Compass World: 2019 State of the Union

President Donald Trump gave his second State of the Union speech last night, highlighting numerous international initiatives and claiming various foreign policy successes. From North Korean nuclear brinkmanship to international trade disputes, read Compass World’s breakdown of how Trump’s speech will shape American foreign policy in 2019 and beyond. For a full transcript of the speech, click here.

Full video of President Donald Trump's second State of the Union address.


"Simply put, walls work and walls save lives,” Trump said, dedicating a significant part of his speech to advocating for the funding of a wall at the southern border as the most effective way to deter illegal immigration. He sought to underscore the urgency of this need by discussing new caravans of immigrants from Central America traveling toward the border and cited beleaguered Mexican cities that, the president said, help immigrants make their way to the border by providing trucks and buses. Discussing the “humanitarian crises” originating at the border, Trump referenced the “savage MS-13 gang,” sex trafficking, drugs smuggled over the border, and American citizens killed by illegal immigrants.

With ten days left before the bill temporarily funding the government expires, Trump called for a spending bill that includes funding for humanitarian assistance at the border, more agents to man points of entry, improved drug screening practices, and money for a border wall. “When walls go up, illegal crossings go down,” he concluded.


Trump addressed his recent announcement that the United States would pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. In justifying the decision, he said that Russia’s repeated violation of the terms of the agreement left America “no choice” but to withdraw from it. The president proposed the possibility of negotiating a new arms treaty, one which would ideally include “China and some others” (China was not party to the original INF Treaty). However, if such a deal proves impossible, America will “out-spend and out-innovate” opposing countries in order to defend American interests and security, Trump said. The agreement was originally signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.



Trump reaffirmed the American government’s support of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (left) and declared that America stands “with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom” and condemns the regime of President Nicolas Maduro (right). He particularly focused on Maduro’s brutality and socialist policies, which he claimed brought ruin to the country’s economy. Trump also used the opportunity to criticize domestic policies that lean socialist, saying that “America will never be a socialist country,” sparking a chant of “U.S.A.” by primarily conservative lawmakers.

North Korea

Continuing his administration’s goal of securing peace on the Korean Peninsula, the president announced a new summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The summit is set for February 27 and 28 in neutral Vietnam. Trump said that he believes in North Korea’s honesty in pursuing peace through disarmament and pointed out that no missiles had been tested by the country in over 15 months. Such a claim seemingly goes against a United Nations Security Council report stating that the North Korean missile program is alive and well in secret. Trump hopes for continued cooperation with the totalitarian regime amid efforts to secure the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Middle East

Turning to the Middle East, Trump continued to defend his decision to “recognize the true capital of Israel” and move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a move resoundly condemned in December 2017 by the UN.

Talking of Syria, the president said, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria following the liberation of the majority of territory once held by the Islamic State (ISIS) gives responsibility for ending terrorism back to actors in the region. Trump also addressed developments in Afghanistan, pointing to his acceleration of negotiations to reach a settlement among many disparate groups, including the Taliban. He said that these settlements would allow for a renewed focus on counterterrorism.

The American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal will ensure that Iran never has access to nuclear weapons, according to Trump. He called the regime “radical” and identified it as a threat to American security while praising newly imposed economic sanctions on the country, which he characterized as the world’s primary state sponsor of terrorism.

International Economics

Trump returned to two core issues of his presidential campaign: Chinese-American trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He reiterated a major talking point, claiming that making international trade fair for American workers and companies was his priority. Trump cited China as the culprit of mass intellectual property theft and large-scale blue collar job displacement in the United States. However, he said that he does not blame China “for taking advantage of us,” continuing, “I blame our leaders and representatives for allowing this travesty to happen.”

Congress granted China Permanent Normal Trading Rights (PNTR) in 2000, which effectively ensured its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001. The U.S. and China are currently in trade talks, and despite Trump’s assertion that he has “great respect for President Xi [Jinping],” analysts make few concrete predictions about the future of such negotiations. The trade talks face a March 1 deadline as the Trump administration has threatened to raise tariffs on $25 billion worth of Chinese goods from 10 to 25 percent without a deal. For more analysis on the future of the U.S.-China trade dispute, read Michael Schuman’s recent piece in The Atlantic.

Trump also offered strong criticism of NAFTA, the free trade agreement between Mexico, Canada, and the U.S., which was negotiated by President George H.W. Bush’s administration and signed by President Bill Clinton. Trump described the deal as a “trade blunder and catastrophe” that “shattered the dreams” of blue collar workers in the Rust Belt. Subsequently, he promoted his recently negotiated United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) as an American-friendly replacement. The deal, however, requires Congressional approval, and, with Democrats taking control of the House in November, the deal faces an uncertain future. Numerous House Democrats have already voiced opposition to key environmental and labor provisions in the agreement.

Trump specifically touted a proposed piece of legislation from Representative Sean Duffy (R-WI-7) called the United States Reciprocal Trade Act, which would grant the executive branch the authority to respond to any tariffs imposed on U.S. goods by imposing a matching duty on imports of the good in question. However, Politico trade reporter Sabrina Rodriguez described the legislation as “widely seen as dead on arrival in Congress,” with Democrats and Republicans opposing a further expansion of executive control over tariff policy. In fact, there have been bipartisan efforts to restrict the president’s ability to use national security concerns as a basis for economic protectionism.

International Institutions

Trump spoke briefly of international institutions, specifically the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The president noted a $100 billion increase in defense spending from NATO allies during his tenure. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg credited the Trump administration for pushing other NATO members to increase military outlays. The New York Times reported in January that Trump privately considered pulling the U.S. out of NATO, but Trump made no mention of such plans in his speech.

Writing contributed by Jackson Gillette.