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Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech

Trump’s foreign policy speech [1] 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.

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18 Comments To "Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech"

#1 Comment By SFBay On April 28, 2016 @ 12:51 pm

Who wrote this supposedly serious foreign policy speech? Certainly not anyone who actually knows anything about US foreign policy.

This should tell us that his list of foreign policy advisors is very small and uniformed. A perfect fit for The Donald.

I remain speechless watching the Republican electorate intent on making this guy their nominee. How is this even possible?

#2 Comment By AAB On April 28, 2016 @ 1:27 pm

While he ostensibly Views conducting foreign policy as analogous to doing business deals, which he of course claims to be expert at, at the same time he appears to lack a basic understanding of the very purpose of doing deals. Maybe it’s just his tone, but he doesn’t seem to be a guy who knows how to compromise.

#3 Comment By Irony Abounds On April 28, 2016 @ 1:28 pm

The speech, like most of the other drivel that escapes Trump’s mouth, is simply a recitation of platitudes that in isolation are each designed to score high on focus group dials but when taken as a hole become, as Daniel point, mostly inconsistent nonsense. The fact is Trump is, at his core, simply a salesman, and he will say and do what he thinks will close the sale. Just like the ads he did for Trump University, where he stated emphatically that he personally selected each “instructor” and in fact he had nothing to do with it, anything Trump says should be taken with a grain of salt.

#4 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 28, 2016 @ 1:43 pm

Thank you, Daniel, for beginning you analysis with “some of the right things in [Trump’s] speech” – especially Trump’s “straightforward appeal for a foreign policy that puts the interests of the American people first” and “that America shouldn’t go abroad in search of enemies.” Also important was your direct quote of Trump: “A superpower understands that caution and restraint are signs of strength.”

On the downside of Trump’s speech, I agree with your criticism of Trump for continuing to denounce the Iran nuclear deal. However, the most important part of Trump’s position on Iran is the part that is un-spoken: Unlike the other Republican candidates Trump still refuses to say that – if elected President — he would tear up the Iran nuclear agreement. It is that un-spoken Trump position that makes Trump’s overall Iran policy so encouraging among Republicans. (As you point out, Trump’s saying that Iran has not been complying with the terms of the nuclear agreement is flat-out untrue.)

To his credit Trump has long emphasized the importance of the US pursuing good relations with Russia and you are absolutely correct, Daniel, to point out that for the US to pursue the Czech/Polish defensive missile program will needlessly antagonize Russia.

An important, positive aspect of Trump’s speech – especially to Trump supporters — was his series of statements regarding trade, immigration, and jobs:

“Our manufacturing trade deficit with the world is now approaching $1 trillion a year…Ending the theft of American jobs will give us the resources we need to rebuild our military and regain our financial independence and strength…Our president has allowed China to continue its economic assault on American jobs and wealth, refusing to enforce trade rules…We are also going to have to change our trade, immigration and economic policies to make our economy strong again – and to put Americans first again. This will ensure that our own workers, right here in America, get the jobs and higher pay that will grow our tax revenue and increase our economic might as a nation…

“No country has ever prospered that failed to put its own interests first. Both our friends and enemies put their countries above ours and we, while being fair to them, must do the same. We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism…I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down, and will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs. NAFTA, as an example, has been a total disaster for the U.S. and has emptied our states of our manufacturing and our jobs. Never again. Only the reverse will happen. We will keep our jobs and bring in new ones. There will be consequences for companies that leave the U.S. only to exploit it later. Under a Trump Administration, no American citizen will ever again feel that their needs come second to the citizens of foreign countries. I will view the world through the clear lens of American interests.”

#5 Comment By Fast Jimmy On April 28, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

Kurt Gayle,

Not sure how that hodgepodge of unrelated economic rhetoric applies to this discussion.

The fact that Trump doesn’t categorically state that he intends to eliminate the nuclear deal could easily be an oversight. He rails against it, claims they’re violating it and promises to be on a hair trigger to break it in the future, which he seems somewhat likely to do under tremendous pressure to follow his own rhetoric.

