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Trump's "America First" Speech of 2016 Outlines a Trumpian Foreign Policy

Robert is a freelance writer/researcher in the Seattle, WA area. He covers current political, economic, and geopolitical news.


Can Trump’s America First Policy Appeal to a Majority of Americans?

Toward the end of April, 2016, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald J. Trump gave a foreign policy speech that detailed his view of American power in the world. He outlined his strategy for how he would make the U.S. more “consistent,” yet also more “unpredictable.”

Pundits on both the Left and Right have called his speech incomprehensible gibberish. Some GOP leaders have breathed a deep sigh of relief seeing the Donald give a “presidential” style speech. Some Republican heavyweights have praised the speech for checking a certain box. Others have called it credible proof of his inability to be president. Trump had harsh words for our current president's actions and inactions overseas in the speech.

He criticized the president’s embrace of the Iranian regime while also pointing to his flailing strategy to destroy ISIS. Giving little specifics for how he would differ from the current administration, Trump was even-handed in his bashing of both parties, saying Bush was reckless in his decision to invade Iraq, getting us involved in a hopeless situation.

Donald Trump vows to put America’s interests, before anyone else’s, first. "My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else," he said. "It has to be first. Has to be. That will be the foundation of every single decision that I will make."

Mostly vague on specifics, Trump promised to ramp up the fight against ISIS, though stopped short of saying he would send more U.S. troops Iraq or Syria. Electing to take a more diplomatic approach toward Russia, while negotiating from “a position of strength,” he emphasized being more “unpredictable” in our foreign policy so no one can know what we are going to do next.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich praised the speech, tweeting: “serious foreign policy speech. It is worth reading and thinking about. It will be ridiculed by Washington elites." Trump seemed to take the speech seriously, reading from a teleprompter and withholding many of his stream-of-consciousness tirades. However, he did not appear to offer enough concrete solutions to the many problems facing us outside our borders.


Speech Sets Off Debate on the Right

The National Interest, a neoconservative foreign affairs think tank, hosted the Donald. Some saw this as a betrayal to true American-interest-driven foreign policy. The think tank stated that though Mr. Trump’s views on the use of American power and diplomacy are still developing, he is still “quite different from the existing semi-consensus among America’s foreign-policy elites.” Their defense of hosting Trump revolved around his grappling with reality. Trump’s remarks “outlined a fundamental break with post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy and offered an alternative vision with considerable appeal to a frustrated public.” Neoconservatives and others who would increase America’s role in the world to an even higher degree constantly ignore the history of our actions that reveal the error in their strategies. Trump’s upending of established assumptions is something the GOP elite is fighting and now coming to terms with since he is now the nominee.

Dimitri Simes and Paul Sanders of the think tank wrote a question to these same elite members stuck in Washington, ignoring reality: “Why—with so many advantages—have our elites produced so many failed policies? (While being the world’s lone superpower) And why do they feel no shame?” This is a question worth waiting for an answer for. Washington elites must realize that the people are taking their government back.

The National Interest was right to host Trump. His views on foreign policy and America’s role in the world desperately need to be heard by all.

Trump’s skills in the art of war are not as sure a thing as his ability to close a deal. However, when he proposed that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was no longer relevant, even obsolete in some ways, it sparked a debate in the international relations community. From Bob Gates to Leon Panetta, the soon-to-be Republican nominee merited responses from many important individuals commenting on the relevance of the alliance.

Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, backed Trump’s proposal to have European nations to contribute more to NATO. Otherwise, the U.S. should consider pulling out as to not disproportionately contribute to the defense of another continent, thereby stretching our limited resources. Gates said the organization could have a, “dim, if not dismal future” of “military irrelevance” if Europeans did not invest more. Under NATO’s own laws, member nations are supposed to be spending at least 2% of their GDP on defense. Besides the U.S., only 4 of the 27 countries do so.

