On Wednesday, Donald Trump delivered a scripted address on foreign policy in Washington, his most direct attempt yet to signal his chops as a potential statesman on the world stage. He unveiled his plan for a "coherent," "America first" foreign policy, one that supposedly "replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace."
The speech, as many pundits swiftly observed, was littered with contradictions. Trump extolled the need for military toughness and expansion, but lamented the cost of foreign wars and adventures. He blustered about rooting out enemies, but then heralded the primacy of diplomacy and the importance of "caution and restraint." He hailed the United States as a "humanitarian nation," but suggested there was no need to distinguish between refugees and terrorist infiltrators.
But perhaps the most curious tension he presented centered on his rejection of the "dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies" in the Middle East. This is a critique shared by others across the political spectrum -- that liberal interventionism and championing democratic change around the world has led to unforeseen and often tragic outcomes.
Yet Trump then went down another path, declaring what appeared to be a culture war. He said defeating militant groups like the Islamic State required not just military might, but an ideological confrontation.
"It’s also a philosophical struggle, like our long struggle in the Cold War," Trump said.
The Obama administration has invested quite heavily -- and with questionable success -- in trying to combat the ideas and messaging of the Islamic State and outfits of its ilk. Trump presented no real indication of how his "philosophical struggle" would be conducted any differently. But he did say this:
I will work with our allies to reinvigorate Western values and institutions. 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.
Again, like much else in the speech, Trump did not explain how he would go about "promoting Western civilization." He mentions that "we’re going to be working very closely with our allies in the Muslim world, all of which are at risk from radical Islamic violence."
But he glided over the fact that many leaders of majority Muslim countries, not to mention those in the Western world, are not that impressed with Trump's plans to ban all Muslim arrivals to the United States as well as with his general demonization of refugees and Islam.
Trump, perhaps more than any of his rival candidates in the Republican field, has deployed this "us against them" rhetoric, often to great effect among the Republican base. He has harped about the threat of Muslims, the threat of refugees, the threat of Mexican immigration, the threat of Asian economies. This has resonated among a segment of voters who see the world stacked up against them and find inspiration in Trump's muscular -- some would say nativist -- nationalism.
"We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism," Trump declared, issuing a populist refrain that echoes particularly in Europe, where far-right parties are gaining traction on the back of Trump-style politics.
Trump sounded just like his Euroskeptic counterparts across the pond when he celebrated the "nation-state" as "the true foundation for happiness and harmony." He rejects the liberal internationalism of not just the current White House, but earlier Republican administrations as well.
"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," Trump said.
Despite what sounds like isolationism, Trump suggested he would somehow improve ties with Russia and China. This is intriguing not because that's a likely prospect, but because of the mirror the two countries hold up to Trump's views.
China and Russia are some of the loudest advocates for the traditional order of nation-states, often invoking the importance of defending the principles of national sovereignty when stymieing global decision-making in forums such as the United Nations. The leadership in Moscow and Beijing peddle their own brands of cultural nationalism. And they also harbor their own visions of civilizational triumph.
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