Trump delivers politically divisive, nationalist speech

As US president delivers first State of the Union address, analysts say his achievements have so far been limited.

President Trump''s First State of the Union Address - Anadolu
US President Donald Trump boasted about the economy, job growth and his 'America First' policy during his first State of the Union address [Anadolu]

Washington, DC, United States – In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump offered a combative world view, claimed success in the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), boasted about recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and outlined a nakedly nationalistic American economic and foreign policy.

“As we strengthen friendships around the world, we are also restoring clarity about our adversaries,” Trump said, naming Iran a “corrupt dictatorship” and attacking North Korea, which he characterised as a “cruel dictatorship” in “reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles.”

The speech displayed an American president clearly comfortable with raising tensions around the world with allies and adversaries alike in pursuit of an “America First” agenda.

Trump also jabbed Democrats on immigration, healthcare, and his dismantling of the legacy of the former President Barack Obama.

“Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interest, our economy and our values,” Trump said.

Trump targeted North Korea, even as Pyongyang is negotiating with South Korea ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics, with wrenchingly emotional criticism, resurrecting the story of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died in a coma after detention in North Korea last year.

Trump acknowledged Warmbier’s parents sitting in the gallery, saying the US would remember their son’s death with resolve. The president told the story of Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector also sitting in the House gallery.

How Trump rates countries

The president decried the December 22 vote at the United Nations, condemning his Jerusalem move, and promised again there would be retribution for the 128 nations who voted against the US.

“I am asking Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign assistance dollars always serve America’s interests and only go to America’s friends,” Trump said.

“Trump is a curious personality who clearly equates countries treating him well with countries treating the United States well,” Daniel W Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law, Tufts University, told Al Jazeera.

“So, if Saudi Arabia pulls out all the stops with the glowing orb or China dazzles with the Forbidden City, he is going to be impressed by that, and it is going to have an effect on his opinion of that country,” Drezner added.

In Afghanistan, the president said US forces are unshackled by “new rules of engagement” and would work with “heroic Afghan partners” unconstrained by a withdrawal timeline.

Separately, Defense Department officials said yesterday the US was sending 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, bringing the US force there to about 15,000 US service members.

Trump announced an intent to resurrect the detentions of enemy combatants begun by former President George W Bush after the September 11, 2001, attacks and said he would keep open the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, which Obama had attempted to close, but failed.

What do Trump’s words mean for foreign policy?

Trump reiterated his criticism of the “terrible” Iran nuclear deal, reached by Obama through diplomacy, and said, “when the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent.

“America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.”

Kim Wallace, Eurasia Group managing director and a former Obama Treasury Department official, said: “There is a global diaspora trying to understand what Trump’s words mean for foreign policy.

“Trump’s bark is much worse than his bite when it comes to foreign policy, [including] both geostrategic and geopolitical and trade policy.”

While Trump refrained from inflammatory language on international trade, his evocation of patriotic American themes, reminiscent of his red-white-and-blue campaign appearances, sparked a chant of “USA, USA, USA!” from enthusiastic Republicans.

Democrats, many of whom were largely unresponsive during the speech, left the chamber as soon as Trump finished speaking, turning their backs on the president while he was still on the podium.

“There is no question that at the level of global public opinion, across the board, with very few exceptions there has been a negative response to the president of the United States,” said Shibley Telhami, a pollster and the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland.

‘America is divided’

Within the US, domestic public opinion is increasingly polarised.

Trump’s speech clearly appealed to his political base of right-wing and conservative Republicans who are sticking with him in the face of the FBI’s investigation of his campaign’s Russia contacts, Telhami said.

“Not only is America divided based on party but they are divided even on their core identities. There is a deep divide in America,” Telhami said.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers diverged sharply on their assessments of Trump’s foreign policy in his first year.

“I think on foreign policy, he’s got the best national security team around that I have seen in 20 years,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told Al Jazeera.

“He’s taking the fight to the Islamic State, leading from the front. We are building our military. The Iran agreement is a bad agreement.

“Secretary of State Tillerson is doing a good job. Our economy is humming. That helps the world. When America does well, the world does well.”

Meanwhile, Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and former vice-presidential running mate of Hillary Clinton, told Al Jazeera: “Trump is undercutting diplomacy, walking away from deals, defunding the State Department, not appointing ambassadors, tweeting out ridiculous things even against his own diplomats. He is undercutting diplomacy at every step.”

Despite Trump’s claims, the reality is he has few international successes so far, analysts say.

“The America First theme, what does it mean? The bottom line is that it has been America Last,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president and director of the Middle East programme at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think-tank.

“This is a management game. It is an effort to try to produce outcomes – not solutions, there are none – outcomes that favour American interests. Frankly, I don’t think in many cases around the world, that that’s where we are right now.”

Source: Al Jazeera