Gates continued on the reality of our finite military resources. They must be spent wisely. “The blunt reality,” Gates said in a 2011 speech in Brussels, “is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” Trump, like Obama, simply wants other nations contributing to their own defense more. The United States has been defending Europe and its other allies around the world for far too long and Trump’s foreign policy could be very similar to Obama’s in some ways, in that he would pick and choose which conflicts to involve ourselves in, but also share the responsibility with our like minded allies more while retreating where we can.

Trump’s likely more assertive actions would probably be more effective than Obama’s mostly feckless and incomprehensible strategies. He has not committed himself wholeheartedly to retreating from the world. Perhaps this is because he does not think America would be safe if we were not involved in the myriad of conflicts we are around the world? He certainly did change his tone and did not walk the walk once put in the driver’s seat in 2009 and many things he could have. He has not closed down Guantanamo Bay, has not been a wholly transparent administration, and has certainly not rolled back the surveillance state. Similarly, in foreign policy, he has been pulled back time and time again to areas in the world that he would much rather pay zero attention to.

As for Trump? As a candidate, he appears to be threading the needle nicely. Balancing his foreign policy proposals as aggressive yet acute. He vows to take out ISIS but also has called the invasion of Iraq a horrific mistake. The polls show Trump needs to be versatile in his positioning in the realm of foreign affairs.

In a Pew Research poll released June 2015, the striking divisions and complexities of Americans’ views on NATO and defending its allies. Only 49% of Americans have a favorable view of NATO, dropping from 53% in 2009. 56% of Democrats view NATO favorably, while only 43% of Republicans do.

On another question from the same poll, if, for instance, Russia invaded a NATO partner country, almost 70% of Republicans said Washington should provide military assistance, whereas only 47% of Democrats agreed with their conservative counterparts.

Donald Trump in Claremont, New Hampshire

Donald Trump in Claremont, New Hampshire

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Trumpism Puts “America First”

The trends in the Obama administration’s policies, along with the trends and beliefs of probably most Republican voters currently, are going in the other direction in terms of NATO. As Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been accused of being more aggressive, the U.S. has been building up its troop presence in Eastern Europe. The U.S. European Command recently announced the deployment of a new brigade of around four thousand troops starting early next year.

What comes with more troops, you ask? That’s right, more money. The Obama administration has asked for $3.4B for its increased military presence in and around Ukraine. This number is up from $800M last year.

World War III anyone?

Jorge Benitez, senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council thinks lessening the U.S.’ contributions to NATO could increase our capabilities in other regions of the world, but U.S. support is likely needed in the end. “Without NATO, the U.S. would spend much more on defense and have fewer capabilities,” he told Foreign Policy. “Yes, they should be increasing defense spending faster and the other allies should join in, but cutting U.S. support will make this problem worse, not better.”

Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee called our free-loading European allies, “laggards,” recently. He and many others from both sides of the aisle complain, behind closed doors sadly, for the most part, about how much the U.S. spends defending other nations, going way beyond our means.

Just look at the numbers on NATO spending: the U.S. accounted for over 72% of NATO’s spending on defense last year, almost $650B. Our European partners? All 27 of them combined spent just under 28%, or $251B.

How does that work out?

Peggy Noonan from The Wall Street Journal wrote recently about how “Trumpism” is hard to understand sometimes, but “interesting nonetheless.” By putting America first and foremost in all matters, Trump aims to install American leadership on the world stage again and aims to get there by appealing to voters’ innate patriotism. Noonan continued to discuss his recent foreign policy speech, calling it “an attack on the reigning Washington foreign-policy elite of both parties, which he scored as incompetent and unsuccessful”.

Trump, on the ineffectiveness of the ingrained culture, declared: “Logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance, and this led to one foreign-policy disaster after another.” This aspect of America’s recent foreign policy decisions are now apparent in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. Whether or not we have a responsibility to be in all of these places in the first place is another question for another time. Either way, we now have ISIS and countries crumbling from Libya to Afghanistan. And now, even some European nations absorbing the influx of refugees from the Middle East are starting to crack. The United Kingdom is even thinking of leaving the European Union!

