The reviews are in for Donald Trump’s widely anticipated foreign policy speech, and the overwhelming consensus was that it was an unmitigated disaster, full of contradictions and policy prescriptions that annoyed pundits and commentators across the spectrum.
In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart wrote that Trump’s amalgamation of various Republican foreign policy talking points contrasted with the traditional Republican line (neoconservative remnants of the George W. Bush administration). This was about as generous as reviews of the speech got: that it was bad, but not any worse than normal Republican fare, just… different.
Trump, by contrast, assesses regimes based on whether they’re taking advantage of America. And in his view, they pretty much all are (Israel excepted). Some are taking advantage by building, or trying to build, nuclear weapons (North Korea, Iran), some are taking advantage by sending America their “rapist” immigrants (Mexico), some are taking advantage by stealing American jobs (China), and some are taking advantage by making America pay for their defense (most of Europe). Because Trump focuses as much on economic threats as on military ones, he doesn’t divide the world morally the way standard Republicans do. In his speech, he didn’t utter the words “freedom,” “liberty,” or “tyranny.”
The Washington Post’s Daniel Drezner used his column to lament watching the speech sober, and then proceeded to point out the numerous contradictions (sometimes within a couple sentences of each other) in Trump’s speech.
Trump will demand that allies pay more for security but nonetheless believes that they would trust a President Trump more than the current president. He blasts policies that tried to promote democracy in the Middle East but then pledged to be “strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments.” He said the nation needed to become more “unpredictable” and then promised to offer “a disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy.” The speech reads like someone stitched together pieces of fabric without bothering to see if anything clashed.
The Economist was not impressed by the businessman’s approach, stating plainly that the world is far bigger and more unpredictable than Trump thinks it is.
Alas this description of statecraft as a series of deals, brokered in eyeball-to-eyeball negotiations with foreign powers, bears no resemblance to real diplomacy. For an American president, world events arrive in an unending rush, and cannot be tackled one by one, by appointment. Nor can geopolitical and commercial rivals be dismissed and forgotten like disappointing business partners, for all Mr Trump’s bravado, as when he said that if America and China do not find a mutually beneficial relationship “we can both go our separate ways.”
In the Republican presidential frontrunner’s telling, even the knottiest problems in geopolitics are simple exercises in brinksmanship—ready to be solved at speed once a steely negotiator like President Trump is sitting behind the big desk in the Oval Office. Thus the campaign waged by many previous presidents to stop European and Asian allies free-riding on American military spending will be solved if he is willing to “let those countries defend themselves.”
The New Republic struggled to explain his foreign policy coherently, primarily because a coherent foreign policy wasn’t articulated at any point during the speech.
Attempting to sum up Trump’s foreign policy vision is an impossible task. He declared that America is “finally going to have a coherent foreign policy,” but literally nothing could be less coherent than the rambling, uncharacteristically telepromptered speech he gave today. He is against the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya; but he also complained that there was no intervention to assist persecuted Christians in the region suffering at the hands of ISIS. President Obama is a global puppet-master who installed the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt following the fall of Hosni Mubarak; yet he is also an impotent fool who lets the world humiliate the U.S. at every turn, a Trumpian obsession that my colleague Michelle Legro calls the Dangerfield Doctrine (“that’s the story of my life, no respect!”). He nodded to Republican foreign policy hobbyhorses: the U.S. sailors taken “hostage” by Iran in January, Obama’s alleged reluctance to name the “real” threat facing America (i.e., Muslims). But he subtweeted George W. Bush as often as he did Hillary Clinton, bringing up his opposition to the Iraq War over and over again.
Even conservatives joined in on the Trump-bashing. The National Review, which staked its ground month ago with an “Against Trump” cover, criticized Trump’s brand of politics and its ineffectiveness in the international arena.
What is incoherent, though, is populism — Trump’s brand. It is knee-jerk demagoguery: Say whatever will get a rise out of the masses; don’t fret over whether it is at odds with whatever bromide you’ve previously spouted; and, when called on the inconsistencies attack the messenger.
Today’s speech conveyed no comprehension of what caused ISIS to rise — of where it came from (al-Qaeda), of what drives it ideologically (sharia supremacism), or of the fact that it is just a subset of a much bigger challenge. Trump merely continued to do what populists do: He told you the people you love to hate are incoherent and incompetent. He never mentions that he was with them all the way, and never offers a reason to think he is any more coherent and competent — just more shallow.
As it stands, it’s increasingly unlikely that Ted Cruz or John Kasich will be able to stop Trump before he crosses the 1,237 delegate threshold he needs to win the Republican nomination outright. But the invective directed towards his foreign policy “ideas,” if they can be called that, bodes ill for his presidential ambitions, and even worse for the world should he manage to get his hands on some nuclear weapons.