Presidential candidate Donald Trump gave a speech today outlining his foreign policy direction. By comparison to some of his past statements on foreign policy issues, this was a bit more polished and clearly Trump has started reading off the script (and using a teleprompter) rather than shooting from the hip. That may be a helpful step forward for his campaign, but Trump’s words ring hollow when looked at with any level of critical scrutiny.
It is undeniable that many of Trump’s statements sound good, they are designed to appeal to emotion, as are the statements from the other presidential front runner, Hillary Clinton. This follows a familiar trend in political campaigns in which candidates attempt to be as vague as possible and speak in generalities so that they can not be pinned down to specific positions by the opposition.
Trump’s main point was that America must come first, which means everything and nothing. No American political candidate has ever said the opposite. Can you imagine a candidate saying that the well being of a foreign power comes before the United States? That would not be very conducive to getting elected or re-elected.
In his foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC today, Trump showed his profound lack of understanding when it comes to complex international relations. What Trump is signaling to us, if you believe his words, is that he will hand our foreign policy over anti-Iran fanatics, in stating that we can never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. This denotes pre-emptive action, because if we are to stop them from attaining a bomb, that means we have to ascertain that they are trying to build one, and then make the case for a pre-emptive war. This template sounds all too familiar, and American soldiers fought, bled, and died for that mistake in Iraq.
According to Trump, our allies distrust us and our adversaries don’t respect American strength. He cites President Obama receiving a cold welcome in Saudi Arabia as a sign of this lack of strength. The truth of course, is that Obama got the cold shoulder from our so-called ally in the Middle East for the exact opposite reason, he played hardball with Saudi Arabia.
In terms of rhetoric, Trump’s words about using economic leverage to force China back into line are admirable. America has played paddy-cake with China for far too long, letting the PRC engage in industrial espionage and cyber attacks against US government infrastructure. But how would a President Trump accomplish this? We don’t know because Trump seems unable to articulate the specifics of his position.
Appealing to his core constituency, Trump says we should be ashamed for not helping the Christians in the Middle East. How were we supposed to help them? How would Trump? Unclear. Trump is beating the war drums for an armed intervention in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and even North Korea. This is supposed to make America great again, but the moment a presidential candidate gets into office his (or her) high minded rhetoric is immediately confronted with pragmatic reality. President Obama experienced this up close and personal.
“Our moments of greatest strength came when politics ended at the waters edge,” Trump claimed. This sounds similar to the naive first year of Obama’s foreign policy in which he dispatched then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Russia with a new game plan, the folder literally said the word “reset” on it. This sort of thinking is reckless and dangerous. Our political leaders might want to ignore history, but our adversaries sure don’t.
Trump thinks he will brow beat our NATO allies and Muslim nations into appreciating America, a dubious and unlikely endeavor, and one that Trump has again left dangling in the air without a specific game plan. In regards to ISIS he says, “your days are numbered. I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how,” again Trump cannot unveil his master plan. “We are totally predictable…we have to be unpredictable,” he said of our foreign policy. Most of our allies and enemies, such as Russia and China, actually see American four-year democratic election cycles as making us extremely unpredictable.
Then Trump says he will revamp the military, buy new hardware, but will also look for savings and not waste a single dollar. Is this a believable claim? Many of his statements exist in a historical void. “A Trump administration will give our servicemen and women the best equipment in the world…and the best care in the world when they return as veterans to civilian life,” he said. Fair enough, but how is Trump going to do this? Others have tried and failed.
On the surface, Trump has many valid points to make. He says we should set ideology aside for rationality, create a coherent and consistent foreign policy, and always keep America’s core interests in mind. There is nothing to disagree with here but when it comes to nailing down specific policy positions, Trump fails dismally. His words can best be described as glittering generalities. We can expect no better from Hillary of course, but once again Americans are reduced to making a cynical decision this election. When they go to the ballots they will surely be thinking, “anybody is better than…”