A detailed examination of Trump’s foreign policy speech from a few weeks ago reveals how little substantive thought or ideas the candidate, the Republican Party, and its voters have when it comes to foreign policy. Contradictory and confusing, Trump showed little more than that he is good at delivering platitudes, which has been clear from the start of his campaign. In today’s Republican Party, that is enough to win its nomination for the presidency, something that should worry us all.
EILAT and TEL AVIV—In what has become a constant occurrence throughout the 2016 Republican nomination contest, Trump’s own behavior has so lowered the bar as to what is considered “acceptable” that, when he behaves in a way that is only mildly offensive as opposed to egregiously offensive—and that, when he speaks using prepared notes in a normal tone as opposed to yelling and rambling incoherently, people that are held to be respectable mainstream analysts are able to claim Trump is “presidential” and “serious” and is “improving” as a candidate.
Trump’s Elementary Mentality
For starters, Trump used the word “great” eighteen times in his address. While it would be inane to expect the American people to elect someone of the linguistic abilities of Shakespeare, I myself remember that by middle-school, my instructors took great pains to teach us that using the same word over and over again was not to be desired, and that variety was an essential aspect of what is to be considered “good” communication.
Then again, as it has been pointed out, Trump tends to communicate at best at a middle-school level, and often at an elementary-school level; this is not some expression, but the result of sophisticated linguistic analyses.
Pretty early in his speech, Trump made clear that the cornerstone of his foreign policy would be to “put…‘America First.’” I think it would be hard to accuse even the worst of our presidents of not acting in what they felt were the best interests of the United States, or to find one that acted on behalf of other nations primarily, and not on behalf of America; thus, while this is certainly a crowd-pleaser among some segments of the population, on a substantive level this “cornerstone” can only fairly be regarded as pointless, for while the segments of the population that appreciate such language feel that President Obama and others who don’t think like them are traitors who actively try to sabotage the United States in the interest of helping the Muslim Brotherhood or other apparently nefarious actors, such talk is simply inane and not even worth addressing… unless you are a mainstream Republican candidate for the presidency.
Another thing worth noting is how many times Trump repeats himself throughout. That means even though Trump spoke at some length, the “content” of the speech was stretched pretty thinly throughout.
Dr. Trump Diagnoses U.S. Foreign Policy Problems
Trump then went on to assert that there are five main weaknesses in today’s American foreign policy, only one of which was accurate, and even that one is not exactly something that can be controlled on America’s end directly.
1.) “First,” he began, “our resources are totally over extended,” and maintained that Obama’s actions have weakened the economy and have thus weakened the military and America’s power in the world.
What’s ironic about this criticism is that Obama, more than any president since the end of the Cold War, has retrenched, reducing and pulling back American commitments overseas, most notably in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, and cutting what was a historically and unnecessarily high defense budget in ways not seen since the end of the Cold War and more steeply than any time since the end of the Korean War. If anything, Obama has clearly helped the U.S. to be less overextended.
As for the economy, since the peak lows during the Great Recession—the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression—Obama has overseen 74 consecutive months of net job creation (a record for any president), the Dow Jones and the S&P 500 stock indexes have more than doubled in value, the export-import trade deficit has fallen by 24%, America has risen to become the world’s number-one producer of both oil and natural gas, and the unemployment rate has been cut in half. So Obama has clearly “outperform[ed] Reagan on jobs, growth, and investing.” Now, this does not tell the full story, and there are aspects of the economy which are certainly still troubling, but by any measure these numbers are impressive, even when allowing for very real problems, and one can hardly claim that Obama is “weakening our economy” overall, as Trump claims.
Trump’s first major point can be dismissed, then.
2.) “Secondly, our allies are not paying their fair share,” and he expects them, especially fellow NATO members, to pay up, and pay up far more than they have been.
Trump actually has a point here. Besides the U.S. only four other NATO members are meeting their NATO defense-spending obligations. But these decisions are not up to the Obama Administration, and while Obama could try to undiplomatically strong-arm close allies to do even more than the Obama Administration is already urging them to do, at a time when China and Russia are rising, when combating global terrorism requires better, not worse relationships, it is hardly a given that bullying our allies into paying more would be the best method. And yet, Trump still has a point—EU nations and others that enjoy a high standard of living (including better education and healthcare than America) while America puts more effort into defending these same countries from potential foes like Russia, China, and North Korea than these countries expend themselves is definitely an imbalance that should be adjusted—but this has been the case long before Obama and Obama is not the one to blame for it.
