Imperial Overstretch: What We Learned from Trump’s State of the Union Address

Donald Trump’s State of the Union address begins the second half of his tenure, ushering in a new presidential campaign, to continue for almost two years until November 2020.

The speech was traditionally dominated by domestic economic agenda, diluted with slogans about America’s greatness. The president touted the continuing growth of the national economy, record-breaking per capita GDP, creation of thousands of jobs, as well as minimum unemployment rates over decades. The revision of trade agreements with almost half of the nations on the planet led to the return of US companies to the national market, as well as to increased opportunities for the export of industrial and agricultural products. In his usual way, Donald Trump combined calls for bipartisan partnership for the sake of the interests of all US citizens with accusations against Democrats for conducting an “unlawful” investigation and unwillingness to help Republicans fulfil an important election promise – to build the wall on the border with Mexico.

It was the first address of the new presidential campaign. Donald Trump seems not to revise the ideological foundation of his domestic policy: straightforward economic nationalism. The main threat to American “liberal hegemony” today comes from China, and the actions of the Trump administration in 2018 showed that the full power of the US state machine is turning against Beijing. Perhaps the only threat against China in the address is the demand to continue making concessions to Washington in the field of trade, protection of intellectual property and refusal to “steal American jobs”.

Foreign policy remained in the background, occupying no more than 15 percent of the address’ time. In fact, Donald Trump only confirmed the following: he does on the international arena what he promised in 2016, and everything is moving in the right direction: revision of trade agreements in the interests of American businesses, growth of defence spending to a mind-blowing 716 billion dollars, withdrawal of US troops from regional conflicts, the promise to find solution to the Middle East conflict in a year. China was mentioned most often (three times, five times taking into account derived words). Russia was on the second place (mentioned twice), along with North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The EU and any of its member states have not been mentioned at all. Ukraine, Georgia and other former American darlings on the post-Soviet space were bypassed in complete silence. For the 2020 presidential election they are a ballast, and have already been thrown overboard.

As a spontaneous adherent of dialectics (Hegel’s law on the transformation of quantitative into qualitative changes), Donald Trump is convinced that the country’s economic power helps it maintain the leading position in international affairs, and as a result provide an opportunity to dictate to other states what they should do not to annoy Washington and not to be the heat of the moment. Only one quote from the speech about the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty: “We really have no choice. Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t – in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.”

In essence, Trump made it clear that his main achievement in international affairs is the completion of the “commercialization” of the US global security policy. Each year NATO allies spend on defence by $100 billion more than they did in 2016, while the United States itself is increasing military spending, including military pay, as well as the production of advanced weapons, much of which will be sold abroad for the benefit of national industry.

For Russia, the overall result of Donald Trump’s speech can be seen as positive. Previous popular statements about the “gas station country”, the “economy in tatters”, the use of chemical weapons and “Washington’s full support of Ukraine” are eloquently forgotten. Russia is only mentioned in connection with the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty and the Kremlin’s reciprocal moves. Trump made a crude attempt to force Russia to take the side of the United States to put pressure on China to become a party to the new medium- and shorter-range missiles agreement. In principle, such an agreement could be in the interests of Russia. But for its conclusion Washington needs to master a completely different style of diplomatic communication with Moscow, respectful and tactful, which is completely unfamiliar to the current generation of White House executives and US State Department officials.

Another observation. I believe that Trump became the first president of the United States in the past 25 years to admitted that his country suffers from “imperial overstretch”, and is trying to get rid of it by reducing its physical presence on distant shores. It is one thing to declare that Washington possesses global military superiority, and it is quite another thing to prove it in practice in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria. Therefore, the US strategy, focused on building up armed forces inside the country and looking for states that will wage its proxy wars means growing isolationism. For Russia, the reduction of the threat of direct military collision with the US in Ukraine, in Syria, or elsewhere is the main good news in Donald Trump’s State of the Union address.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.