they agreed to pursue face-to-face diplomacy over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ambitions. She added that Trump’s claim in the speech of a new approach to fighting the Islamic State group as being responsible for its defeat was also misleading.
“He has largely followed the Obama playbook,” she said. “And by the way, ISIS still poses a significant threat, even if it has lost most of its territory in Syria and Iraq.”
Late last year, Trump declared that ISIS had been defeated and announced plans to withdraw troops from Syria.
Martin Bialecki, who edits “Internationale Politik” and “Berlin Policy Journal,” two Germany-based publications with a focus on international affairs, said Trump’s address was an “America Alone” speech.
“He made a lot of reference to World War II and the great history of the U.S. in that regard. He also made it crystal clear that the U.S. will not be reclaiming political leadership any time soon. Trump preferred to look backward. From a European point of view, this is still deeply troubling,” Bialecki said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel? British Prime Minister Theresa May? French President Emmanuel Macron? None of the offices of these traditional close U.S. allies released messages of support or dissent in reaction to Trump’s remarks.
In other words: How is Trump’s speech playing overseas? Well, it’s not even playing.
“Trump mentioned his policies of withdrawal from multilateral agreements like NAFTA and the Iran nuclear deal, and the planned force reductions in Syria and in Afghanistan as expressions of the ‘America First’ paradigm, claiming success across the board,” said
Henning Riecke, a foreign affairs expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “Yet, he gave little outlook on how he would turn that into political strategies.”
Riecke added: “One exception was North Korea and the announcement of the new summit. Trump praised a tyrant and overestimated his own diplomatic skills.”
There was pushback from Iran’s government, after Trump said the country does “bad, bad things” and then appeared to not only obliquely link Tehran to an attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue last year by an American anti-Semite in which 11 people were killed, but asserted that Iran has threatened “genocide against the Jewish people.”
“Iranians – including our Jewish compatriots – are commemorating 40 yrs of progress despite US pressure, just as @realDonaldTrump again makes accusations against us,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted Wednesday. This month, Iran is marking 40 years since its Islamic Revolution overthrew Iran’s U.S.-backed monarch.
Barbara Slavin, an expert on the country who directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank, called Trump’s Iran remarks “relatively brief and entirely predictable.”
“He once again defended his decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, claiming this would insure that ‘this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons,'” she said.
Slavin warned that Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ and sanctions could lead to Iran no longer complying with the 2015 nuclear agreement because it hasn’t received the promised benefits.
Slavin noted that Trump also distorted Iran’s policies toward Jews.
“While it is true that Iranians are obliged to chant ‘Death to Israel’ at government-organized rallies and that Iran supports militant groups that have killed Israelis, Iran has never threatened ‘genocide against the Jewish people’ as Trump asserted. In fact, Iran still has about 10,000 Jews – the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel – Jews are free to worship in Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, and there is an appointed Jewish representative in the Iranian parliament,” she said.
During the speech, Trump expressed his continued support for Juan Guaido, a Venezuelan opposition leader who last month declared himself interim president, a move characterized by disputed President Nicolas Maduro as a “coup.”
Gladys McCormick, a history professor at Syracuse University, said Venezuela’s specific mention in a speech short on many direct mentions of foreign nations could reflect the “U.S. asserting its supremacy among its neighbors.”
She had a warning, too.
“The U.S. has a long track record of leaving places worse off than before, most recently Honduras, Haiti and Nicaragua. President Trump’s hawkish exhortations and his order for countries to take sides on the Venezuela crisis is reminiscent of a return to the Cold War and this policy of military interventions,” she said.
Maduro has previously warned Trump that he risks turning Venezuela into a new “Vietnam War” and “staining” American “hands with blood” if his administration, and military, intervenes in Venezuela’s internal affairs.
Maduro and Guaido offered no reaction to Trump’s speech Tuesday night.
In the speech, Trump also made clear that he believed he was on the winning side of aggressive trade negotiations with China.
“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,” Trump said.
Beijing’s retort: the sound of tumbleweed in a windy desert.
“Trump repeated familiar criticisms against China,” said Thomas Bernes, an economist at the Center for International Governance Innovation, a Canada-based think tank. “As such, it misses an opportunity,” he said.
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