There’s usually not a whole lot of foreign policy material in the President’s State of the Union address, at least not since the days of George W. Bush and his invocation of Doestoevskyian nihilists as a justification for world conquest. Oh, it gets mentioned, of course, but usually at the end, as the obligatory capstone to all the rhetoric about “strength,” “freedom,” and “unity” that decorates these presidential perorations. President Trump’s speech was no exception: except for talk of “reciprocal” trade agreements (who could object?), lifting budget caps on military spending (they keep talking about it, and yet there are good political reasons why it probably won’t happen), “modernizing” our nuclear arsenal (a process started under President Obama, and an extremely dangerous development), there wasn’t much substantial for a foreign policy analyst to sink his teeth into.
Well, yes, there was the North Korea section, wherein the President told us that Kim Jong Un may soon have the capacity to reach American cities with his nukes – not exactly accurate, but not totally impossible at some future date either. He brought up the horrific treatment of Otto Warmbier, the unfortunate student who was imprisoned and tortured by the North Koreans for the “crime” of stealing a propaganda poster and died of his wounds shortly after being returned to the United States. And who can forget the amazing story of Ji Seong-ho, the North Korea double amputee whose escape from that commie shithole reads like a combination of Dante’s Inferno and the Odyssey as told by Stephen King.
Although anti-interventionists oppose war on the Korean peninsula – as does any rational person, we fully appreciate the heroism – which seems almost superhuman – that got Ji Seong-ho out of that hell-on-earth.
While we were told, before the speech, to expect some pretty tough rhetoric aimed at Pyongyang, there were no threats, not a word of bombast, despite rumors of a faction within the administration pushing for a “bloody nose” first strike against the regime.
The withdrawal of Victor Cha – a longtime hardliner, head of the North Asia desk at the National Security Council under George W. Bush – as ambassador to South Korea is being touted by the usual hysterics as evidence that the Trump administration is ready to bomb Pyongyang. While Cha did indeed write an op ed piece attacking the idea of the “bloody nose” strategy being pushed by the outright lunatics in the Trump administration, he opposes the “freeze-for-freeze” concept supported by South Korean nationalists and peace groups: the idea that if the US and South Korea stop their provocative military “exercises” the North will stop testing missiles.
So Cha’s withdrawal may not have been due to a veto by Trumpian hardliners: it is just as likely to have come from objections by the South Koreans, who are now involved in forging new links with the North over the Winter Olympics.
The last US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was the victim of a knife attack by a South Korean citizen whom the BBC described as a “militant Korean nationalist,” and who was sentenced to twelve years in jail. While the then conservative South Korean government and its supporters condemned the attack, it wasn’t only Pyongyang that praised it as an “act of justice”: there was a popular backlash in which many South Koreans accused officials of engaging in “worship of America” and using the attack as an excuse to crack down on opponents of government policy.
There are currently around 30,000 US troops occupying South Korea.
More interesting than the speech itself was the reaction from the NeverTrumpers: for some reason the Democrats got no less than five responses, all of which were pretty much universally panned even by other NeverTrumpers. Their number one complaint was given voice by none other than “peacenik” Bernie Sanders, who, in a tweet, bemoaned the lack of hostility to Russia:
“How can Trump not talk about the reality that Russia, through cyberwarfare, interfered in our election in 2016, is interfering in democratic elections all over the world, and according to his own CIA director will likely interfere in the 2018 midterm elections? #BernieResponds.”
This is the Great Left Hope of the Democratic Party that people like Glenn Greenwald have been holding up (albeit tentatively and inconsistently) as somehow exempt from the Red Dawn Fever that has now become that party’s semi-official ideology.
Guess what? No one is exempt! Even the “libertarians” over at the Cato Institute have shown some disturbing signs of falling for the new cold war propaganda, although there are a few holdouts. Note here that Cato analyst Emma Ashford, given the chance to oppose the sanctions, affects an air of disinterested “objectivity.” Such “objectivity” wouldn’t suffice if the subject were, say, gay marriage. In an interview with a German media outlet she attacks Trump for questioning the Russia-gate hoax, which she, like the rest of the Washington crowd, seems to think is beyond challenge.
One year into the Trump administration and we have, on the foreign policy front, one major development: unlike practically every US President in modern times – excepting Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and (I think) Ford — Trump hasn’t started any major new wars. That might seem like some pretty thin gruel to feast on, and yet it does represent a not insignificant change in the pattern of presidential behavior. He campaigned as an “isolationist” whose “first instinct” would not be to call out the troops, and it’s fair to say he’s stuck to the spirit if not the strict letter of his “America First” doctrine.
Think of Trump as the exact opposite of George Herbert Walker Bush. Whereas the forty-first President of the United States was an arrogant aristocrat with no feeling for popular sentiment (or, indeed, for how ordinary Americans live), whose main concern was foreign policy, Trump is a plebeian in his bones who is focused on domestic policy, i.e. on improving the lives of actual Americans.
Whether his policies on immigration, taxes, infrastructure, etc., will actually succeed in doing that is beyond the purview of this column: our concern here is America’s role in the world. However, it is safe to say that as long as Trump stays focused on the economy, and as long as the economy continues its upward advance, he’ll be less inclined than ever to ruin it all with some stupid foreign adventure.
But, hey, you never know….
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.