Reactions to President Trump’s first State of the Union address have largely centred around the fact that it was far less unorthodox and incendiary than many commentators had been predicting. Even news sources which have traditionally been critical of the President noted that the lack of ‘fire and fury’ in the address was surprising. However, it seems that in terms of foreign policy announcements, this lack of the incendiary statements and language was accompanied by a relative lack of new or remarkable policy. Despite this, some elements of the President’s address have created waves throughout the foreign policy community and across the world, particularly those that create a dramatic break with the Obama era and leave a number of the US’s traditional allies uncertain of their relationship going forward.
Perhaps the most startling part of the speech was the President’s request for legislation which would cut off foreign aid from those who are not ‘America’s friends’. This has been met with some consternation, as it was linked to the UN general assembly vote condemning the US’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Such a policy would mean cutting off crucial allies such as Saudi Arabia and denying aid to four of the five biggest current recipients. This sends a message to the rest of the world, and especially to the US’s current allies, that those who do not agree with the Trump’s administration’s foreign policy will no longer be counted as ‘friends of the United States’. Many, including CNN’s Samantha Vinograd have suggested that in this statement, Trump has made the crucial mistake of conflating ‘bullying with leadership’ by trying to force allies to take the US’s lead on major foreign policy issues. CNN also points out that while this message was certainly heard ‘around the world’, this isn’t necessarily positive, as the address comes at a time where the international community has been moving further away from America rather than toward it. If this request for legislation was to succeed, then it could potentially lead to 128 countries, those who voted against the US over Jerusalem, longer being counted as friends of the US. This could significantly lower the efficacy of the US’s soft power around the world.
An element of the speech that has left many feeling uneasy about the future trajectory of US foreign policy was the section concerning North Korea. It came as no surprise to the audience that President Trump described the regime as a ‘depraved’ and ‘cruel’ dictatorship, as this opinion is one that he has presented many times before and which most of the political community agrees with. However, his pledge to deploy a ‘campaign of maximum pressure’ has alarmed many, the New York Times’s commenting that the signs increasingly point towards ‘unilateral American military action’. This inflammatory rhetoric comes at a time when the South Koreans have begun to be successful in dialling down the tensions in the region, and there are fears that this address and President Trump’s refusal to consider diplomacy, could undermine the fragile cooperation emerging between the two Koreas and potentially commit the US to serious military action.
One central element of the speech, which came as a surprise to very few, was the focus it maintained on the link between gang violence, crime and illegal immigration. The President concentrated on the way in which ‘loopholes’ in US laws have allowed illegal immigrants, who he termed ‘aliens’, to enter the country and contribute to gang violence. President Trump’s proposed solution to this is a four-pillar plan which extends clemency and a path to citizenship to the ‘dreamers’, building a ‘great wall on the southern border’, ending the visa lottery and ending chain migration. In the address, this plan was described as a ‘down – the – middle’ compromise, but it differs very little from the language of the campaigns, even Republican senators noting that despite the President’s comparative restraint during this speech ‘everything we’re talking about here stays the same’ with the notable exception of the section addressing DACA recipients, which was a central issue in the recent government shutdown. Following the speech, many have cited concerns about the president’s immigration policies, particularly regarding the accuracy of some of the claims he made. NPR was particularly critical of the claim that the visa lottery ‘randomly hands out green cards… without any regard to merit’, pointing out that the visa lottery programme is not random, and that the winners undergo detailed security vetting just like any other visa applicant. The promised crack down on immigration was accompanied by further rhetoric regarding withdrawing from the ‘terrible’ Iran deal and turning the page on ‘unfair trade deals’ which are part of this general trend of isolationism, at least in the economic realm.
President Trump seemed to be advocating a far harsher approach to US foreign policy, one focused overwhelmingly on putting America first and applying ‘maximum pressure’ to those who are seen to be working against the US’s interests. This is no great departure from the policy that President Trump’s administration has been pursuing since inauguration, but some of the proposed goals announced in the address go far farther in this direction than had been expected. Despite this, the general consensus on both sides of the aisle seems to be that this was an uncharacteristically restrained and controlled speech, in which the President demonstrated that he is capable of sticking to the literal and figurative script. However, despite prior claims that the theme of his first State of the Union was to be unity, both Democrats and members of the President’s own party have states that this was not the case, Senator Jeff Merkley observing that ‘all he did was drive the wedges further in’, leaving Congress more deeply divided than before the speech began. It appears that this could have deep and lasting consequences not only for the US, which is facing another government shutdown, but for the entire world.