After his clean sweep of the Acela primary on Tuesday, Donald Trump gave a big foreign policy speech on Wednesday at the Mayflower. Despite my … let’s say “issues” with Trump’s previous foreign policy musings, I decided to listen to it. Sober.
That was my first mistake.
Trump foreign policy adviser Walid Phares previewed the speech by telling the Associated Press, “There will be no details in this speech” and Trump did not disappoint. Beyond stating that he would call for a summit with NATO allies and another one with Asian allies to “discuss a rebalancing of financial commitments, but take a fresh look at how we can adopt new strategies for tackling our common challenges,” there were no specifics.
As someone who has listened to Trump’s foreign policy musings for the entirety of this election cycle, I have three quick thoughts on the speech:
1) If you squint, there’s an underlying theory explaining how Trump thinks about foreign policy. Hegemonic stability theory says that economic openness and stability is most likely to occur when the world has a single superpower. There is a variant of that approach in which a coercive hegemon uses its power to make sure that the global rules of the game provide stability but redistribute the benefits so that the hegemonic actor benefits more than everyone else.
In essence, that’s what Trump is proposing when he says that:
I will be America’s greatest defender and most loyal champion. We will not apologize for becoming successful again, but will instead embrace the unique heritage that makes us who we are. The world is most peaceful, and most prosperous, when America is strongest.
So, if I’m being generous, Trump’s logic is: Global deals should be renegotiated to strengthen the United States, and the world benefits from this by becoming safer.
2) None of Trump’s foreign policy contradictions got resolved. Just because I can gin up a theory for why Trump is saying what he’s saying doesn’t mean that it’s true. Trump will demand that allies pay more for security but nonetheless believes that they would trust a President Trump more than the current president. He blasts policies that tried to promote democracy in the Middle East but then pledged to be “strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments.” He said the nation needed to become more “unpredictable” and then promised to offer “a disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy.” The speech reads like someone stitched together pieces of fabric without bothering to see if anything clashed.
His logic for how to build up the military? “Ending the theft of American jobs will give us resources we need to rebuild our military, which has to happen and regain our financial independence and strength.” That makes zero sense, and it suggests that Trump has no real understanding of how the U.S. economy — or any other economy — actually works.
3) Trump’s view of leverage is blinkered. Trump on China:
Our president has allowed China to continue its economic assault on American jobs and wealth, refusing to enforce trade deals and apply leverage on China necessary to rein in North Korea. We have the leverage. We have the power over China, economic power, and people don’t understand it. And with that economic power, we can rein in and we can get them to do what they have to do with North Korea, which is totally out of control.
Yeah, so as someone who has studied economic leverage in world politics for a living, I find this pretty seriously wrong. To Trump’s credit, he does not think that the United States is asymmetrically dependent on China. But the notion that the U.S. can sanction China into altering trade arrangements and pressure North Korea is a seriously misread of the bilateral balance of power. Oh, and it also neglects China’s recent willingness to sanction the DPRK.
4) Trump will protect the sacred institution of Air Force One. From his speech:
When President Obama landed in Cuba on Air Force One, no leader was there, nobody, to greet him.
Perhaps an incident without precedent in the long and prestigious history of Air Force One. Then amazingly, the same thing happened in Saudi Arabia. It’s called no respect. Absolutely no respect.
It’s the “long a prestigious history of Air Force One” that got me. Trump appears to respect the presidential plane more than he respects the office of the presidency.
5) On foreign policy, Trump has one ace up his sleeve. Trump’s foreign policy musings this time around were not much better than his previous musings — with one exception. When he talked about post-Cold War foreign policy, he wasn’t always right, but he was more coherent:
It’s time to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy. It’s time to invite new voices and new visions into the fold, something we have to do. …
Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster. No vision. No purpose. No direction. No strategy. …
We’ve made the Middle East more unstable and chaotic than ever before. …
I have to look for talented experts with approaches and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war. We have to look to new people.
Trump doesn’t really have any useful ideas or strategies to offer for how to improve American foreign policy. What he does have, however, is a really stinging indictment of the existing foreign policy establishment. This certainly resonates with a lot of Americans, even people who wouldn’t otherwise symathize with Trump.
The challenge for Hillary Clinton will be to point out that whatever qualms one has about the foreign policy status quo, Trump’s alternative would be worse.