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Trump speaks of global cooperation in a world he has labored to divide

In his State of the Union speech, Trump congratulated himself on tearing up treaties and agreements.

President Donald Trump arrives to deliver the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images.
President Donald Trump arrives to deliver the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images.

In a State of the Union speech that heavily featured U.S. foreign policy, President Donald Trump on Tuesday claimed without evidence that had he not became president, the country would be at war with North Korea.

“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” said the president, who also confirmed a second summit with that country’s leader, Kim Jong-un in Vietnam on Feb 27 – 28.

His claim of narrowly avoiding war with North Korea is remarkable, though only a small twist on a previous assertion that President Barack Obama was close to declaring war on North Korea.

Having worked to drive a wedge not only between political parties within the country, but between the U.S. and its allies (in NATO, in the European Union, and elsewhere), the president on Tuesday delivered an address dotted with phrases like “boundless potential of cooperation.”

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He repeated his claim that the self-proclaimed Islamic State had been defeated and that the southern border posed an urgent security threat to the country.

The president’s comments directly contradicted the findings and advice of his own intelligence and security experts on virtually all policy matters such as Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, the unlikelihood that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons, and the fact that Russia meddled in the 2016 and 2018 elections (and is preparing to meddle in the 2020 election as well).

Of the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russian operatives meddling in the 2016 presidential elections, he only said: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”

President Trump’s speech caps an extraordinary, divisive year in U.S. foreign policy. In 2018, he:

  • Pulled the United States out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) with Russia, in essence, restarting the Cold War cycle of weapons buildup;
  • Met with North Korean leader Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both meetings were carried out behind closed doors, with no advisors and no transcripts. The president capped both events by heaping praise on Putin and Kim;
  • Consistently backed Saudi Arabia after it targeted and killed dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul;
  • Declared victory over ISIS, which is still active, and claimed that he had successfully neutralized the North Korean nuclear threat, despite the fact that Pyongyang has yet to dismantle a single weapon and does not intend to do so, according to U.S. intelligence assessments;
  • Attacked multilateralism — essentially, the mission of the United Nations — at the U.N. General Assembly, and verbally attacked NATO;
  • Pulled the U.S. out of the U.N. Human Rights Council;
  • Violated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, and Russia, which saw Iran scaling back its nuclear enrichment activities in exchange for sanctions relief. The other parties to the agreement have stuck with it, despite U.S. threats that violating the reimpose sanctions would result in secondary sanctions;
  • Cut aid to Palestinian refugees;
  • Imposed hefty sanctions on Chinese-made goods, which were reciprocated by China’s own tariffs on U.S.-made goods;
  • Tore up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and replaced it with another free trade agreement for North American countries, though he rebranded to agreement as the USMCA. Neither Canada nor Mexico have signed on to this name change, and the deal has yet to be ratified.

The president, in his speech to the nation, essentially congratulated himself on all of those accomplishments and more.

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He boasted of a U.S. military buildup, which will include “a state-of-the-art missile defense system,” saying that the U.S. had no choice but to pull out of the INF. He added that he might try to include China in a future treaty, though it has not been negotiated at all. 

He reiterated U.S. support for Juan Guaidó, leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly who has declared himself president of the country in a bid to oust current President Nicolás Maduro.

We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair,” said the president.

The president congratulated himself on entering into a trade war with China, boasting that tariffs on Chinese goods are bringing in “billions and billions of dollars.” He did not mention the $12 billion in aid he had to promise farmers whose crops were no longer being purchased by China.

He called on lawmakers to approve the USMCA — one of several times he called on them to unite and vote in favor of his policies.

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Last year, Trump’s concerns with Iran were phrased in humanitarian terms rather than outright animus toward the country, but on Tuesday night, he took aim at Iran’s “radical regime.”

“They do bad, bad things,” said the president, falsely accusing Iran of trying to perpetrate a “genocide against the Jewish people” (perhaps not realizing that outside of Israel, Iran has the largest Jewish population in the region).

The president gave the Taliban softer treatment: He said his administration was negotiating with the group — which continues to launch deadly attacks in Afghanistan — for cooperation on counterterrorism.

In all the things the president chose to address in his lengthy speech, Saudi Arabia — a close ally and a linchpin in his administration’s foreign policy — was not among them. As for Russia, the country widely believed to have interfered the last two U.S. elections? He only mentioned the country by name three times, all in reference to the INF treaty.