CSIS Shares Experts’ Reaction: State of the Union 2018

State of the Union Address: President Donald Trump flanked by VP Pence and House Speaker Ryan

Must read

Washington, DC – CSIS has brought together some of its top minds to provide concise expert reactions to the 2018 State of the Union Address from a variety of regional and topical perspectives. Experts include:
  • Jon B. Alterman: Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program
  • Heather A. Conley: Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and Director, Europe Program
  • Michael J. Green: Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair
  • Kathleen H. Hicks: Senior Vice President; Henry A. Kissinger Chair; Director, International Security Program
  • James Andrew Lewis: Senior Vice President; Director, Technology Policy Program
  • J. Stephen Morrison: Senior Vice President and Director, Global Health Policy Center
  • Frank A. Verrastro: Senior Vice President and Trustee Fellow; Energy and National Security Program

State of the Union Special: Expert Roundtable

Jon B. Alterman

Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program

Two things stood out to me in the speech. The first is about our enemies. It’s striking that the president still puts fighting terrorism at the top of his list of security threats. The National Defense Strategy, released a week and a half ago, argues for a focus on China and Russia and downplays terrorism and rogue states. It’s unclear whether the president is just playing to the political crowds, or whether there really is a deep split inside the administration as to what our greatest threats are. This much is clear: Deterring China requires a completely different set of capabilities than deterring ISIS, and a war against China would be completely different from a war against ISIS. We can certainly invest in both, but at some point sharply increased investments in one precludes sharply increased investments in the other. I am confused what the priority really is and where the investments will flow.

The second is about our friends. I heard hardly anything in the speech about allies. Allies have been at the core of American strategic thinking for three-quarters of a century, but they got short shrift in this speech. Unless I’m mistaken, the only two he mentioned by name were Afghanistan and Israel. Longstanding partners in Europe and Asia cannot be comforted by that. I am also confused by the president’s request that Congress mandate that U.S. assistance dollars only go to “friends” of the United States. That approach supposes that only American politicians have to worry about domestic politics, and it assumes that what other countries want from us exceeds what we want from them. For more than three-quarters of a century, we have given foreign assistance because doing so serves our interests. Among other things, it strengthens partners, it increases their capacity in intelligence gathering and law enforcement, and it helps deter our enemies. Inserting a proviso that assistance only go to U.S. “friends”—however we might try to define that—will result in a series of self-inflicted wounds. Americans are likely to suffer as much if not more than those who are being punished.

For more: On Trump’s National Security StrategyAllies and Influence

Heather A. Conley

Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and Director, Europe Program

The president’s address was designed nearly entirely to be a domestic policy address with powerful storytelling of individual Americans. Mention of national security issues was scarce. Listening to the speech, you would not know that the United States has thousands of troops engaged in two military conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria. You would not have known that we remain dangerously close to engaging in nuclear conflict with North Korea. Although President Trump did note that “rivals like China and Russia challenge our interests,” there was no further information on how the Trump administration will address these rivals.

What was—unsurprisingly—missing was mention of the Russian bear that continues to cast a shadow over our union. President Trump noted that, “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.” Although the president was referring to past U.S. policy toward North Korea, his statement is fully applicable to his Russian policy. The U.S. government is quite complacent when addressing ongoing Russian malign influence in the United States due to the lack of a unified government strategy to combat it. And the Trump administration looks increasingly conciliatory to our “rival” when it deems that it is sufficiently deterring Russia and won’t impose additional sanctions or misses opportunities to sharpen its sanctions tools to send a message to Moscow that there is a high price to pay when American democracy is threatened as it did the day before the president’s address. Russia will continue to provoke. As CIA Director Mike Pompeo noted in an interview, he has “every expectation that they [the Russians] will continue to try” to influence our upcoming mid-term elections—and be aggressive—as a Russian aircraft came within five feet of a U.S. surveillance aircraft over the Black Sea. Both events occurred as the president prepared his SOTU speech.

For more: The Kremlin PlaybookThe West Strikes Back

Michael J. Green

Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair

The president echoed the National Security Strategy by highlighting the emergence of great power rivalry with China and Russia. He rightly called on Congress to “end the dangerous defense sequester and fully fund our great military” so that he can resource his strategy. Yet the president also doubled down on the great flaw in his approach to China—the abdication of American leadership on trade. He claimed that his administration had “finally turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals that sacrificed our prosperity and shipped away our companies, our jobs and our nation’s wealth.” In fact, American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has only raised doubts across the region about American staying power, put American agricultural exports at risk as our partners sign trade deals without us, and weakened American leverage necessary to keep China from creating alternate economic rules. And there is nothing that the administration can point to in terms of gains for American workers and farmers from the chaos they have sown.

