On foreign policy, the State of the Union was classic Donald Trump.
There were the usual expansive promises which could actually move American foreign policy in a better direction. The president promised to withdraw troops from Syria, open negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and praised the growth in spending by NATO allies. He even criticized America’s excessive military intervention in the Middle East.
And as always, his speech had an underlying theme: blame my predecessor, not me. As he describes, his photo opportunity summits with North Korea are a good step towards diplomacy. But we can’t forget that it was his aggressive approach to the problem that brought us so close to conflict in the first place. It’s likewise difficult to take his criticism of America’s wars seriously given his administration’s choice to increase troop levels in the Middle East by over 33%.
As with every Trump foreign policy speech, there were also some worrying trends. He specified no timeline for troop withdrawals from Syria or Afghanistan, leaving open the possibility that advisors can stall or prevent the decision from ever being implemented. He praised America’s withdrawal from arms control agreements, but offered no alternative, suggesting instead that the United States will just “outspend” all its competitors.
The president also talked tough on both Venezuela and Iran, continuing his hard-line approach to those crises. The risks are real – in both cases, the administration has refused to rule out military intervention, and has repeatedly raised the stakes with draconian sanctions, and open saber-rattling. It remains a mystery why Donald Trump, whose instincts appear to be generally correct on Afghanistan and Syria, is so willing to entertain military intervention in Iran or Venezuela.
In short, the State of the Union offered no real surprises in foreign policy. If the administration does follow through on withdrawing troops from Syria, and ultimately from Afghanistan, it will constitute a major – and positive – shift in U.S. foreign policy. But you shouldn’t hold your breath. The odds are good that Trump may again backpedal on these promises, while maintaining his more bellicose line towards other conflicts.