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Five takeaways from Donald Trump’s jeremiad on U.S. foreign policy

Donald Trump delivering a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

This is what I learned Wednesday watching Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump lay out his foreign policy vision at a meeting of the Center for the National Interest. The Center is a right-leaning group that calls itself “America’s voice for strategic realism.” It has deep ties to the Republican establishment, especially its neoconservative wing. The Center’s honorary chair is Henry Kissinger. Trump was introduced by Zalmay Khalilzad, a high-ranking diplomat of the George W. Bush administration who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, then Iraq, then the United Nations.

Trump’s talk was organized around five numbered descriptions of problems faced by U.S. foreign and national security policies. Actually, “problems” is a weak word to describe the situation that Trump suggests faces the next president. What he actually said was:

“Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster. No vision, no purpose, no direction, no strategy.”

He later labeled the legacy of  “the Obama-Clinton foreign policy [as] weakness, confusion, and disarray.”

I’m not sure he’s used this Ted Cruz trope before, but Trump also faulted President Obama, as Cruz has incessantly, for his unwillingness to label the root of the threat to U.S. interests in the Islamic world as “radical Islam.” (For Cruz, actually, it’s “radical Islamic terrorism.”)

But Trump did kick off his jeremiad with discussion of five problem areas. Here are the five, all direct quotes from the prepared text, which Trump followed pretty faithfully:

“First, our resources are overextended. Secondly, our allies are not paying their fair share. Thirdly, our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us. Fourth, our rivals no longer respect us. Finally, America no longer has a clear understanding of our foreign policy goals.”

You may not like them. You may not agree with them. But at least those are five coherent thoughts, if Trump can back them up and, even more ambitious, back that set of problems up by understandable ideas for addressing them. On that score, Trump’s talk is more hit-and-miss-and-miss. He relies mostly on the standard Republican creed that everything was going great until Obama screwed it up. But, because Trump actually gave a real speech with facts and arguments, I’m trying to take it seriously.

Here are my takeaways from his speech in five numbered sections:

No. 1

When Donald Trump reads off a teleprompter a speech that has been professionally written he seems much more normal. The sentences have subjects and predicates and other grammatical niceties. He seldom backs up to change what he just said, or say it over only more offensively. He’s almost polite. He seems much more like a normal presidential candidate; in fact, this is a lot of what they mean when they talk about being “presidential.”

The other day, in one of his more typical ad lib presentations, he said he could, if he wanted to, be so presidential that everyone would be bored stiff. This is what he meant. This speech would be fairly boring if not for the fact that it was being given by Trump, who must now be seriously viewed as a potential future president, whose foreign policy ruminations until now have mostly been incoherent. This talk bordered on coherence, especially graded on the curve of Trump’s foreign policy expressions to date.

No. 2

The problems as presented are coherent. And conveniently for Trump, they are all the fault of Obama. The president is mentioned by name 11 times, all attached to caricaturish description of his many, many failures. Hillary Clinton is mentioned six times, all blaming her singly or jointly with Obama, for problems they created for America. The name George Bush is not mentioned, which is not to say that former President George W. Bush is held blameless — Trump specifies that he, Trump, “was totally against the war in Iraq,” which he blames for destabilizing the Mideast. That war occurred under the leadership of Bush, but in order to prove his newfound Republican bona fides, Trump kept Bush’s name out of the blamefest for the mess Trump hopes to inherit as the next president.

This was even more blatant in the section in which Trump alleged that “President Obama has weakened our military by weakening our economy.” By any traditional measure, the United States has grown stronger since Obama inherited the devastating collapse left behind by his predecessor, who shall remain nameless.

Before leaving this topic, and taking into account that Trump’s pet name for his chief remaining rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, is “lyin’ Ted,” Trump has been lying, consistently and shamelessly, about his claim to have opposed the war in Iraq. He did not. An exhaustive search of his public statements before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq finds one in which he said he “guessed” he favored it, and one in which he took no position but said President Bush was “doing a very good job” on the issue. The war started in March of 2003, and for the rest of that year, Trump expressed some concerns about how the war was going but never once came anywhere close to saying that he opposed the decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.

No. 3

If, as I suggested above, Trump’s talk was hosted by a neocon-dominated think tank, he did not shy away from criticizing that foreign policy movement which goaded the country into the Iraq War, in part on the suggestion that Iraq would be turned into a model Arab democracy from which the good example of democratizing would spread across the region.

