The State of U.S. National Security Is Not Strong Under Trump
President Donald Trump is set to deliver his third State of the Union address on February 4, 2020. At a recent speech in Davos, Switzerland, he claimed, “America is winning again like never before.” But on foreign policy, Trump’s record is straight losses.
In his 2019 State of the Union, Trump promised “to pursue a foreign policy that puts America’s interests first.” But rather than advance American interests, he has put his own political priorities and ego above traditional U.S. foreign policy goals. Trump is being impeached for putting national security in jeopardy for his own personal gain, but he has endangered national security in myriad other ways, too: He has alienated allies and cozied up to friendly dictators, started distracting trade wars, and appears to have backtracked on U.S. commitments simply because his predecessor pursued them. Trump may claim the state of the union is strong, but his administration’s actions and policies tell a different story.
Escalated conflict in the Middle East
In last year’s address, President Trump declared, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” But rather than ending forever wars, Trump is sending more U.S. soldiers into conflict. A few weeks ago, he recklessly escalated tensions in the Middle East by ordering a strike on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps General Qassem Soleimani, after which a significant majority of Americans reported feeling “less safe.” In response to the escalating tensions with Iran, Trump has ordered more than 20,000 additional troops to the region; a U.S. commander said the soldiers could remain there for “quite a while.” Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, despite last year’s pledge to hold “constructive talks” and “accelerated” negotiations, the United States dropped more bombs and munitions in 2019 than in any other year since the U.S. Air Force began tracking them in 2006. And according to the United Nations, civilian casualties reached the highest level in the Afghanistan war’s history, in part due to U.S. strikes.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, President Trump’s recently announced “deal of the century” for Israel and Palestine does nothing to actually advance peace in the region. This one-sided proposal is unlikely to resolve long-standing issues and instead opens a dangerous door to unilateral annexation; the Palestinians have been left out of consultations between the United States and Israel for more than two years and have already rejected the plan. What’s more, the suspect timing around Trump’s impeachment and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection and corruption indictment further cloud the deal’s supposed merits. Rather than lay the conditions for peace, Trump’s actions and policy across the region exacerbate conflict and fail to bring all involved parties to the negotiating table to find lasting solutions.
Exacerbated tensions with North Korea
President Trump promised “bold new diplomacy” with North Korea in last year’s speech. But today, the country is further from denuclearization than ever. Just months after Trump’s visit to the Demilitarized Zone—a major propaganda victory for Pyongyang—the North Korean regime pledged to “show off a ‘new strategic weapon’” and said they were not bound by their moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests. Rather than work in coordination with regional partners to de-escalate tensions and return to negotiations, Trump turned to extortion and demanded that South Korea pay 400 percent more in 2020 for U.S. troops protecting peace on the peninsula. Trump’s price hike was criticized by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress along with his own Defense and State Department aides. Meanwhile, the North Koreans are likely expanding their nuclear arsenal and preparing for new tests.
Engaged in reckless trade wars in North America and with China
Trump is also losing trade wars and harming American economic interests. At this year’s State of the Union, the president will likely tout his deals with China and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) as major victories. Yet economic analysts criticized the China deal as weak and underwhelming, and billions of tariffs remain in place, harming American consumers and producers. As for the USMCA, Trump’s biggest legislative priority of the last year doesn’t go far enough on labor or environmental standards to make a real difference for working Americans.
Weakened relationships with European allies
President Trump continues to inflame tensions with European partners and allies when the United States needs them most. He imposed significant tariffs on European aircrafts and agriculture goods last year, and he doubled down on threats to impose huge auto tariffs days ago at Davos. He has also egged on Brexit, which will damage long-term U.S. interests in seeing a strong, unified European Union. The special U.S.-UK relationship appears at an all-time low, as the United Kingdom defied American pressure and will allow China’s Huawei to build 5G networks in the country. At a time when competition with Russia and China is rising, Trump’s stiff arm to the Europeans makes zero strategic sense.
Refused to grant refuge to Venezuelans
Trump has also failed to offer relief to Venezuelans, despite pledging last year to “stand with the Venezuelan people.” As Russia appears in control, Europe remains on the sidelines, and the Venezuelan government evades U.S. sanctions, the conflict has become more protracted and shows little signs of resolution. Nearly 5 million people have now fled Venezuela as a result of the political situation, and the Trump administration has repeatedly refused to support House-led congressional efforts to grant Venezuelans Temporary Protected Status. In fact, U.S. refugee admissions from around the world are at their lowest levels in the history of the program—a despicable abdication of U.S. leadership at a time of historic need.
Undermined the United States’ role as a leader on climate change action
Trump has continued to deny the climate crisis, belittling climate activists at Davos as “prophets of doom.” Polling shows that a strong majority of young Americans are worried about the impacts of climate change and motivated to take action. But the Trump administration chooses to ignore these concerns and has done nothing to counter climate change or its effect on national security; instead, it has worked to undermine the United States’ role as a leader on climate action, including by gutting environmental regulation that could mitigate climate change impacts, attacking climate science, and preparing to formally withdraw from the Paris climate agreement later this year.
Failed to address foreign interference in U.S. elections
Finally, and perhaps most consequential for this election year, President Trump refuses to tackle foreign election interference. Here, too, polling suggests that Americans are deeply concerned about the security of this year’s election. A joint statement from the Justice Department, FBI, and other U.S. intelligence agencies declared election security “a top priority” for the United States. Yet Trump’s own actions and hostility toward election security preparedness undermine these agencies’ efforts; in fact, a recent House Intelligence Committee report warned that President Trump will likely continue to use the office of the presidency to pressure foreign countries to intervene in the U.S. election process.
It’s clear from these actions and policies that President Trump has a losing record on national security. He claimed last year, “Victory is not winning for our party. Victory is winning for our country.” But for every year that he remains in office, the United States loses more allies and loses out on advancing American interests. U.S. policymakers will need to reclaim these lost years for America’s standing in the world and take immediate action to restore U.S. credibility, make amends with allies and partners, and work to reverse the worst damages of the Trump administration. America’s national security depends on it.
Kelly Magsamen is the vice president for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Alexandra Schmitt is a policy analyst for human rights, democracy, and development on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.
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