3.) Then, “Thirdly, our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us. We’ve had a president who dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies, something that we’ve never seen before in the history of our country.”
Like his first claim, this statement of Trump’s is also very problematic. As noted above, the Obama Administration does more than its fair share to contribute to European security, and Obama has led a regime of economic sanctions against Russia that have quite likely restrained the scope and intensity of its aggressiveness. Europe, India, Russia, and China also very much wanted progress in improving the West’s relationship with Iran, and Obama led the way to achieving a historic nuclear agreement between the world’s most powerful nations and Iran’s government on their nuclear program. But Trump’s criticism focuses on this Iran deal, which he and many Republicans (and Netanyahu and many Israelis) myopically and erroneously label a “disastrous deal.”
Part of the argument that is made against this Iran deal is the claim that this deal makes Israel less safe, an absurd argument that is related to an absurd general criticism that many Republicans and many Israelis make in which, in Trump’s words, “President Obama has not been a friend to Israel.” In fact, under Obama, Israel has seen a notable increase American in military aid and has been given more American military aid overall and on average per year than under any previous American president. This aid includes the highly effective Iron Dome missile/rocket defense system, so effective in neutralizing Hamas’ and other militant groups’ rocket attacks against Israel. Besides this, Obama has not been shy in using the diplomatic might of America to defend Israel, the U.S. both being the sole Security Council veto of a resolution critical of Israeli settlement building in early 2011 and using pressure behind to scenes to push against Palestinian diplomatic efforts. As is obvious to many, doing right by Israel does not mean supporting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party’s agenda. That Obama challenged Israel under Netanyahu to do what’s in its own interests is not “throwing Israel under the bus,” it’s being a true, honest friend. So while Obama does not hand over to Israel (increasing) billions every year in military aid without letting Israel know that its occupation and expansion of settlements is inflammatory and self-destructive, this does not make him an enemy of Israel.
As for our other allies, Obama has been increasing America’s military presence in Eastern Europe to reassure allies wary of Russian aggression as well as increasing it in East Asia to reassure our Asian allies wary of aggressive Chinese moves. So it is hard to find substantive examples of where we have let our allies down, though we may not always agree 100% with each other, as is the case with every American president.
Thus, Trump’s narrative here is also false.
4.) After that, we have “Fourth, our rivals no longer respect us.”
“No longer” in this case implies that America’s image in the past was better. As objectively measured in reliable global public opinion surveys, this can be dismissed at least in comparing America under Obama to America under George W. Bush, where a clear general trend of global opinion has been an improvement in America’s standing under Obama. The largest downward trend in recent decades was a sharp decline in global opinion from the years of Bill Clinton’s presidency to when George W. Bush was president. In short, any recent major decline in the respect people have had for America has a strong association with Republican presidency of George W. Bush, not Democrats Barack Obama or Bill Clinton.
So, Trump’s characterization of placing a supposed decline in the respect the world has for America as being associated mainly with Obama simply flies in the face of the facts.
While it is true that, in contrast to many other nations, China’s opinion of America has dipped slightly and Russia’s has tanked, this is due to the increasing divergence of interests in the South China Sea on one hand, and in Eastern Europe and Syria on the other. In addition, Putin has based much of his power on using state-owned and social media to whip up propaganda, including anti-American sentiment. In addition, Russia was happy to invade U.S. ally Georgia even when George W. Bush was president, and China’s recent assertiveness is a reflection of its recent growth in power more than anything else, fueled by its impressive economic growth in recent years. And in both Russia and China, it could be argued that its people like America less because Obama is standing up to their governments’ aggression.
To be fair, the Obama administration’s single biggest blunder to its credibility—backing away in 2013 from the “red line” it set for Syria’s Assad—did not help with the respect America’s rivals have for America; but to define Obama’s presidency on this single incident, and to blame him for the chaos erupting around the world, from the Arab Spring to the refugee crises in Europe and the Middle East, is myopic and extremely American-centered. If anything, anti-Americanism is fueled by decades-long American policies, including aggressive military action, support for Israel, and support for oppressive regimes during the Cold War, not specifically because of President Obama.
Under Obama, even after historic cuts, America’s military spending (#1 in the world) still dwarfs China’s (#2) and Russia’s (#4) combined spending, and that is a reality of power that both Russia and China respect whether they admit it or not. In the end, tying our rivals’ assertiveness to Obama’s policies and personality at the expense of other factors is speculative at best.
