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Trump’s State of the Union had no major surprises

Placing both Russia and China in the same camp of rivals will constrain America’s options at the global level

opinion Updated: Feb 02, 2018 19:07 IST
United States President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address, Washington, US, January 30, 2018
United States President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address, Washington, US, January 30, 2018(REUTERS)

United States President Donald Trump’s keenly watched first State of Union address earlier this week had no major surprises, but sustained several of the controversial approaches and policies he has advocated since the campaign in 2015-16, and following his election.

Almost three-fourth of the hour-and-a-half-long speech was devoted to domestic issues: jobs, economic growth, infrastructure construction, lowering drug prices, immigration, vocational training, etc. Clearly an eye is now being kept on the Congressional elections due at the end of 2018, and there is some prognosis now of Republicans possibly losing control of at least one of the chambers. He was warmly welcomed and repeatedly applauded by the Republican members, who seek to promote their agenda during his presidency, despite some discomfort with his more controversial articulations on race and religious issues.

He touted domestic achievements such as 2.4 million new jobs over the past year, the lowest levels ever of unemployment in African- American and Hispanic communities, the addition of $8 trillion in stocks related wealth. Many of these, however, are due to trends established earlier.

He called for merit-based immigration and cutting back on extended family based authorisations. From India’s economic interest perspective, the eventual impact on H-1B visas would be relevant.

On foreign policy issues, he referred to Russia and China as rivals. This is in keeping with the new US National Defense Strategy released last month, which stated that “inter-State strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security”. Earlier, the US National Security Strategy document, released in December 2017, had said: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity”.

Clearly, on China, the US is now feeling the need to push back on what has been described as predatory economics and challenge to rules and norms in the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific in general. On Russia, Trump, during his campaign and in the early phase of his presidency, had spoken of the advantages from cooperation and a better relationship. He is, no doubt, now being constrained by reactions in the US to perceptions related to Russian interference in the polls. However, placing both Russia and China in the same camp of rivals will constrain US options at the global level.

In another controversial pronouncement, he said that the Guantanamo Bay prison would be kept open, reversing the efforts made during the Obama administration to try and shut it down. This would be criticised by many in the human rights community and sections of political opinion in US which have been opposed to the inadequacy of due process for detainees there.

He repeated his earlier comments that US aid should not go to those who vote against it at UN. This will work to US’ disadvantage. Countries would not want to give up the autonomy of their decision-making. How would it be different from the criticism levied at China in the National Defense Strategy document that it seeks to coerce neighbouring countries to reorder to its advantage?

He also referred to North Korea, Islamic State, US nuclear arsenal, Afghanistan, and Jerusalem, but essentially reiterated ongoing policy.

He called upon the Congress to “fix” the Iran nuclear deal. This will be a challenge. The EU has stated that it is fully committed to the JCPOA (or Iran deal), it has been effective, and the Trump administration questioning it is a US “domestic process”. The IAEA has said that Iran has been meeting its obligations. The JCPOA was also embodied by the Obama administration in a UN Security Council resolution. So, even if the Trump administration unilaterally walks out, it will still technically have international validity.

The US walking back from the JCPOA could also have a bearing on the North Korean nuclear issue, whose leaders would question the longevity of any agreement as US moves from one administration to the next. The US is now putting pressure on European countries to work out a supplementary agreement focusing on Iranian ballistic missiles, and international policies, particularly in West Asia.

One surprise was the omission of any reference to Pakistan in the listing of problem relationships. The US probably feels that necessary pressure has been generated on Pakistan for now, levels of additional cooperation in targeting adversarial groups are being negotiated, and the process would not gain from another critical reference.

The speech, despite any differences on policy issues, has generated a positive response in US since many domestic concerns were addressed, US strength and values emphasised, and delivery was broadly presidential.

Arun K Singh is a former Indian ambassador to the United States

The views expressed are personal