War Stories

The Soulless Vision of Trump’s Foreign Policy

The president invoked the heroic deeds of America’s past but had nothing to say about its future.

U.S. President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Vice President Mike Pence applaud during the State of the Union address on Tuesday in Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applaud during the State of the Union address on Tuesday in Washington.
Pool/Getty Images

President Trump began and ended his long State of the Union address Tuesday night with tributes to heroes of America’s past—those who stormed Normandy and liberated Dachau, who “saved freedom and transformed science,” who built the railroads and passed the Civil Rights Act. “Our most thrilling achievements are still ahead,” he exclaimed, before asking, “What will we do with this moment? How will we be remembered?” Yet the only big thing that Trump asked this Congress to do was to build a wall.

It was a speech of pretentious grandeur—such dreadful writing (“You have come from the rocky shores of Maine … the volcanic peaks of Hawaii … the snowy woods of Wisconsin … the red deserts of Arizona”) and such soulless vision. He trotted out two survivors of the Nazi concentration camps purely as a transition between condemning Iran (which “threatens genocide against the Jewish people”) and rah-rah-ing for the USA (the father of one of the survivors had praised the American soldiers who rescued his family as messengers from God).

But what did this have to do with what America is doing now under Trump? The most shameful episode of U.S. foreign policy in the years just before and during World War II was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s failure to help the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany or to bomb the camps—a move that might have allowed hundreds of condemned prisoners to escape. Yet Trump has all but barred refugees from our country, painting them in broad brushstrokes as terrorists or criminals. And whatever one thinks of his desire to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan, he is doing so with not a shred of concern for human rights. (I am not likening any of these situations to the horror of Nazi Germany; he’s the one who invoked the distasteful comparison.)

He talked of “foolish wars,” and many of them are foolish, but then why did he boast of spending $716 billion this year on the military? What smart wars, against what vile enemies, is this massive pile of money supposed to fight? The only foes he mentioned were China and Iran—and the mismatch between the threats he portrayed and the solutions he offered was, in both cases, profound.

Once again, he denounced “the disastrous Iran nuclear deal,” which he abrogated in order to “ensure that this corrupt regime never acquire nuclear weapons.” Leaving aside the merits of the deal (which have been lauded by the vast majority of U.S., European, and Israeli military, diplomatic, and intelligence officials), it is sheer nonsense to claim that withdrawing from the deal makes Iran less likely to go nuclear. His own CIA director suggested last week that it is now more likely to do so.

He attacked China for its unfair trade practices—or rather, he denounced his predecessors for allowing China to engage in those practices. Trump certainly has a point when it comes to China’s theft of intellectual property and its demands that foreign firms transfer their technology as a condition of gaining access to its markets. But it has never been clear how Trump’s response—slapping tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods—addresses those problems. And his claim that the U.S. Treasury has recovered billions of dollars as a result of these tariffs is yet another sign that he has no understanding of how tariffs work.

He touted his recent withdrawal from the Reagan-era Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which barred the U.S. and Russia from testing missiles having a range between 500 and 5,000 kilometers. It is true that Russia is violating this treaty. But the Russian military has disliked the treaty ever since it was signed. When George W. Bush was president, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld several times to make a deal allowing both sides out of the accord. Rumsfeld ignored the request, knowing that there was no appetite in the U.S. or NATO to bring back the class of missiles that the treaty outlawed. In other words, Trump is only doing the Russians a favor.

Finally, Trump swelled with pride at his good relations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, claiming, “Had I not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.” This has no basis in reality whatever. It was Trump who pumped up tensions in the summer of 2017 with taunts at Kim as “little rocket man” and his threats to engulf the Korean Peninsula in “fire and fury.” In response, Kim accelerated his missile and nuclear tests, to the point where he acquired a sort-of reliable, small arsenal of atomic bombs—and, after that, went on a charm offensive that Trump fell for, to the point where he exclaimed at a rally, soon after their summit in Singapore, that he and Kim, upon meeting, “fell in love.” It is true that Kim has conducted no more tests, and that is an accomplishment; but U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously claim that his nuclear program continues and that there is virtually no chance he’ll “denuclearize,” as Trump sometimes seems to believe has already happened.

At the end of the speech, Trump proclaimed—in another line of spectacularly bad writing—that America must remain true to its destiny as “the hope and the promise and the life and the glory among all the nations of the world.” But the speech contained not a glimmer of hope or promise or glory—and not a whit of concern for any other nation in the world.