Sorry, but Mr. Larison has nailed this. We can make few concrete, positive assumptions about a potential Trump foreign policy.

#6 Comment By cecelia On April 28, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

why do we need to rebuild our military? It is already the largest in the world. What exactly needs rebuilding? And what is the strategy that predicts what we will build?

We have more aircraft carriers than the rest of the entire world – more planes by far than anyone else – so what exactly do we need?

The GOP seems obsessed with this rebuilding idea – how about – let’s have no more unnecessary foreign wars so we do not need to rebuild the military?

#7 Comment By pitchfork On April 28, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

Respectfully, I think even potentially sympathetic commentators are missing the forest for the trees. Whatever fact-free pot shots Trump might have taken at Obama, the overriding themes are glaringly obvious: put American interests first, refrain from nation-building and high-minded adventurism, and seek more diplomatic relationships with Russia and China.

I don’t see how his being unfair to Obama on specific issues is “contradictory” — at least on the level of policy.

Finally, I understand why some people don’t trust Trump to follow through, but the overall thrust of his approach to FP is unambiguous and a welcome change.

#8 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 28, 2016 @ 2:31 pm

@ Fast Jimmy, who says: “Kurt Gayle, Not sure how that hodgepodge of unrelated economic rhetoric applies to this discussion.”

The topic of Daniel’s post, Fast Jimmy — the topic under discussion — is “Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech.” What you call the “hodgepodge of unrelated economic rhetoric” is taken directly from the parts of the Trump Foreign Policy Speech that mean a great deal to Middle Americans who want the American manufacturing jobs shipped overseas to be brought home — and who want the 8.3 million American jobs currently held by illegal immigrants to be freed up for Americans.

#9 Comment By Scott F. On April 28, 2016 @ 3:23 pm

“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.”

You want to know why Trump remains deliberately vague about his plans – not just for FP, but for all things? Enter pitchfork, who can take Trump’s full self-contradictory speech, discard all inconvenient statements as immaterial, and emerge with an “unambiguous” call for the change pitchfork desires.

By remaining a cipher, Trump can be all things to all people – at least those people so inclined to believe what they want to believe, damn the reality.

#10 Comment By W.E.B. Dupree On April 28, 2016 @ 3:29 pm

“…instead focusing on creating stability in the world.” “We will always help to save lives and, indeed, humanity itself.”

Bushism with a human face (an orange one)?

#11 Comment By Johann On April 28, 2016 @ 3:48 pm

Trump continues to throw red meat to a large faction of his voters, but bottom line, as flawed as his speech was, he has the best foreign policy objectives of any of the other candidates, Democrat or Republican. He wins hands down. The only person with a perfect foreign policy is me.

#12 Comment By Johann On April 28, 2016 @ 4:20 pm

Results matter. Both the democrat and republican foreign policy pretty much take the recommendations of the foreign policy establishment, and are really not that different. Its resulted in chaos and disaster. The foreign policy establishment has zero credibility and their criticisms of the Trump speech should be pretty much ignored. Daniel Larison is not one of them. I appreciate his analysis.

#13 Comment By pitchfork On April 28, 2016 @ 5:07 pm

Scott F.,

You’re psychologizing instead of making an argument. It’s funny that you question whether I can read and interpret what Trump actually said, while at the same time presuming to read my mind. We’ve never met, but ok.

Once again, were the following not the major themes of Trump’s speech?
1) put American interests first
2) refrain from nation-building and high-minded adventurism
3) seek more diplomatic relationships with Russia and China

If anyone wants to argue that his other, ostensibly “contradictory” comments negate the above, have at it. He may or may not follow through, but in the current political context, in this historical moment, I’m fairly confident of my reading of this speech. It’s not perfect, but on the 3 themes I’ve highlighted, it marks a clear, yes, unambiguous difference between Trump and the foreign policy establishment.

