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Foreign Policy In The SOTU


President Trump's description of his foreign policy last night could hardly be more different from the way his critics describe it. His critics see fractured American alliances and chaotic moves against both rivals and allies. The president last night spoke of progress regarding North Korea.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Our hostages have come home. Nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in more than 15 months. If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.

INSKEEP: Let's work through some of the president's statements with Nicholas Burns. He served as under secretary of state for political affairs and the U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush. Ambassador, welcome back to the program.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: The president offers an alternative view of history there. It's kind of hard to check. But what do you make of his opinion expressed there that but for Donald Trump, we would be in a major war with North Korea right now?

BURNS: Oh, I thought it was the low point of the speech. It was objectionable to say it. There's no basis for it. Look. I'm someone who believes - I think a lot of people believe that the president was right to turn towards diplomacy, away from the threat of war in 2017. We had never met - no American official ever met Kim Jong Un. It was time to meet him. But you have to ask right now - what has the president got for that? What has he received? He doesn't - the North Koreans have not declared what their nuclear program is, where their fissile material is, where their missiles are. They have not compromised on anything. We've suspended our military exercises.

I think diplomacy can be good, but it has to be tough-minded. And if there is not progress at the end of this month, Steve, in Vietnam when the two leaders get together, you have to wonder if this policy is going to succeed. So he's not - he's on the right track on diplomacy, but he hasn't delivered much. And this charge last night - so unfair to make in front of the American people.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should mention the assessment of the intelligence agencies - U.S. intelligence agencies now led by the president's own appointees that North Korea doesn't seem to view it in - as in its own interest to get rid of its nuclear program, which was the U.S. demand.

BURNS: There's every reason to believe that Kim Jong Un wants to hang on to his nuclear program. He intends to do that. When the president declared after the Singapore meeting - the first meeting - that the North Korean nuclear problem had been resolved, that was just an excuse for China and Russia to begin ending the sanctions against North Korea and to begin to trade again. So I think the president has lost a lot of leverage here. He has to be much more tough-minded in this upcoming meeting.

INSKEEP: The president also referred to the effort to remove the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro. Of course, the United States has recognized an opposition leader as president, and the legislature has said that opposition leader is actually the acting president for 30 days. Looking at this from the outside, do you believe, Ambassador, the United States has a clear policy toward Venezuela and clear options should things go very, very wrong?

BURNS: I think the policy is clear, Steve. In fact, I think the president has a lot of support, both in Congress, but equally important, around the world for this. Many European countries are supporting the United States in saying that the Maduro regime is illegitimate and that the opposition party has to be given a chance to run the country. Many Latin countries believe that. So I think the president is on the right track in that respect.

The tactical mistake that you have to really wonder about here is the president wants to lead this parade. He's become the leading critic. He's very vociferous. He's even mused about the possibility of an American military intervention on a couple of occasions, and that would be, obviously, a disaster for the United States. Tactically, the U.S. should not be leading here. More Latin leaders should be out front. We have a long history with Latin America - as we know, not all of it good - and it just gives Maduro a propaganda advantage to say that the Americans want me out as opposed to the Colombians or the Brazilians or the Europeans.

INSKEEP: One other thing to ask about - the president did boast, as he has before, that he's getting more money out of NATO. Defense budgets are going up in NATO nations as the president has criticized them. Is there a case to be made that the president has actually strengthened some U.S. alliances rather than weakening them, which is the way we commonly perceive it?

BURNS: Well, I think he's weakened NATO, but I think he's right about this European defense spending issue. The European - most of the Europeans need to spend more. But Steve, we've seen four consecutive years, from 2015, of real budget increases by the European allies because of Putin's invasion of Crimea and because of Donald Trump and because of Barack Obama. So I think the president needs to spread the critic - the credit here to President Obama, as well as the NATO allies for doing the right thing over the last four years.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks very much. It's always a pleasure talking with you.

BURNS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Nicholas Burns was U.S. ambassador to NATO and also served in other senior positions under President George W. Bush. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.