When Donald Trump’s campaign revealed a list of foreign policy advisors, the intended audience of anxious Republicans who remained skeptical of the celebrity candidate was unimpressed. Many of these foreign policy hands were virtual unknowns. Some had suspected ties to organizations with divisive and fringe views. Others had no foreign policy experience to speak of whatsoever. The list of advisors failed to reassure nervous Republican foreign policy hands. Over 120 of them joined in penning an open letter declaring their intention to “prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.” By the Trump campaign’s own admission, they had work yet to do to assuage the GOP’s holdouts. On Wednesday, the reality television star delivered a long-anticipated speech on foreign affairs designed to further that goal. It is fair to say that the unconverted were not dissuaded from their opposition to the Trump campaign by the bombastic and contradictory display they witnessed.
The Trump campaign promised reporters that there would be “no details” regarding the pursuit of American foreign policy objectives in his policy speech, and boy did the candidate deliver. Though written in complete sentences, the speech consisted only of a series of greatest hits from Trump’s extemporaneous campaign trail diatribes.
There were a number of references to the old pre-World War II Isolationist movement slogan “America First,” denunciations of the “false song of globalism,” whatever that means, and the assertion that Americans “feel they come second to the citizens of a foreign country.” This brand of paranoid nationalism was intermingled with pledges to transform the world’s only superpower and the world’s preeminent defender of democracy into history’s most powerful protection racket. But what was most striking, and also revealing about why this campaign cannot ever be retooled into something broadly palatable to traditional Republican policy experts, is how replete the speech was with contradictions. Trump has made such a hash of his worldview that there will never be any way to reconcile some of his most cherished policy preferences with others.
Trump began this foray into fatuousness with a nod to the “greatest generation” that “beat back the Nazis and Japanese imperialists” and “saved the world.” But within a handful of sentences, he repudiated their greatest work: the creation of what we refer to today as the Western world. He engaged in this ill-advised bloviating amid an attempt to attack America’s approach to post-September 11 counter-terrorism efforts. “It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a western democracy,” he noted. These same tired and debunked ideas were said to apply to the alien Japanese pre-War culture and a Germany that had only ever known Prussian militarism. These were not democracies; how could we be so prideful as to think we could remake them in our own image? And yet, after much sacrifice and decades of commitment, that was what was done.
“Our allies are not paying their fair share,” Trump threateningly implied, “and I’ve been talking about this recently a lot. Our allies must contribute toward their financial, political, and human costs, have to do it, of our tremendous security burden.” He added that the United States “must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
Trump noted that only four of America’s NATO allies meet the requisite goal of spending the equivalent of 2 percent of GDP on defense – as of 2015, the number was actually five: the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, Poland, and Estonia. Trump doesn’t seem to have given much thought to the fact that those are nations most threatened in their neighborhoods – Greece by neighboring Turkey, Poland and Estonia by Russia, and Britain and the United States by their commitments to security and peace around the world. Nor has he given much thought to the benefits and dividends associated with peace, including the unimpeded global commerce that makes consumer goods cheap and increases living standards – phenomena he seems to see as threats to rather than facets of American prosperity. Perhaps this inconsistency is because Trump doesn’t see threats to American security outside of the Muslim world. On Russia, in particular, the celebrity candidate has insisted that the world has nothing to fear.
“I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only is possible, absolutely possible,” Trump contended. “Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon.” To create a moral equivalence between the West and Vladimir Putin’s Moscow is grotesque and ignorant. There is no comparison between the Western world and its support for allies who merely aspire to ascend to membership in the Atlantic Alliance and a country that invades and illegally annexes sovereign territory. The notion that Russia is an ally in the war on radical Islamic terrorism is often betrayed, primarily by its support for the Assad regime that has facilitated the growth of ISIS. Trump’s vision of strength in regard to Moscow is a declaration of unilateral surrender in the face of competition and hostility.
“They look at the United States as weak and forgiving and feel no obligation to honor their agreements with us,” Trump said of America’s allies. But while he contends that the U.S. must exact concessions from its allies while making concessions to its adversaries, he also insists that the Obama administration must be rejected for doing precisely the same thing. “We pick fights with our oldest friends, and now they’re starting to look elsewhere for help,” Trump lamented. “Not good.” So, which is it?
Often, Trump criticized the Obama administration for simultaneously being too muscular in relation to the use of force as a diplomatic tool while also being too soft. The celebrity candidate promised to be different, but while also being similar. After again demonstrating that he doesn’t know what a trade deficit is by contending that it should be balanced “quickly,” he asserted that the world should “look at what China is doing in the South China Sea.” Without defining what that is, he noted: “they’re not supposed to be doing it.” You’ve heard the same turn of phrase from Secretary of State John Kerry when he’s utterly flummoxed by the actions of American adversaries and has no way to counter them.
Those who are comfortable with Donald Trump leading a major American political party and possibly ascending to the presidency were probably not moved from that predisposition after this speech. Similarly, those who thought him unfit to serve as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces almost certainly still hold that view. Unfortunately for Trump, there are many, many more Americans who count themselves in the latter category than the former.