The White House had promised journalists something “eye-popping” on North Korea, but the president’s assault on North Korean human rights abuses could have been delivered by Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton. A few years ago pundits might have fretted at the president of the United States calling North Korea a “depraved” regime, but few would be willing to contest that label now. The president’s recognition of North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho and the parents of American student Otto Warmbier, who died from captivity in North Korea, were powerful moments. The president’s full-throated support of human rights and American values contrasted sharply with his proposal as a candidate to have a hamburger with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s initial speeches emphasizing that “policy” would be distinguished from “values.” Perhaps most striking was the omission of any reference to the need for the use of military force to compel North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs (though one might find hints of that in the president’s reference to a “maximum pressure campaign” to “prevent” North Korea from threatening the American homeland). In Senate Armed Services Committee hearings earlier in the day, not a single senator would endorse the so-called bloody nose option being floated by some in the administration. Perhaps this SOTU marks the turn toward a more deliberate strategy of containing and deterring North Korea. If the administration is considering force against North Korea in the coming months, it would be profoundly irresponsible to mislead the Congress and the American public by not referencing that option in this speech. Allies watching the Korean peninsula will be somewhat reassured by what they heard. Like many, they will also wonder what the policy is when the teleprompter is turned off.

For more: SASC Testimony on the Korean Peninsula and U.S. StrategyBeyond ParallelAMTIChina Power

Kathleen H. Hicks

Senior Vice President; Henry A. Kissinger Chair; Director, International Security Program

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Trump returned to key defense themes he has emphasized as a candidate and president. Using a frame of peace through strength, the president called for Congress to lift the sequester cap that limits growth in the base defense budget, with a priority call-out to investing in the nuclear force. He made a cursory reference to a wide range of threats facing the nation, including competitors China and Russia, but the bulk of his defense-related remarks focused on a narrower band of challenges reminiscent of U.S. security focus in the first term of the George W. Bush administration: terrorism, enemy detention and Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and the “rogue states” of Iran and North Korea.

The question of adequate defense spending is foremost on the minds of the defense community and deserved to be raised prominently. Moreover, the peace through strength frame for defense is useful. The speech’s uncanny throwback to a defense lens most prominent around the time of the Iraq War, however, was odd. It displaced attention on competition from Russia and China, themes emerging out of the new national security and national defense strategies. These two challenges are described by the Defense Department as the primary (though certainly not sole) drivers behind the need for increased defense spending and modernization of the nuclear triad. By relying instead on the threat of terrorism and rogue states to justify these desired increases, the address failed to make a convincing case.

For more: Defense 360Iron Triangle of Painful Trade-offsDefense Outlook 2018Nuclear Network

James Andrew Lewis

Senior Vice President; Director, Technology Policy Program

The need to change the postwar order helped drive the discontent that shaped the 2016 election, and the State of the Union speech reflected this. But the president did not offer a coherent strategy for international reform that much of the world still hopes the United States will provide. Trade reform is a centerpiece for this administration, and the sense that Americans has been ravaged by globalization resonates powerfully with the president’s supporters. He wants a fair deal for Americans and in the speech, he uttered the word “reciprocity,” a word that strikes fear into the heart of China’s leadership. China is the problem—not Mexico or Canada (most Americans support NAFTA) or close allies like Germany. The president did not say this directly, but many of the proposals he made are essential if we are to remain competitive with China. These include stronger vocational education, rebuilt infrastructure, tax reform reform—points the IMF has made about the U.S. economy for years, and most importantly, and reexamining trade agreements that create opening that China can exploit without allowing U.S companies the same privileges. Whether Congress will fund them is another matter—the United States has been coasting on Cold War investment in science and education far too long. How we deal with China is the central issue of American foreign policy in the next decade, and remaking global trade is central because this is more an economic than a military contest, but a collection of ad hoc responses will not meet the challenge.

