London—Most observers dumped all over Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech last week, in part because whatever Trump says is taken as wrong by the many who fear his hate-strewn bombastic presidential primary campaign.
Oddly enough, much of what Trump said seemed to me to be conventional stuff that would fit not only mainstream Republican Party thought but also Democratic Party orthodoxy, as exemplified by Hillary Clinton.
Putting America First. I mean, who doesn’t want that?
Destroying the Islamic State? Everyone’s on board.
Getting NATO to increase its defense expenditures? It was NATO itself, in a 2014 meeting in Wales, which set a 2 percent minimum, even if hardly anyone has reached that objective.
Support for allies? Well, Trump flipped on that one after basically telling NATO to bug off. Now he’s all okay with working with allies, including in Asia.
America is weaker militarily? The usual boilerplate for whatever party is out of the White House. Remember John F. Kennedy’s missile gap?
Deal with China and Russia from a position of strength? Sounds about right.
In the name of staying middle-of-the-road, Trump also dropped one of his more sound, if not really new, ideas: that in Israel-Palestinian negotiations, the US should remain neutral. In bipartisan expositions of US Middle East policy in the past, neutrality meant being an “honest broker.” Nowadays, such a concept is taken as being too tough on Israel.
If you need more evidence of Trump’s copy-cat approach toward Israel policy, see his March 21 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) speech.
Trump also provided a conventional Republican list of criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy: The deal with Iran is bad; Obama has let China and North Korea run amok; Obama hates traditional US allies; No one respects us; Raul Castro didn’t even meet Obama at Havana airport!!
Trump did set himself apart in one broad area. He declared 1990 as a beginning of the period when US foreign policy went off the rails. He thereby lumped in the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations with the Republican reign of George W. Bush as the source of current foreign policy ills.
Trumped attacked the roles of Obama, and especially Hillary, in the careless Libya intervention, but he also scorned Bush’s national-building, global- democratizing pretensions. He didn’t try, as many Republicans do, to pretend that Bush’s 2007 temporary military surge fixed Iraq and that Obama let it go all down the drain.
Rather than nation-building or dabbling in other country’s problems, Trump trumpeted the need to bolster Western values at home rather than export them abroad. “Instead of trying to spread ‘universal values’ that not everyone shares, we should understand that strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments will do more to inspire positive reforms around the world than military interventions,” he said.
Trump linked this close-to-home approach with a highly nationalistic critique of free trade and the globalized economy: “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, and will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.”
In short, Trump’s divergence from the norm centers on his embrace of nationalism unadulterated by adventures abroad and multinational economic tie-ups.
Of course, Trump offered few hints as to how he would actually change foreign policy to suit this vision. It was all vague: “America is going to be strong again…a reliable friend and ally again….have a coherent foreign policy based upon American interests, and the shared interests of our allies…out of the nation-building business…instead, focusing on creating stability in the world.
What kind of military action will he take against the Islamic State? What does he mean by fixing relations with Russia–cave into the annexation of Crimea? And with China–accept its occupation of South China Sea islands? Pull out of NATO if cash-strapped countries don’t meet military spending quotas? And what about Asian allies? Really put America’s Tel Aviv embassy in Jerusalem, as he promised AIPAC?
Is Trump going to withdraw from NAFTA, other trade agreements, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank?
I suppose we’ll find out when GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump debates Democratic candidate Hillary R. Clinton on foreign policy.