February 6, 2019

State of Relief Address

US President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2019.
US President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2019.

In the last days before the State of the Union Address (SOTU) by President Donald Trump a state of near-panic descended upon the defence and foreign affairs chattering classes in Europe.

What will he say about NATO? Will we have NATO by the morning of February 6th? Is he going to withdraw American forces from Europe? In the morning hours of today a sigh of relief was audible across Europe and Canada. And Japan and South-Korea and other American allies.

NATO was mentioned only once – as an organization where the US was treated unfairly but now new defence investment is pouring in. Of all the things President Trump has taken credit for, NATO countries’ defence spending is actually a real achievement, where he and President Putin have both been key influencers. As the stage is now also set for the upcoming NATO leaders’ meeting in London in December and the Republic of North Macedonia will join NATO some time next year, NATO feels safer than 2 weeks ago. We need to add though that it’s a sign of our times that the biggest threat to the North Atlantic Alliance does not come from Russia but from the President of the United States. NATO dodged this bullet.  We can only hope that fewer bullets will be fired in the future.

Foreign affairs was a minor part of the SOTU. Rebuilding the US military was duly covered and probably will be in the next year’s SOTU too. There were 2 references to “foolish wars” – “great nations do not fight endless wars” and  “an economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous, partisan investigations”. The need to end military engagement in Syria and negotiate a way out of Afghanistan were mentioned. Trump talked about 19 years and 7 trillion spent in the Middle-East and of 7000 Americans KIA. All familiar themes and not Trump-specific. Obama was also keen to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. The former was achieved and resulted in ISIS taking over parts of Iraq and Syria. Obama was criticized for his calendar-driven approach to withdrawing from Afghanistan. Now the US is negotiating with the Taliban. Let’s see. One troubling sign is that the government in Kabul is not involved.

China was mentioned in the context of unfair trade practices and as a potential negotiating partner in a potential new arrangement to replace the INF Treaty. As expected he singled out Russia as the culprit in the death of INF. Rightly so. Hopefully European leaders will also be more vocal about Russia and its material breach of the Treaty for at least 5 years. Otherwise there is a danger that European public opinion will label INF as another treaty ripped to pieces by President Trump. No, Putin did it, it’s as simple as that.

Trump also used this occasion to announce his next love-fest with Chairman Kim in Vietnam. And told the world that if not for him, a major war on the Korean peninsula would be upon us. He of course did not mention that he was the most bellicose presidential candidate before the 2016 elections.

President Trump returned to the theme of principled realism as opposed to “discredited theories that have failed for decades to yield progress”. I hope the good people in academia specializing in international relations theory have a better understanding – which theories have been discredited and which not. Trump also promised that under his command the US “will never apologize for advancing America’s interests”. Good to know, I can’t think of an instance when the US has ever apologized for following its interests.

All-in-all the foreign policy part was better than expected and NATO is set to celebrate its 70th birthday in April.