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Despite rhetoric, no foreign policy shift in sight at State of the Union

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Rebecca Valli

Next week’s State of the Union address will be a chance for Trump to define his agenda on a number of issues, including his relations with U.S. allies and adversaries abroad. 

Associate Professor in Cornell University’s Department of Government

Sarah Kreps

Associate Professor in Cornell University’s Department of Government

Sarah Kreps, professor of government and international relations at Cornell University, says that the president’s rhetoric on foreign policy – at times disheartening and inflammatory – is unlikely to translate into significant political shifts.

Kreps says:

“The challenge with parsing an address is that so far there have been enormous disjunctures between Trump’s rhetoric and his official policy. The transactional America First rhetoric seems to jettison allies or sell its loyalty to the highest bidder. But the recently unveiled National Security Strategy reads as a mainstream security document that repeatedly praises the work of our allies and commits to solving global problems with their collaboration.

“Similarly, Trump talks about nuclear policy as though he is ready to launch, but rumors of the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review suggest that nuclear policy will largely extend the modernization begun almost a decade ago.

“Language matters in international politics, and much of the rhetoric on national security has been other than salutary: disheartening for allies and inflammatory for adversaries. But in the day-to-day policy, which both allies and adversaries seem to increasingly look to for clues, the real policy shifts are far fewer. Part of the reason is that the administration has lacked the bureaucratic capacity for major shifts because of unfilled appointee positions or turnover. 

“A bigger reason though is that many of these policies—whether alliances, foreign bases, or nuclear modernization—are deeply embedded and institutionalized over decades rather than years, yielding far more continuity than the brash rhetoric would suggest.

"The State of the Union is unlikely to change that. Trump’s big talk about America First shouldn't be construed as signaling dramatic increases in the defense budget, an abandoning of allies, or the real threat of nuclear engagement.

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