Thus, we have another dubious assertion on the part of Trump.
5.) And “Finally, America no longer has a clear understanding of our foreign policy goals. Since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, we’ve lacked a coherent foreign policy.”
Perhaps that is because the world is much more complicated now as far as international relations. Trump early in his speech vowed to create a “new foreign policy direction, one that replaces randomness with purpose.” For Trump, “after the Cold War…our foreign policy began to make less and less sense.” This involves the typical assumption that conservatives make all too often about the American foreign policy and the current world in which that policy needs to be crafted to fit.
For American conservatives, the Cold War is remembered somewhat fondly: the Soviet Union was unquestionably our biggest problem, threat, and adversary, with no other nation even coming close; our foreign policy subordinated all else to the competition between our two nations and their competing ideologies of free-market democracy vs. state-run economic communism/socialism. Our aims and objectives throughout the Cold War remained consistent and obvious: counter the Soviet Union by any means necessary, preferably but not limiting ourselves to the spread of free-market capitalism and democracy, at least in theory. Conservatives fail to remember with much clarity that this often meant, in practice, promoting undemocratic and abusively oppressive regimes that opened their markets to us but opened as well as prisons and torture rooms for dissidents within their own borders.
It is in these very trade-offs of convenience that roots of both the 9/11 attacks and many of the problems in the world today lie.
So for Trump and Republicans, they are right on one thing: foreign policy was far more simply conceived and strategized in the Cold War, and was executed without the same amount of handwringing and (social) media attention that is the norm in our present world. If people living in Vietnam could live-tweet and post camera-phone pictures and videos of American carpet-bombing raids and killings like those at My Lai, the Vietnam War would have been a very different experience with potentially very different outcomes.
In other words, simplicity did not necessarily lead to the best long-term results. Of course, Trump presents a hubristic vision of the Cold War in which the U.S. “won big,” with Reagan the Great getting much of the credit (of course, in this view, the Berlin Wall coming down was a consequence of Reagan’s rhetoric, and internal Soviet dynamics and policies, decisions on the part of Gorbachev to essentially stand his forces down and to respect the will of the people—a hallmark of his entire term of leadership—are not considered or mentioned).
The solution to today’s foreign policy problems? To return to the consistency and simplicity of the foreign policy approach of Reagan and the Cold War. He engaged in a critique of what he called the “Obama-Clinton” approach to the world, notably repeating a number of repeatedly debunked assertions about Clinton’s response to the Benghazi attacks.
The problem is, the world is a much more complex place than the bipolar world of the Cold War; the current unipolar system, perhaps transitioning to a multipolar one, begs for a different approach, one not rooted in simplicity but in complexity. A one-size-fits all “consistent” approach would very clearly be a poor fit for today’s more complex world. This means that consistency is not to necessarily be pursued, as a nuanced and complex world requires different approaches for each new crisis. Another problem is that while policy during the Cold War was relatively consistent compared with today’s foreign policy, it, too, was subject to nuance and departures and is hardly as simple as some make it out to be.
Trump also made clear that “We’re getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.” This statement itself is a slap in the face of logic, as it is weakening, failing, and failed states that are among the greatest contributors to global and regional instability, including the fueling of terrorist movements like ISIS. It’s also a slap in the face to the most successful U.S. foreign policy ever: nation building in Europe with the Marshall Plan and with the American occupation of Japan after WWII are the main reasons why peace has reigned in Europe and East Asia ever since; without nation building, it is very likely that war, extremism, and chaos would have reigned instead.
Still, Trump seemed to articulate that the solutions to today’s crises are rooted in the strategy America had in the Cold War, a conflict that was quite different from the challenges faced by the world today and an ill-fit for as a toolbox for crafting an approach for today’s very different world.
Thus, Trump is wrong to call for a simple, unified approach to foreign policy; if anything, today’s more complex world requires inconsistency as each crisis and region requires solutions that defy them being lumped into a single box.
Dr. Trump’s Prescription to Make America’s Foreign Policy Great Again
Trump then laid out the pillars of his own “foreign policy”:
1.) “First,” he said, “we need a long-term plan to halt the spread and reach of radical Islam.”