#14 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 28, 2016 @ 8:19 pm

pitchfork:

“Once again, were the following not the major themes of Trump’s speech?

“1) put American interests first”

That’s a bromide, not a “theme,” never mind a policy. And every politician (even the ideological interventionists) claims that his or her FP would be the best one for America, hence “American interests” would be best served by it. Meaningless sloganeering, like “Make America Great Again.”

“2) refrain from nation-building and high-minded adventurism”

While at the same time fighting, possibly with nukes, ISIS? And, of course, Trump has previously backed intervention in Libya and Syria, and his opposition to the Iraq war was well after the fact. And he wants to bully Iran some more too. Trump is all about the USA throwing its weight around in the world, particularly in the Middle East. Sure sounds like an “adventure” to me, and not a good one. Merely dropping the “high mindedness” doesn’t make it go away.

“3) seek more diplomatic relationships with Russia and China”

Yeah, by starting a trade war with China, and antagonizing Russia by stationing missile defense units in Eastern Europe and ratcheting up the already obscene level of US defense spending.

Trump is simply all over the map. Reassure the allies while shaking them down like Al Capone and cutting deals with Putin behind their back. Talk about ending “nation building” but then saying the US has to solve all the problems in the world, as well as ensure its “stability.”

“If anyone wants to argue that his other, ostensibly ‘contradictory’ comments negate the above, have at it.”

See above.

“He may or may not follow through, but in the current political context, in this historical moment, I’m fairly confident of my reading of this speech. It’s not perfect, but on the 3 themes I’ve highlighted, it marks a clear, yes, unambiguous difference between Trump and the foreign policy establishment.”

The only difference is that Trump is completely contradictory and incoherent. As for “following through,” the question is “on what?” On which statement, or set of statements? On which of his inconsistent stands du jour?

One need not read your mind to agree with Scott F:

“Enter pitchfork, who can take Trump’s full self-contradictory speech, discard all inconvenient statements as immaterial, and emerge with an ‘unambiguous’ call for the change pitchfork desires.”

You ARE disregarding all the “inconvenient” statements, and emerging with a clarity that simply isn’t there.

There seems to be a great desire on the part of some folks to see in Trump the embodiment of the more or less anti interventionist, perhaps “realist,” FP put forth by, among others, Mr. Larison. But Trump’s own statements show otherwise. And, beyond that, Trump’s actual behavior, his endless and pointless and petty and grand belligerence towards all and sundry who don’t do his bidding, shows even more clearly that he would be anything but peaceful and realistic and diplomatic if he were president.

#15 Comment By jamie On April 29, 2016 @ 2:08 am

While he ostensibly Views conducting foreign policy as analogous to doing business deals, which he of course claims to be expert at, at the same time he appears to lack a basic understanding of the very purpose of doing deals.

Trump is a New York real estate maven. His idea of a “deal” is a fait accompli where he holds all the cards and can dictate terms. His entire theory of foreign policy seems be based on the presumption that the world is Manhattan, and America owns all of Park Avenue from the Village to 32nd Street, and just doesn’t realize it for some reason, and he’s the only person that knows how to move the units.

The idea of mutual benefit or a non zero-sum outcome seems to be completely alien to him.

What you call the “hodgepodge of unrelated economic rhetoric” is taken directly from the parts of the Trump Foreign Policy Speech that mean a great deal to Middle Americans who want the American manufacturing jobs shipped overseas to be brought home […]

Kurt is completely right. Most people want a foreign policy that makes sense and is based on some kind of underlying principles, but we can’t ignore the needs of working-class whites. Their need to be pandered-to endlessly on social issues, and the imperative that the US government constantly be making the world safe for their goldbricking.

#16 Comment By pitchfork On April 29, 2016 @ 5:46 am

philadelphialawyer:

(For brevity, I’ll just keep referring to the numbers used above)

1) If Trump had merely referred to “American interests,” I’d concede your point, but when you give a speech that says “America first” 6 or 7 times, explicitly renounces “globalism,” and explicitly talks up the “nation state” a la Pat Buchanan, you’re clearly using “American interests” in a way very different from Lindsay Graham, say. We can disagree, but I think your reading of this is just flat-out wrong.