A Trumpian foreign policy would be “based on American interests” and “focused on creating stability.” This common sense policy looks good in a quote, but in reality remains difficult to properly implement. But, it is certainly easy to appeal to American voters by telling them he will put “America first.”

Trump was greatly criticized earlier this year for saying he would consult “himself” when it comes to foreign policy. Instead of playing the name-three-great-generals game with the media, Trump told the truth like he always seems to do. The President, the commander in chief, leader of our armed forces, consults with himself and makes his own decision at the end of the day. Now, he decides who to surround himself with and who to advise him on these matters. And as that happens over the coming months, that could perhaps give us more insight as to where he is leaning in terms of shaking up the current foreign policy establishment.

This general election will be one of a kind if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination. Trump has positioned himself to the left of Clinton on some issues, especially in foreign affairs. He has called her too hawkish and ready to use American military power in other countries. His favorite line is to highlight her poor decision making when she voted to invade Iraq in 2003. Fortunately for Trump, he was not an elected official, so did not have to cast a vote, though he says he has always been against the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s former country.

Donald Trump's 'America First' Foreign Policy Explained

Trump, the White Knight or the Plague?

Russell Berman of The Atlantic wrote that Trump’s speech was “long on vision and short on details.” The lack of specifics seems intentional, for the most part. It is all very hard to make sense of. Trump said, “We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now.” This unpredictability has apparently seeped into his ISIS-destruction strategy. He is big on rhetoric to defeat them but very light on details as to how he would do so. And, how would being unpredictable help in keeping our allies on our side? Many are scared, saying that Trump would alienate other countries we have worked hard to keep good relations with. Mr. Trump has to make the case as to why he gets along with just about everybody. He does.

Are Trump’s rambling ideas any more farfetched than the neoconservative mumbo jumbo we’ve been used to for the past few decades?

Peter Beinart, also writing in The Atlantic dives into the differences between Trump and the Republican Establishment’s foreign policy objectives and strategies. Trump, as opposed to GOP freedom-promoters South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham or Florida Senator Marco Rubio, judges countries not by how much they love democracy or freedom, but by “whether they’re taking advantage of America.” The interesting thing is that Trump seems to think that everyone is taking advantage of us, from Mexico to Saudi Arabia to China, everyone except Israel it appears, though he is likely saying that simply to corral the powerful Israeli lobby. Because he’s smart.

What was notable in Trump’s speech, Beinart notes, is that he did not “utter the words ‘freedom,’ ‘liberty,’ or ‘tyranny,” hot button words in speeches by Republican leaders for years. Trump would definitely be a stark difference to the last GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, in 2012. For the most part, Beinart called Trump’s foreign policy speech incoherent, unworthy of our attention, though it did warrant enough attention to write a decent length article about it. Irrespective, he correctly points out that Trump brings up dictators to note how their countries are worse off after Western intervention instead of railing against strongmen around the world who are stifling democracy and freedom to the masses.

The presumptiveness of Trump’s nomination for the Republican party prompted Jacob Sullum to write in Reason about his “foreign policy contradictions.” He initially praises the Donald for criticizing Democrats and Republicans alike for foolish interventions abroad. The Iraq war was foolish and now neoconservatives are itching to get involved in Syria more, pushing us closer to war with the Russians.

Trump said the Middle East has only gotten worse following our endeavors into the region. "Each of these actions [has] helped to throw the region into chaos and [given] ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper," Trump stated. "It all began with the dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy." This is what Republican foreign policy leaders fail to realize much of the time -- we cannot force democracy onto a people that still do not give women all the rights they deserve. If they don’t want democracy and freedom for everyone, then why are we wasting time and money and lives installing it for them?

