28 April 2016

Trump revives 1930s phrase “America First” in big foreign policy speech


If you’re not used to reading from a teleprompter you can appear wooden when doing so and, yesterday, Mr Trump was far from his charismatic, free-wheeling self (watch a key clip for yourself) when he gave the first of a series of speeches that are intended to demonstrate his seriousness about policy. Yesterday’s speech was hosted – very appropriately – by the “National Interest” magazine and Trump’s full text can be read on its website. The National Interest is often said to hail from the “realist” school of foreign policy. Some of us would prefer to define that school as semi-isolationist and possessing a too narrow definition of the, yes, national interest. Narrowness of perspective doesn’t normally worry Mr Trump, however, and he seemed unworried (or unaware?) that the headline theme of his speech – “America First” – is an expression most associated with Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee’s efforts to keep America out of World War II. Efforts that ended with there Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The early consensus among foreign policy experts appears to be disappointment that the speech was so skimpy on detail. Speaking for them, the Washington Post’s Chris Cizzilla Tweeted “to say this Trump foreign policy speech is light on specifics is an insult to specifics.” We are no nearer knowing, for example, if Trump’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal means he would rip it up or renegotiate it, should he win November’s election. Amusingly he vows to destroy ISIS but says he will destroy them by being “more unpredictable” as if there is anything much predictable about any of his plans. But, despite the spin, this wasn’t really a speech for the foreign policy intelligentsia. As Eric Levitz notes on the New York magazine website, Trump is still almost single-mindedly voter-orientated:

“Trump speaks to an American middle class that is less concerned with the details of his counterterrorism strategy than with the overriding sense that their government puts the interests of foreigners ahead of their own.”

Mr Trump argues that the foreign policies of both George W Bush and Barack Obama were not US-orientated and he disowned both for different reasons in his speech to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. He was scathing about Bush’s alleged adventurism and of Obama’s weakness. “Our friends and enemies must know that if I draw a line in the sand,” said Trump, “I will enforce that line in the sand — believe me.” Trump also used his speech to repeatedly tie Clinton and Obama together on foreign policy – a fair ruse given she was his Secretary of State for his first four years but perhaps unfair to the real differences between the two individuals (carefully unpacked in this extended NPR discussion). Clinton is definitely more hawkish than Obama and you can sense that Trump will relish telling intervention-weary Americans that she would drag them into more unpopular overseas projects. Bernie Sanders is not that interested in foreign policy and has never seriously exploited her unpopular record on Libya, Iraq and the Russian “reset” during the Democratic Party’s primary process. You can be sure that Trump will exhibit no such hesitancy (and not just on foreign policy – he’ll also go for her on immigration, her classified emails and her donor-drenched links to the Clinton Foundation).

Trump, quite sensibly, links America’s ability to be the world’s top superpower with the need to be its top economic power and he recapped his (unspecific) plans to get better trade arrangements with China and to stop US firms offshoring. He regards resetting the rules of trade as central to future American wealth. In his speech he complained “we put more effort into adding China into the World Trade organization, which has been a total disaster for the United States. Frankly, we spent more time on that than we did in stopping Al Qaida.” He also warned that “there will be consequences for the companies that leave the United States only to exploit it later.”

Now is probably not the time to debate whether Mr Trump’s economic populism would enhance American prosperity but he is clear that it is the underpinning for his ambition that “our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.” Although military action would be less likely under a President Trump (“Unlike other candidates for the presidency, foreign aggression will not be my first instinct”) he wants a powerful and scary enough armed forces to renew the deterring “peace through strength” idea of the Cold War years and which was most associated with Ronald Reagan. In his foreign policy speech Trump put particular emphasis on investing in high tech armaments and modernising America’s nuclear weapons.

But if a Trump administration would spend more on defence he wants NATO and other US allies to spend more, too. “Our allies are not paying their fair share,” he said. “Our allies must contribute toward the financial, political and human costs of our tremendous security burden, but many of them are simply not doing so.” There would be consequences if they failed to spend more but, predictably, those consequences were not spelt out. Interestingly, during his European visit, Barack Obama also warned the old world continent’s NATO member states that they were “complacent” about their defence budgets. This is not a new, post-Trump stance for the White House but it underlines how a tired, financially stressed America is increasingly irritated at the way it still pays for rich Europe’s defence. You can make a good case that the biggest beneficiary of Pax Americana is the USofA itself (and Evan Osnos did just that in a recent New Yorker podcast) but the USA’s global “allies” should note that a perceived free-riding is really beginning to irk and irk on a cross-party basis.

If Trump’s message to traditional allies is we are going to be more powerful friends but start paying more for your defence, his message to traditional foes is even more mixed. He may want to be friends with China on security matters but his stump message has been that he’s going to radically alter the terms of trade with them. He also clearly wants better relations with Moscow but promises to “quickly walk from the table” if Putin is not accommodating. It’s hard to reconcile his support for expanded missile defence systems with better relations with Russia but Trump and Putin are likely to share one thing that Clinton and George W Bush did not share with the man in the Kremlin. Trump wants stability and if that means keeping a few dictators in place, so be it. And just look at Trump’s advisers for signs of this “realism”. Paul Manafort, Mr Trump’s big new hire and the man credited with the enormous accomplishment of preventing the star man from being offensively rude to a minority group for an extraordinarily long TWO WHOLE WEEKS was previously an advisor to Viktor Yanukovych, Ferdinand Marcos and Saudi Arabia. He was rejected as an advisor by John McCain and attacked by the kleptocracy unit at the right-leaning Hudson Institute.

Team Trump is not likely to be autocrat-sceptic but it is unquestionably democracy-building-sceptic. “We’re getting out of the nation-building business,” Trump thundered: “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. We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism, thousands of Americans and just killed be lives, lives, lives wasted. Horribly wasted. Many trillions of dollars were lost as a result.” There’s no doubt that this message is an election booster and just one more policy area (alongside entitlement reform and immigration control in partiocular) where Trump is much closer to middle America than the old GOP establishment.

Related to his critique of Middle Eastern policy, Trump emphasised how America had “left Christians subject to intense persecution and even genocide.” He continued: “We have done nothing to help the Christians, nothing, and we should always be ashamed for that, for that lack of action. Our actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria have helped unleash ISIS, and we’re in a war against radical Islam, but President Obama won’t even name the enemy, and unless you name the enemy, you will never ever solve the problem.” Many evangelical Christians know that Mr Trump is probably not a fellow believer but they hope he might be their Putin – standing up to Islamic extremists abroad and secularist, activist judges at home.

Britain and the EU debate received no mention from Mr Trump but he set out a Cruz-like, Brexit-like scepticism of supranational institutions: “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down. Under my administration, we will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.”

Yep, America First.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for The Times and Editor of CapX's Portrait of America.