On February 5, just hours before Donald Trump’s predictable victory in the Senate impeachment vote, he gave the annual State of the Union address. Valdai Club expert Dmitry Suslov, Deputy Director of the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics, explained in an interview with valdaiclub.com why this speech can be considered an election manifesto, what its main points are, and what can be said about US policy going forward.
The State of the Union address was a typical Donald Trump public appearance, filled with vanity, pomp, and complacency, now compounded by the pre-election atmosphere. First of all, this was a pre-election, and even victory speech, delivered in the context of the Senate vote, the positive outcome of which Donald Trump did not doubt, even a minute. This was the speech of a triumphant winner. The main goal was to create the impression that his presidency has been a continuous succession of victories, an era of prosperity and an endless triumph of America in all areas – the economy, domestic politics, and foreign and defence politics, in light of which the Democrats’ attempts to remove him from power seem miserable and insignificant.
The main point that runs through the whole speech is that Trump’s main 2016 campaign promise, “Make America Great Again” has been fulfilled, like much of what he promised during the 2016 campaign. Trump paints a vivid picture of the restoration of US prosperity and respect for the country throughout the world: family incomes are growing, unemployment and crime are decreasing, and the economy is developing dynamically. In short, the main achievement of his presidency, as he formulated, is that the narrative of America’s decline has been stopped and reversed. How this all corresponds to reality is not important (in fact, it partly corresponds, mostly with respect to economics). The main thing was to loudly and colourfully declare the tremendous historical success and the unprecedented strengthening and prosperity of the United States.
The main achievements that Trump listed in his address are economic ones: this is his main election trump card, since the situation is really positive. According to Trump, his policies revived economic growth and helped create “seven million” new jobs and reduce unemployment. It is very important from the pre-election point of view that he indicated a decrease in unemployment for non-white Americans and women – who, in fact, are the least likely to vote for him. In doing so, he is trying to show that his policy is favourable to everyone, and to ease allegations of racism. Indeed, amid the current polarisation of the American political system and society, the struggle is primarily for undecided, floating voters, and it is important for Trump to attract some of them to his side, to show that he defends the interests of people other than white Republican entrepreneurs (who will invariably vote for him).
Trump named the other achievements of his economic policy: strengthening US energy independence, which really happens as America builds up its production and the export of energy resources – and re-industrialisation – a return to being a country of industrial production, after previously turning to developing countries. The internal causes of these achievements are his policy of de-regulation and tax cuts. External ones include his abrasive offensive mercantilist, and egoistic trade policy, and increased protectionism. Among his main achievements here, he named the replacement of NAFTA with the new USMCA agreement (in fact, the conditions do not differ much, but for Trump the main thing is to declare a “grand victory”), as well as economic pressure and a trade war with China, which allowed a deal with it on more favourable terms for the United States. This deal is another of Trump’s aces in the upcoming election game. Beijing really made significant concessions, hoping to “wait out” the current Trump presidency, looking forward the return of the US-Chinese relations which characterised the previous “norm,” and striving to delay the further escalation of the confrontation for as long as possible.
It is also significant that Donald Trump stressed the efforts of his administration in the field of education and health care, which in fact are not the highest priorities of his administration. Usually this is a talking point among Democrats, but in the run-up to the election Trump again seeks to win over the floating voters and create the impression that he has achieved more than Obama. Of course, he once again criticised Obamacare and called for its cancellation as a “socialist program”, which weakens, rather than strengthens, the American health care system.
Another important part of Trump’s sales pitch is his restoration of American “greatness” – the strengthening of US military power, including the creation of a new branch of the Armed Forces – the United States Space Force. Indeed, under Trump, military expenditures have increased significantly and are approaching their post-Cold War maximum, but unlike the period after the September 11 attacks, money is not being spent on local wars and nation-building, but rather on building up and technologically enhancing the US Armed Forces, including the modernization of the nuclear arsenal. The reconstruction of medium- and short range land-based missiles is in full swing, as well as the installation of low-yield nuclear warheads on submarines’ strategic ballistic and cruise missiles.
What conclusions does this address allow one to draw with respect to the prospects for the Trump administration’s policies?
First, Trump’s chances of re-election are very high. The victorious tone of the president is not simple bravado. The American economy really is growing dynamically; the average voter really feels an improvement in quality of life, and there is still confusion and vacillation in the Democratic camp. The Democratic party is in a deep crisis and has not left the “paradigm of 2016,” which was clearly evidenced by the first primaries and new attempts by the party elite to weaken Bernie Sanders.
Second, Trump’s main domestic political priorities remain unchanged and will remain the same if he is re-elected for a second term: stimulating economic growth through tax cuts and de-regulation, and the creation of jobs through the encouragement of the development of the energy sector and the return of industrial production, as well as the fight against illegal immigration.
Third, in foreign policy, Trump remains committed to the course of illiberal egoistic hegemony, which is dictated by the desire, on the one hand, to maintain world primacy, and on the other, to meet the internal needs of society. The latter means, more and more, that America no longer plays the role of a global policeman and the main producer of global social goods, reduces its global involvement, and thinks more about itself, its own narrowly-defined interests. As a result, there is a desire to defeat the main rivals of America – China, Russia and Iran, and at the same time there is mercantilism, selfishness and one-sidedness, narrowing the geography of vital US interests.
Hence we see the main foreign policy contradiction of Trump’s speech. On the one hand, he wants to reduce the US presence in the Middle East; to withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria. (This is also a purely pre-election statement: in fact, this withdrawal is unlikely to take place in the near future due to fierce resistance of America’s elite and its allies. But it is useful to promise this to ordinary voters, who overwhelmingly do not care about geopolitical considerations). On the other hand, Trump emphasized the US commitment to the policy of regime change and bluntly named the three countries that are its main targets – Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. So, there is withdrawal and interventionism in one bottle.
However, even when paying tribute to American interventionism, Trump also showed a narrowing of the real space of strict US hegemony. The only region in which America, in his words, will continue to overthrow unfavourable regimes is Latin America. Trump did not say anything like that with respect to Syria, Iran, North Korea, and especially Russia. On the contrary, he mentioned his readiness to cooperate with the Iranian regime if it changes its policy. That is, under Trump, unlike Bush or Obama, the United States no longer pursues a policy of regime change on a global scale, but only in the region that it considers its “backyard”.
Despite Trump’s smile-evoking statement that now, after the conclusion of the trade deal, the United States has a better relationship with China than ever, the policy of tough and comprehensive containment of the PRC will certainly continue. A bargain is nothing more than a temporary pause, necessary for Trump in his election campaign. It suspends confrontation in only one (not the most important) of the areas. In all the rest (technology, the military sphere, information wars, political and diplomatic deterrence) the confrontation won’t end, not even now. It’s another matter that the president did not talk about this, since the reality of the new long-term confrontation with Beijing does not fit well with statements about the restoration of the unprecedented power of the United States and does not bring election support.
It is noteworthy that in his speech, Trump mentioned neither Russia nor Ukraine. Of course, first of all, because of their colossal domestic political “toxicity.” To mention Russia or Ukraine means to touch sensitive places for both parties and run into new charges. However, to a lesser extent, this silence suggests that these countries are not a priority for the foreign policy of the Trump administration. This means that even if elected for a second term, Trump will not make great efforts to change the current Russian-American confrontation.