Apart from signaling that he’s prepping for a more sober general-election campaign, Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech Wednesday can be boiled down, in a sense, to this declaration: “I challenge anyone to explain the strategic foreign policy vision of Obama-Clinton. It has been a complete and total disaster.”
It’s a statement you’d expect, but one that doesn’t completely hold up, given that on a number of issues, Trump actually sounded quite a bit like President Obama.
Trump’s line that “the world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies” echoed Obama’s speech at his first inauguration, in which he pronounced to U.S. enemies that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” When Trump explained that “a superpower understands that caution and restraint are really, truly, signs of strength,” he was hitting fairly close to one of Obama’s regular admonitions, that “when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war.”
And whether he knew it or not, on one point, Trump was almost cribbing directly from Obama’s notebook when he said this:
“Our allies must contribute toward their financial, political and human costs — have to do it — of our tremendous security burden. But many of them are simply not doing so. They look at the United States as weak and forgiving, and feel no obligation to honor their agreements with us. In NATO, for instance, only four of 28 other member countries, besides America, are spending the minimum required 2 percent of GDP on defense. We have spent trillions of dollars over time on planes, missiles, ships, equipment, building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia. The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense. And if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
Strong words — that fit right in line with what Obama said in his speech to Europeans last week in Hanover, Germany (emphasis added):
“We need to stay nimble, and make sure our forces are interoperable, and invest in new capabilities like cyber defense and missile defense. And that’s why every NATO member should be contributing its full share — 2 percent of GDP — toward our common security, something that doesn’t always happen. And I’ll be honest, sometimes Europe has been complacent about its own defense.”
Which might appear like it was meant to preempt some of Trump’s recent statements on the subject of NATO, going back to The Washington Post editorial board’s interview with him last month. Except it’s something Obama — and the foreign policy “elites” Trump often disparages — has been saying since long before Trump sought the White House. In 2014, the president went out of his way to praise Estonia, one of the newest and least powerful members of the alliance, for ponying up its fair share of the costs of defense (emphasis added):
“To its great credit, Estonia stands out as an ally that contributes its full share — its full 2 percent of GDP to the defense of our alliance. And Latvia and Lithuania have pledged to do the same. So this week (applause). That’s worth applause (applause). So this week’s summit is the moment for every NATO nation to step up and commit to meeting its responsibilities to our alliance. Estonia does it. Every ally must do it.”
More broadly, Obama has said it going all the way back to his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, when he lectured European allies about the realities of war and pointed out that “the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”
Trump is so taken with this theme that he has made it a central component of his foreign policy pitch. But it’s hardly a new idea.
He’d surely note that Obama’s had eight years, and not much success, trying to get our allies to take more ownership for their own security. But that’s the difference between being a presidential candidate and actually being commander in chief.