Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump delivered a 40-minute detailed foreign policy speech today highlighting his views on trade, terrorism, economic freedom, Iran and China. Trump used a teleprompter to articulate a clear vision in which he said he would implement a foreign policy “that replaces randomness with purpose” and where “the American people are first.”
“We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Barack Obama’s line in the sand in Syria. Each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos, and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper,” said Trump.
Trump made five key points, the first of which was that “U.S. resources are depleted.” Trump blamed deficits, debt, low growth and open borders, saying America must “regain our financial independence and strength.” Trump went on to chastise our allies for not paying enough for their own safety, claiming only four other countries in NATO pay the required 2% of GDP on defense spending. “Our allies must contribute toward the financial, political and human costs of our tremendous security burden or “the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
But Trump’s third point showed just how difficult the first two points will be to implement. While Trump says he is willing to walk away from allies unwilling or unable to pay their fair share, he says “At the same time, your friends need to know that you will stick by the agreements that you have with them.”
Trump’s strategy shows the dilemma in making budgeting the overall priority of foreign policy. While his emphasis on zero based budgeting for the State Department and Defense Department is a welcome sign to budget hawks who believe America’s debt is out of control, Trump must make sure the American people know he won’t be trapped by only defending America’s national security interest if the budget impact is zero. The fact that America is the leader of the free world means that we must spend money even before there is a return on the investment. Waiting for someone to pay their bill may be a good business practice but defeating ISIS will never make fiscal sense.
Trump has been under heavy criticism over the last few months from the foreign policy establishment and political campaign reporters for tying issues like NATO membership and a Syrian safe zone to simple fiscal discipline. Trump critics have complained that he has been devoid of foreign policy details while focusing too much on budget cuts. When Trump said that Japan and South Korea should pay for the protection they get from the U.S. military bases located in their country, for instance, critics charged he was unaware of the benefits Americans get from having U.S troops in Asia as a backstop to the growing threats from China and North Korea.
But today’s speech made it clear that a President Trump would use America’s economic power to punish and reward allies and enemies. And he would use his own economic expertise and job creation skills to make the case that America’s wealth and trade dominance should be used as a carrot or a stick to safeguard U.S. national security. It was a tactic that former presidential nominee Mitt Romney subtly tried to use but couldn’t get traction on. Trump, however, has been more forceful and effective than Romney in using his mega-wealth and business acumen as an overall strength.
Mixing the Treasury Department’s strengths with the State Department’s weaknesses will not go over well with the typical diplomatic crowd that have long been against intermingling what they view as their bilateral diplomatic priorities with U.S. trade and commerce interests.
Critics like Bloomberg reporter Sahil Kapur call Trump’s policy “hawkish Isolationism” and protectionism. But the labels are silly and miss the larger point. Trump’s populist foreign policy has been popular with both Republicans and Democrats who want to see less intervention and more strength. In his speech Trump gave foreign policy hawks some red meat, talking about the “false song of globalism,” but also called out “the failures of NAFTA,” a line that many blue-collar Democrats and union members will relish.
Many foreign policy experts have failed to see that Trump’s unpredictability can also be an asset. The foreign policy elite, many who have never worked in a multilateral setting, miss the importance of keeping your enemies in the dark about your plans. Obama, for instance, made clear to the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda in Iraq exactly when U.S. troops would be leaving. Most people saw the error of announcing your plans to the enemy. This week, Trump rightly said of the additional U.S. troops Obama announced for Syria, “I would send them in quietly because right now they have a target on their back.”
Critics have asked for more policy details from Trump. Today he responded. And from the looks of it, he has a realist vision that combines elements of Republican and Democrat policy positions. It was clear, new, uncomfortable to the status quo, bipartisan and a complete challenge to the elites who sit comfortably inside foreign policy think tanks and newsrooms in New York and Washington.