2) Here, you’re just conflating random criticisms of Trump with what he actually put forth in that speech. The exact moment that Trump came out against Iraq, Libya, etc. is irrelevant to what he laid out in that speech, or indeed, what he’s said as a candidate. You may not like his rhetoric on the Iran nuclear deal (I don’t either), but how that amounts to “nation-building” and “adventurism” is beyond me.

As for nukes on ISIS (which is neither nation-building nor high-minded adventurism), Trump himself has said no to that on at least one, maybe two occasions. The people who brought it up and suggested it were the WaPo editorial board and, I think, Chris Matthews. I don’t know whether they’re nuts or they were just trying to lay a trap, but Trump didn’t take the bait, for what it’s worth.

3) There’s no question that Trump’s approach to China and Russia (at least as far as he claims) would be different from the pseudo-Cold War sabre rattling we’ve had for the last few years. A telling example (though I don’t think he put it in the speech) is his view of Russian involvement in Syria. Trump saw it as a welcome development, and at the same time explicitly called for leaving Assad in power (a rejection of “high-minded adventurism” to boot).

I concede the point about missile defense. That substantively contradicts a more diplomatic approach to Russia.

But as for your “trade war with China” rhetoric, we just fundamentally disagree. Attempting to rebalance trade with China isn’t the same as starting a “trade war.” I understand the concerns you have (indeed, I share many of them), but I don’t regard it as belligerence. It seems the goal posts have been moved on this point from “more diplomatic approach” to “don’t upset China on trade.” In any case, the contrast between Trump and neo-con handwringing about the “rise of China” seems clear to me.

So by my reckoning, the total negation of 1), 2) and 3) amounts to missile defense in Eastern Europe and that Trump a) wants a trade war with China, which b) amounts to belligerence.

Again, it’s amazing that you, JohnF and others are resorting to psychologizing on this. I don’t “desire” what Trump laid out. I’m nearly a Ron-Paul non-interventionist. I didn’t see that on offer. I’m simply interpreting what Trump DID say in the context of current political thinking and the way people currently talk about foreign policy. In my view, you’re enlarging minor contradictions and then claiming “incoherence.”

And by the way, I’m not at all confident that a President Trump would actually adhere to what he’s said in this speech (as I’ve interpreted it). But that’s a different question altogether. Surely you’ll concede, then, that I and others aren’t motivated by false hope or “desire,” simply a different interpretation of the speech.

#17 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 29, 2016 @ 10:58 am

Pitchfork,

So, to keep it equally brief, you concede that Trump has, at one time or another (aka Trump’s “random criticisms”), contradicted every single positive thing you find in his most recent speech. And some of them in the speech itself. Beyond that, we have the fact that he repeats his trite, banal slogan over and over again. Otherwise, as you also agree, there is no reason whatsoever to think that President Trump would follow the realist path that his speech, in your estimation, lays out.

#18 Comment By William Springer On April 29, 2016 @ 8:07 pm

Philadephia lawyer — I think you summed it up perfectly, both for Pitchfork and most of Trump supporters.

“Trump will do [_____], [_____] and [_____], all of which are important to me, as evidenced by [____] speech. He has contradicted that multiple times, but it is clear he agrees with me.”

That is usually with…

“He tells it like it is [ignoring any fact-checking confirming that he lies more than any other politician]”

“He is a great businessman [decent, though his investment return isn’t that great and had he invested his inheritance in S&P 500, would have the same amount he has now (without screwing creditors in 4 bankruptcies)….going into mortgages in 2007 is perfect example of many terrible decisions]”

“He speaks for the people” [despite having no connection with people and truly caring about nobody other than him…if the choice was 50 US soldiers dying or him admitting he has small hands, I actually am not 100% sure of the choice]