Au contraire, Trump said, the mess that now exists in the Mideast “all began with the dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western Democracy. We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism; thousands of American lives, and many trillions of dollars, were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill the void, much to their unjust enrichment.”

No. 4

Trump did not repeat his recent statement that the NATO alliance was “obsolete.” But he did complain that most NATO-member countries are playing America for suckers. There is an understanding that all members should spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, but, Trump said, only four of the 28 meet that requirement. Trump said that if those countries continue to shirk their burden-sharing obligations, “the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”

Personally, it strikes me as reasonable for Washington to pressure the NATO partners to pay their share, but a flat policy of kicking them out of the alliance if they do not, even if they cannot, is simplistic. Of course, Trump did not rule out more detailed discussions of what an underfunded partner might be allowed to do before being expelled.

No. 5

More than any presidential candidate, Trump sees the job as negotiator-in-chief. He sees the world largely through the prism of “the deal.” I’m in no position to judge, but I don’t doubt that Trump is good at making business deals. The question of how this skill translates into the job he now seeks is murky to me, although I don’t doubt that deal-making comes into it.

In his speech Wednesday, Trump disparaged Obama’s negotiating skills, with the key example being the deal with Iran to end their pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Like most Republicans, Trump thinks Obama’s team in that negotiation got snookered because they don’t know how to negotiate. He said: “In negotiations, you must be willing to walk. The Iran deal, like so many of our worst agreements, is the result of not being willing to leave the table. When the other side knows you’re not going to walk, it becomes absolutely impossible to win.”

Other thoughts

After describing the five foreign policy challenges that face America, Trump talked about other aspects of his thinking. Strangely, given the centrality of the Mexican border and his plan to build a wall to stop illegal immigration, he never mentioned Mexico or that issue in this, his major foreign policy speech of the campaign so far. Perhaps he doesn’t think of it as a foreign policy issue, or perhaps he is shifting to a general-election strategy in which his tough line on undocumented migrants will be unhelpful.

Trump also suggested that the Obama-Clinton team have subordinated the interests of the United States to other priorities, like the good of the world in general. It was a recurring theme of the speech that he will put America first in all things. (He actually used the term “America First” — as in, “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration” — although the term has some unsavory historical associations in some quarters as the name of a lobby and later a political party that opposed U.S. entry into World War II. That wasn’t how Trump meant it. He said:

“Americans must know that we are putting the American people first again. On trade, on immigration, on foreign policy — the jobs, incomes and security of the American worker will always be my first priority.

“No country has ever prospered that failed to put its own interests first. Both our friends and enemies put their countries above ours and we, while being fair to them, must do the same.

“We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism.”

Here’s a link to the full text of Trump’s remarks, as prepared for delivery.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/28/2016 - 09:30 am.


    But still vague.
    Even with a script writer Trump can’t come up with specific proposals.
    He’s still a pig in a poke.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 04/28/2016 - 09:44 am.

    Such an easy target here…

    Will there eventually be finer points to sift after each convention?

    Don’t really know, but suspect the dirt will become more coarse once the winds shift to straight lines.

    I’m simply thinking the Presidential Election of November 2016 will go into history as the second “Dust Bowl.”

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/28/2016 - 10:02 am.

    I didn’t see the speech

    So thanks for providing it in its entirety.

    Wow. I heard it was written for him but he basically edited the hell out of it, so who knows. If he reads this speech in prime time at the convention, he’ll win the election easily.

    The criticism of Trump is for things he has said. But the criticism of Clinton is for things she has done. And with this critique, he puts Hillary Clinton on the permanent defensive throughout the campaign.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/28/2016 - 01:25 pm.

      At least until

      she asks him what specific actions he will take.
      Then he’ll fall back on bluster and insult.

      You can’t criticize Trump for what he has done since he hasn’t done anything except inherit money and declare bankruptcy when he ran out of it.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/28/2016 - 10:03 am.


    Trump, at some point during the speech, told everyone what they wanted to hear.

  5. Submitted by Rodgers Adams on 04/28/2016 - 11:27 am.

    Underlying threat

    I’ve been surprised that more commentators on Trump’s foreign policy speech haven’t picked up on the recurring theme of what Trump plans to do “as President.” There was no sense of constraints regarding Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitution or signed treaties. I was struck by his general promise to avoid foreign wars and be a proponent of peaceful deals to settle problems, in contrast to his proclaimed promise to destroy ISIS quickly and to absolutely prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Those are goals that rule out military action? Even scarier was his plan to do so in secret, so the enemies wouldn’t know when or what to expect. What sort of blank check would Congress have to give him to accomplish that? If Republicans already think the Presidency has accumulated too much power, what do Trump’s statements say about retaining the balance of powers?

