President Trump has already tried to articulate his administration’s grand strategy twice as president: his NATO speech in May and his Warsaw speech in July. The first effort was such a fiasco that it blindsided his own national security team, leading to one of the more extraordinary op-eds published this year. It turns out that it is difficult, at best, to rally non-American countries to an “America First” strategy.
The second effort in Warsaw was not an abject disaster, but it had its controversies. By switching the focus from “America First” to a rallying cry for Western civilization, Trump and his speechwriters were able to invoke a purpose greater than simple national interest. On the other hand, Huntingtonian calls for civilizational defense do not always go down well with other civilizations. This is particularly true coming from this president. Given his past rhetoric, it’s impossible to hear Trump talk about civilization and not think he has a
white narrow definition of the West.
Trump will address the United Nations General Assembly today. This will be different because the audience will be decidedly non-Western. Farnaz Fassihi and Eli Stokols’s preview of the speech in the Wall Street Journal suggests another attempt to define a nationalist grand strategy:
President Donald Trump’s first address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday will lay out a foreign policy rooted in his view of nationalism and sovereignty and anchored by “America First” principles, according to a senior White House official. …
The address will combine the nationalistic theme of his campaign with an appeal to the nationalism of other countries as a new basis for international co-operation, the senior official said.
“It will be a foreign policy that is driven by outcomes, not by ideologies,” the official said. “What the president is doing is explaining how the principle of America First is not only consistent with the goal of international co-operation, but a rational basis for every country to engage in co-operation.”
Good luck with that. I may just be a simple country political scientist, but I am pretty sure that no other country in the world will think of “America First” as the rational basis for cooperation. In order for cooperation to thrive at the United Nations and elsewhere, there has to be mutual interest.
As Fassihi and Stokols note later in their story, this appears to be how the rest of the world will react to Trump’s speech:
On some issues, such as pressuring North Korea and combating terrorism, Mr. Trump has the support and sympathy of the international community, and thus more leeway to push for the US agenda. On other issues, such as the Iran nuclear deal and climate change, he faces stern opposition and pushback for demanding changes to previous agreements.
So, in other words, other countries will deal with Trump in a very transactional manner. Given the dubious quality of Trump’s bargaining skills, I am not optimistic that this will work out terribly well for the United States. The more that Trump reverses course on policy, the less that other countries will trust him to cut deals going forward.
This will be Trump’s third bite at the grand strategy apple. Despite the nationalist orientation of this preview, his national security team appears to be trying to tutor him in the ways of liberal internationalism. According to the Associated Press’s Mathew Lee and Jonathan Lemire:
Trump’s national security team had become alarmed by the president’s frequent questioning about the value of a robust American presence around the world. When briefed on the diplomatic, military and intelligence posts, the new president would often cast doubt on the need for all the resources. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson organized the July 20 session to lay out the case for maintaining far-flung outposts — and to present it, using charts and maps, in a way the businessman-turned-politician would appreciate.
The session was, in effect, American Power 101 and the student was the man working the levers. It was part of the ongoing education of a president who arrived at the White House with no experience in the military or government and brought with him advisers deeply skeptical of what they labeled the “globalist” worldview. In coordinated efforts and quiet conversations, some of Trump’s aides have worked for months to counter that view, hoping the president can be persuaded to maintain — if not expand — the American footprint and influence abroad.
The result of the meeting and other similar entreaties may start to become clear this week, as Trump heads to New York for his first address to the United Nations General Assembly. The annual gathering of world leaders will open amid serious concerns about Trump’s priorities, his support for the body he is addressing and a series of spiraling global crises.
If both of these dueling stories are correct, then Trump’s speech is likely to be an incoherent mash-up of his national security team’s preference for the status quo and Stephen Miller’s preference to distrust people with more melanin than himself. My hunch is that it winds up being much less coherent than his prior efforts.