The obvious takeaway from our first glimpse of Donald Trump’s foreign policy is that it’s singularly focused on the domestic audience. There’s no real posturing here or signalling intentions for foreign governments; it’s a speech that continues to play on many of the themes that have made the Trump campaign such a surprising success in the GOP presidential field.
There’s the “no one respects America anymore” trope, evident to Trump in free-riding US allies, Air Force One snubs from Cuba and Saudi Arabia, and China’s flouting of trade rules; the “America has become weak” line, evident in funding cuts to the US military; the “this is nuts/the government doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore”; and finally the “I’m the only one who’s willing to tell you the truth” and call out radical Islam as the United States’ number-one enemy (something my opponents are unwilling to do!).
These themes are nothing new to the Trump campaign, and we see them now carefully transplanted from the economic/political realm and into the foreign policy sphere. The result is a neat piece of foreign policy politicking – imaging the world as voters might prefer it to be rather than how it actually is – that tells us precious little about how a Trump administration would operate.
Yet the speech is not a total wash. Buried amongst the allusions to America’s ruin and redemption, there are a few snippets worthy of note:
“We are getting out of the nation-building business, and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.”
This is the biggest foreign policy departure in the speech, though one could argue that it’s merely continuing a trend started by the Obama administration (which has been conspicuously silent over military coups in two US allies in Thailand and Egypt). Any student of history can tell you that “stability” is often code for an authoritarian government; in this, Trump’s foreign policy would bring about a return to the more realist calculations of US interests, where a state’s geopolitical position and posture towards Washington are more important than its human rights record. This is a change that’s easy for Trump to make given the negative consequences of the United States’ recent ‘humanitarian’ military adventures, far easier than for Clinton, who still needs to cater to a liberal base with more of an appetite for saving the world.
All told this would put Trump’s foreign policy more in line with the Republican Party’s traditional foreign policy stance: isolationism & state-centric realism. It was the George W Bush administration that threw the established order of things out of whack by calling for the promotion of democracy and human rights worldwide, by military means if necessary. Broadly speaking, the idea of a Responsibility to Protect had previously belonged to the Left.
“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.”
Though this has been seized on by some as promoting a “clash of civilizations,” really it is far less provocative than the alternative of presenting Western values as universal (an approach that has arguably prompted greater ‘civilizational’ awareness in China and Russia). What’s interesting here is that Trump seems to be discarding some of the messianic elements of recent US foreign policy, shifting back toward being the “city upon a hill” that others actually want to emulate rather than the one attacking all of the other, different cities…
“I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia – from a position of strength – is possible. Common sense says this cycle of hostility must end. Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can’t make a good deal for America, then we will quickly walk from the table.”
Détente with Russia would be an easy target for Trump’s foreign policy; after all, there was a reason Hillary reached for the ‘reset button’ in the early days of the Obama administration. Put simply, US and Russian interests aren’t necessarily antagonistic, especially should the next US administration give up on the urge to spread ‘universal values,’ and/or allow the East-West border to be drawn on the eastern frontiers of Poland and the Baltics as opposed to Ukraine. There are also many possible areas of cooperation between the two states. Trump cited one of them in his foreign policy speech – the fight against Islamic radicalism – and there’s also nuclear non-proliferation, the Arctic, North Korea, Syria, and whatever the next international crisis is that requires a consensus on the Security Council.
“We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism”
Trump brings his anti-globalization message that’s generally reserved for railing on companies that offshore their jobs to China into the foreign policy realm here. Specifically, Trump targets NAFTA (“it has been a total disaster for the U.S!”) but he also reaffirms the nation-state as the “true foundation for happiness and harmony” and declares himself “skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down.” Here is a suggested return to a more isolationist stance and a rejection of the international institutions that will only increase in importance as the international system transitions towards multipolarity. It’s another hard turn towards a realist, state-centric foreign policy after years of interventionist dabbling from successive US administrations.
In closing, though we should always be skeptical of foreign policy that’s drafted on the campaign trail, a Trump presidency would be uniquely situated to break with some recent US foreign policy trends. On one hand Trump would inevitably have some of his more extreme ideas tempered by the dictates of the office (the Wall, a Muslim immigration ban, etc); on the other, his ‘outsider’ status could be leveraged to break decisively from the Bush Doctrine era and reboot some of the country’s more troubled relationships under President Obama, including Russia and also Israel, another bilateral relationship that Trump singled out as needing some attention in his speech.