    And if what he says is just negotiating strategy, what does it say about all his promises to to “Make America Great Again”? He’s already said that his plan to kill the families of terrorists isn’t objectionable, because he didn’t really mean to do it; it was just a negotiating ploy. At the same time, he’s argued that you have to be prepared to carry out your threats in order to maintain your negotiating credibility. Does that mean we drop an atomic bomb on Raqqa to destroy ISIS in order to give credibility to a threat to drop an atomic bomb on Moscow to get Putin back off from expanding into Eastern Europe? Is that part of Trump’s secret plan to make America secure?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/28/2016 - 01:27 pm.

      What it means is

      that Trump has never read the Constitution.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/28/2016 - 03:21 pm.

      Not Surprising

      This is one of the inherent problems of a businessperson who tries to come into government at a high level. He or she (usually he) comes in as a real “take charge” kind of person who is going to turn things around, just like he did at XYZ Corp. The reality of the matter is, XYZ Corp. could let him have free rein to do what he wanted, just so long as he maximized value for the shareholders.

      Government doesn’t work that way. An executive has legislators to deal with, and each of them have an agenda and a say in what gets done. There is also a constitution that will limits powers and set procedures. Legislators–even Senators–have constituents they are supposed to be representing, and also have other legislators to reckon with. No one is going to stand back in awe as he works his magic.

      I remember the days of the cult of the CEO in the early 80s. What passed for thoughtful amateur comment was saying that Lee Iacocca (or whoever was the corporate poster boy of the moment) should be President, and he would straighten “things” out. It got pretty tiresome. I was glad when those same people switched their catchphrase to “Where’s the beef?”

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/28/2016 - 12:05 pm.

    Better than nothing

    As Eric said, this, at least comes close to being a somewhat coherent presentation of some ideas about foreign policy.

    “The Art of the Deal” doesn’t strike me as entirely applicable to this area of presidential work. There are certainly situations when bluff and counter-bluff are a significant part of international negotiations, but there have also been situations where at least one side wasn’t bluffing at all. “Walking away…“ isn’t always a useful tactic, nor is it always a useful strategic approach to negotiation. Sometimes a willingness to do so is helpful, other times not, but Mr. Trump seems to view it as something of a commandment – a central tenet of a relationship with any or all foreign countries. That, I think, might well work against “putting our interests first.”

    If Mr. Trump is the presumptive nominee of the Republicans, which seems a reasonable presumption at this point, Carly Fiorina notwithstanding, there’s plenty to be disturbed about here, not least the issue(s) raised by Rodgers Adams. We’re not electing a king or dictator for life. Trump will still have to deal with other branches of federal and state governments, not to mention members of both the House and the Senate – any of which could rather easily toss the proverbial monkey wrench into whatever plans and proclamations he’s made.

    It’s also useful to note that, perhaps inadvertently, Mr. Tester has highlighted a fairly significant difference between Trump and Clinton. Mr. Trump has about the same experience in dealing with foreign leaders that I do: none. Mrs. Clinton served terms as both a U.S. Senator and as, oddly enough, Secretary of State. Offhand, I’d say that experience gives her a bit more knowledge of realpolitik than Mr. Trump.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/28/2016 - 03:00 pm.

      And like this speech

      “The Art of the Deal” was ghostwritten.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 04/29/2016 - 10:50 am.

      not so odd

      No fewer than 29 US Secretaries of State have been Senators; an additional five Secretaries served in the House. If Mrs. Clinton succeeds in her ambition she will join Madison, Monroe, Quincy Adams, Van Buren and Buchanan on the shorter list of former Secretaries of State who have become President.

  7. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/28/2016 - 03:31 pm.

    No Vision, No Purpose, No Direction, No Strategy?

    Clearly the state of Mr. Trump’s psyche renders invisible and incomprehensible to him,…

    as they do to most “conservatives”,…

    such things as,…

    cleaning up the economic and international messes left behind by Bush/Cheney,…

    seeking to promote world peace (without seeking to beat the nations which aren’t doing exactly what we want into submission),…

    trying to keep the lid on international situations that threaten to blow up and cause a lot of destruction,…

    while avoiding, to whatever extent possible, direct military intervention,…

    seeking to keep the planet’s temperature within the range that will continue to support human habitation,…

    and promoting universal rights for all the humans on the planet,…

    (and within our own boundaries).

