He is the master of sound bites and he delivered plenty of them. The state of the union address by President Trump, delayed by about three weeks from the traditional time frame, was full of phrases designed to touch his voters and adversaries alike.
He has been confrontational all along and yet his speech conveyed the tone of reconciliation. He has been divisive at every step but his words Tuesday conveyed the sense of togetherness.
He said: The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people.
He said: Victory is not winning for our party. Victory is winning for our country.
The complete text of Trump’s state of the union address, delivered on Tuesday (5 February 2019) can be found here – https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/full-text-trump-s-state-union-address-n968231
Here are the parts of his address that would impact Central Asia directly, or almost directly:
“Over the last two years, we have begun to fully rebuild the United States military with $700 billion last year and $716 billion this year. We are also getting other nations to pay their fair share. Finally.
“For years, the United States was being treated very unfairly by friends of ours, members of NATO. But now we have secured over the last couple of years more than $100 billion of increase in defense spending from our NATO allies. They said it couldn’t be done.
“As part of our military buildup, the United States is developing a state of the art defense missile system and under my administration, we will never apologize for advancing America’s interests. For example, decades ago, the United States entered into a treaty with Russia in which we agreed to limit and reduce our missile capability.
“While we followed the agreement and the rules to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms. Been going on for many years. That is why I announced that the United States is officially withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty or INF Treaty. We really have no choice. Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement adding China and others or perhaps we can’t, in which case we will outspend and out innovate all others by far.
[ . . . ]
“Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly 7,000 American heroes have given their lives. More than 52,000 Americans have been badly wounded. We have spent more than $7 trillion in fighting wars in the Middle East. As a candidate for president, I loudly pledged a new approach.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars. When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria just two years ago. Today, we have liberated virtually all of the territory from the grip of these blood-thirsty monsters. Now, as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.
“I have also accelerated our negotiations to reach, if possible, a political settlement in Afghanistan. The opposing side is also very happy to be negotiating. Our troops have fought with unmatched valor. And thanks to their bravery, we are now able to pursue a possible political solution to this long and bloody conflict.
“In Afghanistan, my administration is holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban. As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop’s presence and focus on counter-terrorism. And we will, indeed, focus on counter-terrorism. We don’t know whether we will achieve an agreement, but we do know after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace and the other side would like to do the same thing. It’s time.
[ . . . ]
“My administration has acted decisively to confront the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, the radical regime in Iran. It is a radical regime. They do bad, bad things. To ensure this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons, I withdrew the United States from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal.
“And last fall we put in place the toughest sanctions ever imposed by us on a country. We will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants death to America and threatens genocide against the Jewish people. We must never ignore the vial poison of antisemitism or those who spread its venomous creed.”
Here is how we can summarize these points:
- The USA will spend generously a state of the art defense missile system and will not care whether it triggers another arms race.
- The USA, after annulling INF – intermediate range nuclear forces treaty – with Russia, may negotiate another one which may include China. In case a new treaty cannot be negotiated, the Trump administration will spare no expenses in overtaking everyone else, and maintaining a long lead, in the intermediate range nuclear forces.
- A political solution in Afghanistan could be in sight but the USA would like to ‘reduce its presence’ there (not withdraw entirely) and focus on counter-terrorism.
- The harsh sanctions on Iran – ‘toughest sanctions ever imposed by us on a country’ – will remain in place rigidly.
In the area of trade policy, Trump said, “We are now making it clear to China that after years of targeting our industries and stealing our intellectual property, the theft of American jobs and wealth has come to an end.”
Expressing ‘great respect’ for President Xi, Trump said that a new trade deal with China was in the pipeline.
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Central Asia needs to take note of some nuances created by his speech.
Trump has said that the USA is negotiating with various groups including the Taliban. He did not mention the Afghan government or its role in the peace process.
He also did not acknowledge the presence of any other peace processes including the talks hosted by Russia where one side of the Afghan government (Abdullah faction) was represented but the other side (Ghani faction) was not.
The speech of Trump gives the impression that he may not give much weight to the interests or concerns of the sitting government in Kabul as long as the solution is to his liking.
He has annexed the question of counter-terrorism with the endgame in Afghanistan and this may have several possibilities for Central Asia. Some decisions may need to be taken with a careful eye on the long term aspects.
Intermediate range missiles
Currently just a handful of countries maintain the intermediate range nuclear missiles and the USA and Russia are not among them. As a result of the INF Treaty signed between the USA and the Soviet Union in 1988, both the countries liquidated their arsenals of IRBMs (intermediate range missiles).
With the withdrawal from INF by the Trump administration, the world is back to the cold war years. If Trump vows in his state of the union address to ‘outspend and out innovate all others by far’ in the production, and of course deployment, of IRBMs, and promises to develop ‘a state of the art defense missile system,’ we can easily predict the reaction of the policymakers in Moscow and Beijing.
The IRBMs have no fixed range. It depends on the payload and several other factors but generally a missile with range from 3500 to 5000 km can be called an IRBM.
If Trump will establish an IRBM base in Europe, Putin may place one in Crimea. If Trump creates a ‘state of the art’ missile defence system, Putin may answer back by coming up with the missiles that can penetrate that shield. This is the start of the vicious circle we thought we left behind in the 20th century.
As was the case in the cold war era, every country that considers itself some kind of world-power will look for locations around the world to place its missile bases.
Let’s hope that sanity prevails somehow but if it doesn’t, Central Asia would need to be very careful. Maintaining demonstrable and transparent neutrality would be the advisable path.
Trump’s policy on Iran is full of contradictions. On one hand he is trying to generate economic collapse in Iran and on the other hand he is giving exemptions to several countries and entities to bypass the sanctions.
One way for Central Asia is to put together a joint policy about Iran and demand collective exemption from the American sanctions. This can be negotiated and is doable.
While Trump is threatening to impose retaliatory duties on imports from China – he has done quite a bit already – the fact is that the USA needs China for many reasons. There is a limit to how far the USA can go in damaging the interests of China without damaging its own interests.
In the structure of this tension there would be pockets of opportunity for Central Asia and real-time assessment of the situation would be of benefit. /// nCa, 7 February 2019