Fear of immigrants is a recurring theme in American history. Masses of strangers arrive, and while most Americans think immigration is a source of strength, some find this disturbing. This time, immigration was politicized in a way it was not in the past, with assertions that “white” America is in decline and other ham-handed tropes. Manipulating these symbols plays to the audience that voted for the president. This was not a speech written to convert the agnostic but to reassure the faithful. The problem for this administration is that, while it can identify real problems, it has trouble coming up with pragmatic solutions and implementing them. Our immigration laws are a jumble of antiquities that need to be replaced. What is being offered, however, is not a technocratic, policy-wonk idea, but something crafted for politics. The president is offering a contract: those in favor of immigration get a path for a few million to attain citizenship; in exchange he gets a largely symbolic wall, changes to the visa program (some useful, some silly), and fierce rhetoric against an imaginary gang threat. The immigration issue is so polarized that any deal is unlikely, and the speech tries to position the president so that he wins deal or no deal. But the immigration problem will not go away in the face of gridlock. The test for any deal we finally reach will be how well it is guided by two principles: fewer immigrants make America weaker; our policies should be guided by compassion.

For more: Meeting the China ChallengeDisruptors, Innovators, and Thieves

J. Stephen Morrison

Senior Vice President and Director, Global Health Policy Center

Some in the audience listening to the president’s State of the Union address wore purple ribbons signaling their hope that the president would have something momentous to say about the still viciously ascendant opioid epidemic that has left record numbers of Americans dead of overdoses, driven two successive years of decline in life expectancy, and imposed economic costs of over a half trillion dollars. Just a few months prior, the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis had outlined the critical steps to rescue those at risk of overdose death, introduce mass treatment and new national prevention campaigns, and advance recovery. Unanswered was the question: would there be a national mobilization, led by the White House, that set priorities, called for long-term budget commitments, and laid out a strategy to execute, including a strengthened White House Office of National Drug Control Policy? Sadly, the answer from the president last night was no. A major moment of opportunity was lost.

To the president, the crisis is principally a matter of threats emanating from outside and an urgent call for a law enforcement crackdown. He argued that his proposed immigration reforms “will also support our response to the terrible crisis of opioid and drug addiction.” In the meantime, “We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge.” He did conclude with a stirring recognition of the courage and compassion of New Mexico officer Ryan Holets and his wife Rebecca, present in the audience, in adopting the child of a desperate mother addicted to heroin. America’s police are indeed at the very center of the crisis and called upon to do much more than simply hunt down criminals.

For more: A Dangerous SyndemicThe Opioid EpidemicPodcast Interview with Dr. Madras

Frank A. Verrastro

Senior Vice President and Trustee Fellow; Energy and National Security Program

Like much of the president’s speech, the basic thrust of his brief focus on energy was drawn from the administration’s National Security Strategy, using American resources to create jobs, improve the economy, reposition ourselves to get better trade deals, and enhance our national security. However, the president did not offer details beyond ending the “war” on energy, which we must have “won” given the global oversupplies of oil and gas and surge in renewables. “Energy dominance” was never uttered but implied in the exports reference.

The broad statement that we are now an energy exporter to the world requires some parsing. It is true that we export coal, natural gas, and oil (crude and refined products) to a variety of foreign destinations. As a nation, we are 90 percent energy self-sufficient, yet nonetheless we remain a net importer of oil. Domestic production of oil and natural gas has been increasing over the last decade, in large part the result of the unconventionals revolution and the success of hydraulic fracking. We are now the largest producer of oil and gas in the world but also the largest consumer. Our success in renewables growth is no less extraordinary, albeit from a much smaller base. Coal is in decline, largely the result of a combination of factors including productivity/technology improvements, consumer choice, and lots of low-cost natural gas and renewables for power generation. And clean coal, which means different things to different people, has been the Holy Grail for energy watchers for decades.

We are clearly in a better place with respect to energy security and diversity of fuel choices, a trend underway for the last decade. Climate change was not mentioned in the address, yet remains a high priority for many nations around the globe. Prudent safety regulations and practices promote, not impede, sustainable energy development, and global trade and best practices are good things. Energy is a global commodity, affected by a variety of factors, including price, trade, sanctions, and environmental and regulatory policies.

For more: Oil and Gas Market SeriesSanctions: Energy & GeopoliticsEIA’s Short Term Energy Outlook

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
+ posts

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, DC. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decision makers.

More articles

Latest article