    I strongly suspect that, for Mr. Trump, “win-win” deals,…

    such as those that work most effectively in international relations,…

    are not deals at all,…

    and that he only counts it a deal if HE wins and whoever he’s “dealing” with looses.

    It seems as if Mr. Trump would feel completely justified in trying to run US foreign policy,…

    by the Star Trek “Deep Space Nine” “Ferengi rules of acquisition,”…

    and will be completely shocked,…

    and highly incensed if the rest of the world refuses to go along,…

    and turns decidedly hostile to the US in response,…

    to which his completely ineffectual response will be to say “they don’t matter,”…

    and that they’re “just a bunch of losers.”

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/28/2016 - 04:38 pm.

    So, Trump reads from a teleprompter a speech written for him by someone else, and everyone is supposed to be relieved that there is a minimum of coherence–finally!– in what he says about “foreign policy.”

    What’s amazing is that anyone would believe him. The contradiction between this so-called coherence and Trump’s campaign up to that minute is mind-blowing. He is now a total fake, created for us like a paper-mache figurine by unseen hands. To win an election he thinks he has to NOT be himself, the self that seems to have won the GOP nomination. Pure act, no substance.

  9. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/28/2016 - 08:55 pm.

    The hidden issue of getting your allies to pay for their “fair share” of the costs is then you have to give them a fair share of decisions taken by that organization.

    A fine way to give away US leadership, Mr. “Make America Great”.

    Always a second side to every coin.

    And tell me how you remain a leader by becoming unpredictable.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/29/2016 - 09:18 am.

      Not necessarily

      I’m all for our allies paying their fair share. One thing that the US has over many of our allies is a relatively large, relatively stable economy and a kickbutt military (which is overfunded…by us, at least). Fair share does not mean equal share because many of our allies simply don’t have a lot to bring to the table. And our allies already have their fair share of decision making power.

      That being said, Trump isn’t the first person to have that idea. Obama was just in Europe telling our allies to put up or shut up. And Obama wasn’t the first to have that idea, either. I just don’t see Trump being any more successful at this problem by being nothing more than a big-mouthed bully.

  10. Submitted by joe smith on 04/29/2016 - 10:42 am.

    Mr. Black’s take on Trump was number 1 he looked more normal reading off a TelePrompTer, I’ve seen 7 plus years of nothing but normal off reading speeches other folks wrote by Obama, no thanks for anymore. The other takes from Mr. Black was Trump didn’t blame Bush enough and Obama too much. Shocking!! Obama ran on getting us outta the Mid East and mending all ills caused by previous administration 8 years ago. I guess it is wrong for us to look at how effective those policies and promises have been.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/29/2016 - 12:22 pm.

      Obama was smart and honest enough

      to learn that:
      1. We had been misled by the military/ intelligence complex about the situation in the Middle East, and
      2. The situation is constantly changing, so trying to hold to a promise made six or eight years ago is not too smart (‘don’t do dumb stuff’).

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/29/2016 - 01:37 pm.

      Not the “Teleprompter” Meme Again!

      “I’ve seen 7 plus years of nothing but normal off reading speeches other folks wrote by Obama, no thanks for anymore.” And the rest of us having been hearing Teleprompter snark for the past seven years, and it is more than tiresome. It makes me sic.

      ALL politicians have someone else writing their speeches for them. It is just a fact of political life. Barry Goldwater no more wrote his oft-quoted “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice” speech than he wrote Peyton Place (his speechwriter, BTW, was Karl Hess, who freely admitted cribbing the line from Cicero).

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/02/2016 - 10:14 am.

        Factory Floor Meme

        Remember when Obama was a terrible extemp. campaign speaker, even when making pretty much the same points along the routes?

        That all ended when his staff brought the prompters along for the ride and resolution.
        Many observers noted that move as “a first,” as I recall. (still chuckling here)
        I was one who shook my head at his fundamental failing to relate the same stuff from one informal group to the next.

        Teleprompters are necessary for proper dissemination of historically significant addresses… and coherence of informal messaging sometimes, as he demonstrated.

        Did you notice the recent teleprompter assist to The Donald, a day or two after he mocked HRC for her dependency? That was to lend coherence to his formal messaging.
        Oh, sigh…

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