Sullum continues on the positives of Trumpism, saying the presumptive nominee’s “criticism of wealthy allies who expect the United States to defend them instead of using their own ample resources to do so.” This is a point we’ve discussed previously and something that is worth repeating to fully emphasize. Our country cannot remain sustainable given we are on a certain path that involves bending over backwards to be the world’s policeman.

Donald Trump Promises to “Make America Great Again”

Donald Trump Promises to “Make America Great Again”

Foreign Policy: Isolationism or Assertion?

Unfortunately Trump, like all of us, is human, and therefore not perfect. It seems that he would expand and spend even more on the military. He doesn’t seem to mind the fact that we already spend more money than the next six or seven nations combined. Trump said, “We will spend what we need to rebuild our military.” Is he saying this just so he can get elected? Convincing the hawks in the party that he would not abandon its commitment to growing our military? Or is he just saying whatever he must to get elected? Getting into office and then seeing the waste and bloat in the Pentagon, a President Trump could be disgusted and look to trim the fat.

So herein lies the contradiction previously mentioned, that Trump wants to expand the defense budget while simultaneously withdrawing from NATO and other places around the world. Trump also says we need to move on from a foreign policy stuck in a Cold War era mindset. That sentiment is a valid one worth having and defending, but how does it square with an expansion of a military that is already much larger than any other on the planet?

Avowed neoconservative Charles Krauthammer brings up the fact that “Foreign policy does not determine American elections.” This is undoubtedly true, as shown by the fact that Hillary, a liberal interventionist, and Donald, an all-over-the-place isolationist of sorts, are to be the nation’s nominees. Why does foreign affairs not get its due in selecting our commander in chief? Because “we are the least interested in the subject,” Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post recently. “The reason is simple: We haven’t had to be. Our instinctive isolationism derives from our geographic exceptionalism.” Our separation brought about by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans have certainly made it easier for Americans to ignore some conflicts in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

One way or another, we will have to get involved. It is only a question of how much our involvement should be.

Krauthammer had some words for Trump’s “America First” argument. He calls Trump’s philosophy on America’s use of force abroad “fraught,” as presidents are already supposed to be promoting and protecting American interests. The point neoconservatives like Charles bring up constantly is that if we do not hit them first, they will hit us eventually. America retreated after World War I and was isolationist in the run-up to World War II, but we were thrust into the conflict by the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Today, if we do not do everything we can to stop radical jihadists around the world on a daily basis from doing any harm to anyone, then they will attack us here at home.

Some fear mongering has been apparent in Trump’s campaign so far. But, there are actually similarities between Obama and Trump’s point of views on the use of the military and intervention. Krauthammer would point this out as one of the many reasons we cannot have a Trump presidency. Both Trump and Obama think we are overextended abroad and should pull back, letting other countries do more of the heavy lifting. This debate between isolationism and assertion abroad is an important one that should be put at or near the top priority for Americans on both sides of the aisle.

Other attacks from Republican elites on Trump include calling him “a Muslim hater, a Mexican baiter, a Putin admirer, and a torture enthusiast—a man utterly unfitted to the office of president.” These and other attacks on the New York billionaire have fallen on deaf ears for the most part. A movement is happening. These usually do not slow down.

Emile Simpson had some harsh words for Mr. Trump in a Foreign Policy article posted in March, saying: “Trump is unfit for the presidency. But a potential dictator he is not. He’s just a con man who appeals to those who want someone to believe in, for lack of alternatives.” This pointed criticism is quite on point. Calling him a con man might be a bit much, but it's nice to see some in the foreign policy establishment taking him at least somewhat seriously.

Whether or not his speech the other day will help in the “presidential” department? We’ll see.

If you are going to attack Trump, at least attack him on his policies, not his personality. Cut into his lack of specifics and drill into his point of view on certain matters. Don’t look to dismiss him outright simply because you are offended by something he has said.

We need to know what our possible future commander of chief believes on these matters.

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