Trump’s foreign policy speech yesterday veered between a few sensible comments and a large number of contradictory and worrisome assertions. Like previous Trump statements on foreign policy, this speech was all over the map. While he insisted on the importance of a coherent foreign policy, he demonstrated that he does not have one. The speech offered his supporters and detractors material to justify their earlier opinions of him, but offered too few specific commitments to give us a clear idea of how Trump would handle a wide range of international issues. There were some good elements in it, but on the whole it didn’t make a lot of sense.
Trump emphasized some of the right things in his speech. He stressed that American interests should take priority, and made a straightforward appeal for a foreign policy that puts the interests of the American people first. He also said that America shouldn’t go abroad in search of enemies. That was presumably a nod to John Quincy Adams without directly quoting him. Trump noted correctly that post-Cold War foreign policy went off the rails and led to multiple costly failures, and expressed justifiable skepticism of the ill-conceived democracy promotion efforts of the 2000s. He repeated his point that U.S. allies need to do more to contribute to their own defense. At one point in his speech, he rightly said, “A superpower understands that caution and restraint are signs of strength.”
If those were the bright spots in the speech, there were also many problems. It may be inevitable in an election year, but many of Trump’s claims about the administration were false or misleading. He recycled the tired charge that Obama “dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies,” and like everyone else making that charge had no evidence to support it. The examples that he thinks support this claim show nothing of the kind. Trump denounced the nuclear deal with Iran again and falsely claimed that “we watched them ignore its terms, even before the ink was dry.” In fact, Iran has been complying with the terms of the deal, and has already shipped out its stockpile of low-enriched uranium in a major win for U.S.-led nonproliferation efforts. It is typical of Trump’s view of the world that he cannot even acknowledge a significant U.S. foreign policy success despite his fixation on the need to win.
Trump attacks the Iran deal as an example of “not being willing to leave the table,” when it was the persistence and determination of the administration to see the deal through that allowed the U.S. to score one of its most significant recent diplomatic achievements. Trump complains about “the humiliation of the United States with Iran’s treatment of our ten captured sailors,” but neglects to mention that the incident in question was resolved speedily and peacefully thanks in part to the diplomatic channels created by the very nuclear negotiations he ridicules as a failure. On this issue, Trump is like so many of the other Republican candidates in that he claims to value diplomacy but doesn’t want to accept the compromises that make successful diplomacy possible.
He went on to say that “President Obama gutted our missile defense program, then abandoned our missile defense plans with Poland and the Czech Republic.” The first part isn’t true, and the second part is misleading. The U.S. is still pursuing missile defense plans in Europe, for good or ill, and is now doing so by cooperating with all of NATO instead of the ad hoc bilateral deals that the Bush administration made with those two countries. For what it’s worth, most Poles and Czechs still didn’t support their governments’ decision to participate in the missile defense scheme and don’t care that it was cancelled. More to the point, Obama made that decision to reduce tensions with Moscow, and that thaw in relations with Russia worked for a few years. Pursuing better relations with Russia is something that Trump endorses elsewhere in the speech, but it doesn’t occur to Trump or his speechwriters that improving relations with Moscow may require making gestures that will displease some domestic hawks and European allies. Trump claims not to be interested in antagonizing Russia, but objects when an irritant in the relationship was removed. He says he doesn’t think the U.S. and Russia have to be adversaries, but doesn’t seem to want to accept that the U.S. will have to make any accommodations for that to happen.
So some of Trump’s specific complaints about current policy are wrong on the facts or are at odds with other positions that he has taken. Other statements are maddeningly vague. For example, Trump said, “We are getting out of the nation-building business, and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.” Many Americans will cheer the first part of this statement after the costly debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the second part potentially commits the U.S. to a very ambitious and activist role in the world. It’s not at all clear what Trump thinks “creating stability in the world” entails, what it would cost, or whether the U.S. would even know how to do this. Later in the speech, Trump suggests that he wants a huge military build-up: “We will spend what we need to rebuild our military.” This promises a further increase of military spending, which is already at historically high levels, and amounts to just throwing money at the Pentagon without any attempt at reforming the way it uses it. In his concluding remarks, he makes a statement that sounds like an endorsement of a dangerously messianic role for the U.S. in the world: “We will always help to save lives and, indeed, humanity itself.” Maybe that’s just a meaningless rhetorical flourish. Maybe it is something much worse. The trouble with Trump is that we can never be sure.
Trump has said that he prizes unpredictability and wants to keep people guessing as to what he might or might not do, and after this speech we still have only the vaguest idea of what we could expect from a Trump foreign policy.