Trump doesn’t really have a plan, as the lack of specifics in this speech demonstrate. However, Obama has an approach that is set up quite well for longer-terms success, as I have pointed out before. As part of this, he says “we must as a nation be more unpredictable.” While there is merit in keeping our enemies guessing, too much unpredictability will unnerve our allies as well. Either way, Trump has far from demonstrated that he has any competent, detailed ideas for dealing with ISIS, while Obama’s strategy, which Trump criticizes profusely without even understanding it, is very sound.
2.) Then, “Secondly, we have to rebuild our military and our economy.” This has been covered, already, and this statement is simply nonsense. See above.
A.) After that, either as an aside or as a separate point, Trump says “We must even treat…[our veterans] really, really well and that will happen under the Trump administration.” There’s no denying the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) had and still has serious problems, and there’s no denying that the Obama Administration should have addressed these problems with far more energy than it did. But the simple fact of the matter is that the lion’s share of the VA’s problems go back many years, and Obama inherited a situation that was a ticking time bomb, most notably from the fact that the Bush Administration fought two significant wars over nearly a decade and did not prepare the VA for what was going to obviously be a serious increase in the number of veterans needing treatment; as soon as the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions began, expansion of funding, staffing, and support for VA services should have been among the first steps undertaken and should have been further expanded as the wars grew longer and more costly.
3.) “Finally,” Trump continues, “we must develop a foreign policy based on American interests.” Again, going back to our earlier commentary, this almost doesn’t even need to be addressed, so silly is this statement.
Still: Trump engaged in a disorganized and meandering explanation of what this means. He cites the Clinton years of the 1990s as a time of policy in which we were not acting in our interests based on a few isolated but not insignificant attacks Trump cited as somehow indicative of American policy being totally off-course, even though under Clinton we enjoyed an unprecedented jobs boom and employment growth, helped to bring stability to Europe several times by ending two wars there, and had a better relationship with Russia than any during any other American president’s administration, with the arguable exception of FDR. Trump then made points he already made about the Middle East. He then proceeded to spout a series of vague generalities on improving relationships with Russia and China and about the use of military force.
For Trump, success relies on having a “disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy.” This coming from a candidate whose entire behavior on the campaign trail has been anything but. Even within the speech, he seems unaware of the apparent contradictions (e.g., calling for stability while casting aside the role of nation building, calling for closer alliances while also threatening to weaken them). He then repeated yet again some of his earlier points about the Middle East and the U.S. economy, and took additional jabs at NAFTA, tying all this into putting “America First” again, and vowed to bring in new and different voices into the foreign policy machine in order to do so. Additionally, he also had this very contradictory statement to make:
“Finally, I will work with our allies to reinvigorate Western values and institutions. Instead of trying to spread universal values that not everybody shares or wants, we should understand that strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments will do more to inspire positive reforms around the world than military interventions.”
In a broad sense, basic Western values—democracy, human rights, equality, transparency—have been spreading, and even where they are not present are generally sought by people in the face of their intransigent governments. Battles over religion and gender are particularly difficult, but do not negate the fact that many “Western” values since WWII and especially after the Cold War are approaching a universal quality, especially as embodied by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Trump correctly maintains that these values should not be spread at gunpoint, but then calls for “promoting Western civilization” even as he criticizes the idea that we should “spread universal values that not everybody shares or wants.” So in the same paragraph, Trump is confusing as to whether or not he thinks the West should promote its values, even as he is clear about not using force to do so, while at the same time asserting he would be firmer than Obama about use-of-force red lines, or “a line in the sand,” as Trump put it. In fact, this paragraph sums up his speech nicely: full of different ideas and talking points that sound good alone, but that Trump failed to connect coherently in this address and articulated in ways that were often either confusing at best or contradictory at worst.
Trump’s Speech: A Perfect Representation of GOP “Foreign Policy”
Several Republican foreign policy bigwigs, falling pretty easily for Trump’s plummeting expectations game, including the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker and George W. Bush’s Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, praised the speech. Former Republican Speaker of the House (and possible Trump vice presidential running mate) Newt Gingrich also praised Trump’s speech, calling it “very serious” and “presidential.”
But this Republican Party is a party that has been devoid for some time of substantive and serious ideas about foreign policy, which is a reality that was on display beyond any reasonable doubt (and not for the first time) as numerous Republican presidential candidates showed how out of their depth they were back in a December debate focused on foreign policy and security. A few months before that, we had the Benghazi hearing featuring Clinton, and well before that, another case in point is George W. Bush’s presidency.
Trump’s foreign policy speech—and candidacy—is only the latest sign that the Republican Party and most of its voters are not serious or substantive.