U.S. President Donald Trump gave his State of the Union address Tuesday night in Washington — delayed a week after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi rescinded her previous invitation to speak because of the 35-day U.S. government shutdown. The White House promised unity and a bipartisan address after that bitter shutdown fight. While the president made gestures toward Democrats, his remarks more closely resembled one of his usual stump speeches, hammering familiar themes and offering little evidence of a shift that recognized the new political realities in Washington. That failure suggests a difficult two more years for the president. Gridlock will likely result and U.S. allies and partners, including Japan, must prepare for inaction from the U.S. government.
As is to be expected of a speech titled “the state of the union,” most of Trump’s remarks focused on domestic developments. He began by declaring “the state of our union is strong” and went on to applaud the “economic miracle” taking place in the United States. He pivoted to his favorite bete noir — illegal immigration — and devoted the largest part of his speech to that troubling and divisive topic.
Those remarks echoed speeches and comments he has made over the last few months and, worryingly, seemed unaffected by the battle he fought and lost with Democrats over the government shutdown — which focused on immigration policy — and his inability to move public opinion on this topic in previous speeches. This is worrying because it indicates a refusal to adjust policy or priorities despite the transformation of politics in Washington as the Democrats now control the House of Representatives.
The president then shifted to issues that might win bipartisan support, such as infrastructure, prescription drug reform and fighting cancer, but they were mentioned only in passing and lacked the detail and the passion that he displayed when discussing immigration; fact checkers also challenged many of his claims.
Foreign policy got relatively short shrift in the speech. Trump made news by announcing that he would hold his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam on Feb. 27 and 28, and he praised himself for getting Pyongyang to suspend nuclear and missile tests for 15 months and avoiding a war that he is certain would have erupted if he had not been elected president.
Trump argued that Russian cheating obliged him to pull the U.S. out of the Intermediate-Range Forces (INF) Treaty. He promised that he would either negotiate a new multilateral treaty that included countries that were not in the original deal, calling out China by name, or launch a new arms race in which the U.S. “will outspend and out innovate all others by far.”
That was not the only mention of China in his remarks. He denounced “calamitous trade practices” that allowed trade partners to take advantage of the U.S. China, Trump said, had for years been “targeting our industries, and stealing our intellectual property,” resulting in “the theft of American jobs and wealth.”
He blamed his predecessors in the White House for letting China get away with such practices and promised to stop them. Tariffs and demand for structural change in China are the primary tools to accomplish that objective, and he asked his audience to approve the U.S. Reciprocal Trade Act, which would allow him to impose “the exact same tariff on the exact same product” when “another country places an unfair tariff on a U.S. product.” That is an ominous prospect — who will decide what is an “unfair tariff”? — but there is little prospect of it winning congressional approval. There is considerable unease even among GOP members about giving Trump more power in trade affairs.
There was little in this speech for foreign audiences, but what was there was troubling. If Trump’s vision of the world wasn’t as dark as previous remarks, he remains committed to a nationally oriented vision and perspective that seems fundamentally opposed to the multilateralism of his predecessors and which helped construct the existing world order. Whether the topic was trade or the U.S. military presence abroad — Trump said that U.S. forces would be pulling out of Syria and Afghanistan — he continues to espouse a unilateralism that turns its back on the traditions of U.S. leadership in the world.
When combined with the seeming disregard for the new political realities in Washington — he did not even mention the just-concluded shutdown in his speech — it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Trump’s thinking is unaffected by the world around him. He has been singularly successful with that approach, but he now faces novel circumstances. His freedom of maneuver will be significantly constrained and countries like Japan must now factor that into their decision-making.