As President Donald Trump stands in front of Congress to deliver his third State of the Union Address on Tuesday night, he’ll likely portray himself as a strong commander in chief with a proven and unique ability to protect and support Americans.
From killing top terrorists to combating Iran to renegotiating trade deals, Trump can use last year’s events to paint a picture of a leader in full control of his foreign policy, feared by enemies and respected by allies. Whether you agree with that assessment depends on if you support the president, but it’s a theme many expect Trump to hit during his speech.
Three reasons explain why. First, Trump has long liked to act like the strongest and smartest guy in the room.
Second, this is his last State of the Union before the 2020 presidential election, and playing up America’s prowess on the world stage not only makes him look good but also puts Democrats vying for his job — who often worry about appearing weak on national security — on their heels.
Third, it’ll fit his speech’s overall theme of “the great American comeback,” as a senior administration official described it to reporters on January 31. “American strength and resolve is the best strategy for keeping Americans safe and protecting American interests,” the official said. “I think it’s fair to say the speech will celebrate American economic and military strength and present an optimistic vision of America’s future.”
Experts weren’t too surprised to hear the White House is framing Trump’s narrative this way.
“Toughness is the best case he can make for his foreign policy,” Elizabeth Saunders, an expert on the presidency and global affairs at Georgetown University, told me. But there’s a problem with that, she noted: “He treats toughness as an end in itself, which isn’t really something to be touted,” since it’s unclear exactly what he wants to achieve with bellicose stances alone.
But a milieu of might will allow Trump to highlight another storyline, Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner told me. “He’ll take a victory lap on [how] he’s now cut deals,” the US foreign policy expert said, referencing America’s new trade agreements with China, Korea, Canada, and Mexico as examples. “If you look under the hood, they’re extremely unimpressive deals, but they are deals. It’s sort of a Potemkin foreign policy.”
What follows, then, are the two key foreign policy areas Trump is expected to mention.
Trump has killed America’s top enemies without launching a big war — but problems remain
In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama waited only one full paragraph before mentioning the raid seven months before that killed al-Qaeda’s leader. “For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country,” Obama boomed, greeted with firm applause.
Trump, too, will surely boast about his killings of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last October and top Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani in January, but it’s unclear if he’ll wait for the foreign policy section toward the end of his remarks or highlight them early on.
“I expect that he will talk about how he killed Qassem Soleimani using the same type of rhetoric that he uses when he talks about the Baghdadi killing and will likely even put them in the same sentence,” Iran expert Jonathan Cristol of Adelphi University told me.
Indeed, Trump can claim he personally is the greatest threat to America’s enemies and has become so without overcommitting the nation’s resources. “He can definitely say he’s taking out adversaries on their turf without launching large interventions,” Saunders told me.
But Trump is unlikely to get into the nuances of his forceful decisions.
Baghdadi may be gone, but ISIS continues to threaten people in Iraq and Syria and American troops in the region. It has roughly 18,000 fighters still in the field, a new brutal leader, and, according to one estimate, about $100 million in reserves. That’s mainly why the US-led coalition continues to fight the group, and there’s no end in sight to that conflict.
And while Soleimani will no longer be able to plan attacks in the Middle East, his assassination sharply escalated tensions with Iran to the point that some feared a full-blown war.
For now, Iran has edged closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon in response to the Trump administration’s military moves and sanctions, though it remains far away from getting one. That leads certain Iran experts, like Cristol, to worry about the president’s policies.
“While it made sense for Iran to adopt a policy of ‘nuclear hedging’ and stay six months shy of breakout without suffering the consequences of having nukes, they are suffering the consequences now anyway,” he told me, referring to Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign of sanctions and diplomatic isolation. “The face-saving move may be to go nuclear. I don’t think that is yet likely, but just that it is more probable today than it was even before” Trump withdrew America from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018.
So, yes, Trump has taken two very bad guys off the face of the earth. But has he made massive strides in defeating ISIS or keeping Iran at bay? No, he hasn’t.
That won’t stop the president from considering it a success, though. When a reporter asked the senior administration official the kind of tone Trump will strike when he brings up Iran, the official said, “I think it’s fair to say ‘determined’ — you know, ‘forceful,’ ‘strong.’ Those would be good adjectives.”
