War Stories

Nearly Everything Trump’s State of the Union Said About Foreign Policy Was Wrong

Trump speaking at the mic.
President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington on Tuesday.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

President Donald Trump spent little time on foreign policy in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, but nearly everything he said on the subject was wrong.

Early on in his speech, Trump said that, as a result of his policies, America is “highly respected again.” In fact, according to the latest international poll released in January by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of respondents have no confidence in Trump or his policies—lower marks than received by the Russian and Chinese leaders Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Only among right-wing nationalists in countries like Hungary and Poland have America’s ratings risen since Trump took office—hardly the sign of a beacon of freedom.

Trump said, “The days of our country being used, taken advantage of, even scorned by other nations, are long behind us.” In fact, North Korea continues to enrich uranium, build missiles, and stall arms talks, while Trump believes that Kim Jong-un is his good friend who has signed a “contract” to “denuclearize” his military.

He claimed his tariffs policy against China “has worked,” citing a “groundbreaking treaty with China that protects workers” and intellectual property while pouring “billions” into the U.S. Treasury. In fact, the accord with China was just a phase-one deal that leaves most tariffs in place, including many affecting U.S. firms that rely on Chinese-made goods in their supply chains.

He claimed that, nonetheless, “we have perhaps the best relationship with China that we’ve ever had.” This might be news to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who just last week declared that “the Chinese Communist Party presents the central threat of our time.”

Trump introduced Juan Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela’s opposition movement, who was sitting in the House gallery, calling him “the true and legitimate leader” of his country—without noting that, apart from some inflaming rhetoric in the early stages of the rebellion, roughly a year ago, Trump has done nothing for Guaidó’s cause.*

Trump boasted that he’d finally persuaded our allies to “pay their fair share” on defense spending, raising the contributions from the other NATO nations by $400 billion. In fact, the allies have boosted their spending by $130 billion—not nothing, but far below triumphant. (Trump has said he hopes they’ll raise their share by $400 billion by 2024.) Even now, only a handful of NATO nations have met the goal of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense, and except for Britain, those are hardly the wealthiest nations: Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania.

The president properly celebrated the destruction of the Islamic State’s caliphate and the military’s killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, Trump ignored the recent report by the Defense Intelligence Agency concluding that Baghdadi’s death had no impact on ISIS operations, which have increased as the result of Trump’s pullout from northern Syria.

Trump also mentioned his “groundbreaking path for peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” but offered no elaboration—or reason. The plan has been unanimously rejected by the Arab League—including the leaders of the three nations who appeared alongside Trump at the peace plan’s announcement and who denounced it after reading the fine print—and by the European Union, which declared that its terms violated international law.

“Our job,” Trump said, reciting his campaign slogan, “is to put America first.” This is less profound than he pretends. None of his rival politicians believes in putting America second. Where they differ is with Trump’s concept of “America first,” which has left America alone.

Correction, Feb. 5, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Juan Guaidó’s paternal surname.