Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd, a CNN national security analyst, served on the National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 during President Barack Obama’s administration. Follow her @sam_vinograd. CNN national security analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who was a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.
State of the Union speeches are major events here at home, but they don’t happen in a vacuum. People around the world are tuned in – especially in a Trumpian era of grandiose and often insulting language. It’s unusual for presidents to say anything other than the “State of our Union is strong” – it’s politically dangerous and makes the country look vulnerable.
However, the stakes this year are different. Our nation is divided, and the international community has been moving away from America, not toward it.
As viewers around the world tuned in Tuesday night, they undoubtedly walked away with a few key conclusions.
It’s what he didn’t say
The speech was noticeably devoid of clear mentions of two significant and related strategic threats to our democracy: Russia’s cyber interference and America’s increasing political polarization. Publicly available analysis from the director of national intelligence has indicated that Russia is trying to undermine our democratic process and sowing divisions among Americans is one way to do so.
Recent analysis from the Pew Research Center shows that Americans’ fundamental political values are increasingly divided on issues like immigration, national security and environmental protection. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have widened.
The President did mention Russia as a “rival power,” which he and his administration have done before, but he said nothing about ongoing Russian attacks on and threats to our country and what his national security team is doing to stop it.
If the President turns a blind eye to how polarized we are and won’t acknowledge that our democracy – the very foundation of every policy he wants to execute – is under siege, then Russia and other actors who wish us harm can interpret his silence as a blank check to just keep at it.
Immigration isn’t just a domestic issue
As expected, Trump used his speech to argue for his immigration plan, asserting direct links between murderous gangs and illegal immigration. His remarks have serious implications for our relationships abroad – with countries like Mexico hearing, again, that the administration does not view immigrants as positive contributors to American society.
This is troubling at a moment when a recent Gallup Poll found that a mere 16% of people in Latin America approve of Trump and only 24% approve of US leadership writ large (a drop from nearly 50% in 2016). Denigrating some immigrants, as Trump did in his speech, will undoubtedly push those numbers even lower, which will limit our ability to work with countries like Mexico on areas of shared interest and on shared threats.
Foreigners, like many Americans, have also been rattled by the President’s xenophobia, his denigration of certain countries as “s—holes” and his repeated insistence that immigrants should be admitted to the United States only on merit, i.e. their ability to assist the United States prosper, rather than on what has been our traditional – indeed unique – desire to provide them a chance to succeed.
Immigration policy is a measure of American openness to the world and a model for our approach to international norms, conduct, trade and security policy of other nations. Sadly, what many of those partners heard Tuesday night is that the United States doesn’t really need their talent or much of their help.
Bullying isn’t another word for leadership
Building on his recent threats at the United Nations to limit funding to any country that didn’t vote with the United States on Israel, the President said in the speech he is asking Congress to pass legislation that links foreign assistance with American interests and sends it only to friends of America.
This hyperbolic demand misses the point: A lot of foreign assistance goes toward addressing humanitarian needs in countries with which we have adversarial relationships and to economic development in those same societies. Our enemies shouldn’t receive funding, but it’s not black and white. We have oversight mechanisms in place for our foreign assistance, and bullying isn’t the way to lead. Vulnerable populations in places like Syria and elsewhere heard these words and may rightly be terrified that the President doesn’t understand the various and critical ways our foreign aid supports them.
Extremists have another rallying point now
The President framed his announcement that he had signed an order to keep open the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay as keeping a promise to Americans. But to the Taliban and other extremists around the world, it’s a rallying cry for recruitment, a justification for their jihad, a signal that the United States is just as intolerant of the rule of law as they already believe us to be of Islam, and that we have little faith in our allies to handle detention properly.
On Afghanistan, the President simply reiterated that he and his commanders would not be constrained by time limits or onerous meddling from Washington, both of which were long-held complaints of military leaders during the Obama administration. He made no mention of the Taliban’s resurgence, the horrific violence in Kabul in recent days, or his commitment to supporting the Afghan government or dealing more squarely with the threats still emanating from the tribal regions in Pakistan. Our military leaders certainly heard what they needed to hear, but it’s unlikely that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani did.
Pakistani leaders, on the other hand, still bristling over a recent decision by Trump to suspend aid over their government’s continued refusal to shut down safe havens for the Taliban and the Haqqani network, most likely breathed a sigh of relief that they were not mentioned.
Pyongyang faces pressure, but also potential confusion
Trump called out and vowed not to repeat the so-called mistakes of previous administrations when it comes to dealing with the accelerated threat posed by Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Cleverly, Trump also noted the presence in the audience of a North Korean defector and the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died last June after being detained by North Korean officials.
One hopes our allies were at the very least reassured by the President’s firmness on North Korea and by the absence of any more “Rocket Man” talk. But his speech offered little in the way of support for or details about a diplomatic solution – the very solution both his defense secretary and secretary of state have been aggressively pursuing.
And on the same day as the speech, the Trump administration withdrew the nomination of Georgetown professor Victor Cha – a recognized expert on North Korea – to be the next US ambassador to South Korea. According to press reports, Cha had objected to the option preferred by some administration officials of a pre-emptive strike on the North. As if on cue, Cha published an op-ed in the Washington Post excoriating this strategy as dangerous and likely to only exacerbate tensions on the peninsula.
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We cannot know with certainty what Kim Jong Un heard in President Trump’s State of the Union speech. Perhaps it was, as intended, a message of American resolve to prevent him from threatening the region and our country. He might well have been confused, given the lack of details or options mentioned for the future.
He, like others watching from around the world Tuesday night, might be unsurprised to learn that we, too, are a bit confused ourselves.