Trump has renegotiated big trade deals, but they don’t change much
Trump has had a busy and fruitful year on trade.
On January 15, he signed “phase one” of a trade agreement with China after more than a year of negotiations and billions of dollars in tariffs. Two weeks later, he signed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) into law, updating the 25-year-old, trillion-dollar North American Free Trade Agreement he’d derided since his campaign.
But these accomplishments, in the eyes of many experts, are less noteworthy than they seem. “I guess he can only really boast of having temporarily prevented a problem he created himself from getting a lot worse,” Jacob Kirkegaard, a trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told me.
Let’s start with the “phase one” handshake deal with China. It will certainly cool trade tensions between two economic superpowers that have rattled the globe. But it stops short of the comprehensive trade and reform agreement the Trump administration wanted when it launched its trade war with China in 2018.
Instead, China has agreed to make purchases of about $200 billion worth of US goods over a two-year period, including almost doubling its agricultural purchases to $40 billion. Beijing also made concessions on intellectual property, currency, and access to financial services, and it’s promised to halt the practice of forcing companies to turn over their technology, according to the United States Trade Representative.
The US, in exchange, will call off and reduce some tariffs, though taxes on $360 billion in Chinese goods will stay in place.
Trump has sold this deal as an enormous win, last month calling it “a momentous step, one that has never been taken before with China, towards a future of fair and reciprocal trade.”
That’s not quite right, though: The administration didn’t get the structural changes to China’s economy that it wanted, including tackling things like Beijing’s huge subsidies to Chinese companies. It’s still not clear if China can or will totally fulfill this obligation to buy US products, and even if it does, the guarantee is only for two years.
In other words, “phase one” is definitely a thing but not a big thing. “It’s really a ceasefire only, which leaves very significant new tariff barriers in place, while making further escalation unlikely before the election,” says Kirkegaard.
The same pretty much goes for the USMCA. Here’s a brief overview of what’s in it:
- Country of origin rules: Automobiles must have 75 percent of their components manufactured in Mexico, the US, or Canada to qualify for zero tariffs (up from 62.5 percent under NAFTA).
- Labor provisions: 40 to 45 percent of automobile parts must be made by workers who earn at least $16 an hour by 2023. Mexico agreed to pass new labor laws to give greater protections to workers, including migrants and women. Most notably, these laws are supposed to make it easier for Mexican workers to unionize.
- US farmers get more access to the Canadian dairy market: The US got Canada to open up its dairy market to US farmers, a big issue for Trump.
- Intellectual property and digital trade: The deal extends the terms of copyright to 70 years beyond the life of the author (up from 50). It also includes new provisions to deal with the digital economy, such as prohibiting duties on things like music and e-books and protections for internet companies so they’re not liable for content their users produce.
- Sunset clause: The agreement adds a 16-year sunset clause — meaning the terms of the agreement will expire, or “sunset,” after 16 years. The deal is also subject to a review every six years, at which point the US, Mexico, and Canada can decide to extend the USMCA.
That’s all well and good, and some expect the deal to be an improvement over NAFTA now that Congress has passed it and Trump signed it into law. But they are modest improvements at best, and some experts say putting Canada and Mexico through the strain and shame of having to renegotiate such an agreement wasn’t worth it.
But getting two big trade agreements done does allow Trump to claim he succeeded despite the advice of experts. “He can say, ‘I’ve done things no other leader would do and look what’s happened,’” said Tufts University’s Drezner. “Many thought some of these moves would be calamitous, but so far the world didn’t end.”
Some of those will surely include having NATO allies spend more on defense or announcing a much-derided peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. He may even hint at a new trade initiative, such as a bilateral agreement with the UK now that it has left the European Union.
But Trump’s ability to say these things doesn’t necessarily make them smart policy, Drezner noted. “Just because Trump jumped off a bridge and didn’t die doesn’t mean it was a good idea.” Trump, though, will likely spend the State of the Union arguing that not only was it smart to take that plunge, but it shows just how tough he really is.