Ever since the Reagan administration — and oh how we miss those days, by the way — the congress has required that presidents provide a general statement of their foreign policy objectives and plans to achieve them. Every president has complied, always with a low-key and little-noticed publication carefully written to avoid antagonizing any adversaries or alarming any allies, but of course President Donald Trump seized the opportunity to deliver yet another campaign speech on Monday.
There was some good stuff in the official written statement, we must admit it, despite that “America First” slogan that always reminds us of the pre-World War II era.. Trump vowed that America’s foreign policy would be back up by an ever-more muscular military, and warmed our old-fashioned Republican hearts by quoting President Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of “peace through strength,” although without attribution. He spoke of “rallying the world” to confront North Korea’s nuclear provocations, which holds out some hope of a diplomatic solution, and of reaching a better deal than the current deal to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, although he didn’t get very specific about what it would be or how he might get it. One sentence promised “gradual reform, not radical change, should be our guiding objective” in the Middle East, and there were other allusions to international alliances and American leadership that had a similarly reassuring steady-at-the-helm sound about them. He mentioned Russia as one of America’s more troublesome countries, but was vague about their interference in the past presidential election.
There was also a lot of nonsense from past national security statements that was left out, we must admit. Climate change wasn’t among the national security threats mentioned, no apologies were offered for pursing American interests, and didn’t describe the obvious threat of radical Islamist terrorism as “religious extremism.” On the whole, the brief written statement wasn’t half-bad by Trump standards.
The much longer campaign speech Trump delivered was far worse, though, for all the usual reasons. It began with his characteristic boasts about the tens of thousands of miles he’s travelled and the hundreds of world leaders he’s met as president, which reminded of us vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s similar campaign boasts about her tenure as Secretary of State, and it was quickly followed by some flattery about how the American people have been “among the greatest forces for peace and justice in the world.” That was followed by the characteristic boast that “just one year ago, you spoke out loud and clear. On Nov. 8, 2016, you voted to make America great again.”
Notwithstanding his three-million-or-so-vote loss in the popular vote, Trump then took the opportunity to criticize at least five of his most recent predecessors, although without mentioning any names. He criticized pretty much all of America’s current trade deals, which date as far back as Reagan, and he blasted “nation-building abroad while they failed to replenish our nation at home,” which clearly means President George W. Bush and the rest of the Bushes and the rest of the Republican establishment. He also spoke of how “they put American energy under lock and key” and “imposed punishing regulations and crippling taxes,” which can only mean Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and lamented how “they” had neglected to solve the North Korea problem, with the “them” presumably stretching back to the administration of President Harry Truman.
All of those darned “them” also negotiated all of the worst-ever trade deals that have done so much damage to the American economy, which Trump frequently brags is humming along better than ever, but Trump made his usual vague promises to set that right. Trump also blamed them for letting a lot of illegal aliens into the country, which is a fair enough point, but followed it up with the usual crazy talk about building a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border, even if he didn’t add the long lost crazy talk about making the Mexicans pay for it. Much of the speech was devoted to boasting about America is stronger than ever and standing up for itself like never before, but overall it struck as strikingly whiny.
Trump is quite right that pretty much of the entirety of American history, the past several presidential administrations included, have left him in a rather tough spot. Every president could say the same, though, as could any other world leader about his country and its past several governments. The best of them have never disparaged the past leadership of their countries or the people who put them in power and instead moved forward with steady-at-the-helm leadership, and the worst them have always made vague promises to set things right.
Back in the campaign Trump promised he would never apologize for America, despite a few missteps it has undeniably made, and he would do well to acknowledge that the entirety of its history has also left him a position most of history’s world leaders would have envied. America’s military does need a boost, but it had been the world’s mightiest for more than 75 years before Trump office, despite all those Democrats. The past decades of free trade have driven innovations and increased prosperity not only in America but around a relatively placid globe, and the past 11 months of Trump haven’t much changed that trajectory.
Trump’s campaign speech probably got about as much attention as those low-key and little-read previous national security statements did, but it probably got the usual scrutiny from our anxious allies and recently emboldened adversaries. If they glean the same impression we gleaned of a megalomaniacal yet desperate politician pandering to his base rather than conducting a steady at the helm of American foreign policy in the country’s interests, all the good stuff will be for naught.
— Bud Norman