I am no fan of Donald Trump. I have taken him to task for his foolhardy comments on Vladimir Putin and his dismissive remarks on NATO and Ukraine. In the one area where economists agree, Trump takes a dangerous anti-trade mercantilist position. (We can only hope that Trump is simply trolling for populist votes.) In off-the-cuff remarks and sit-down interviews, Trump has been off-balance, displaying a lack of knowledge of international affairs, and making contradictory statements. The press gives him free press time in the hopes of capturing on camera his latest outrage. These and other events explain the legitimate deep-seated concern among many voters concerning the Trump candidacy.
As Trump assumes the role of presumptive nominee, voters must decide whether, behind his entertainer, insult-master façade, there resides a serious Trump, who harbors first principles that will forge his political actions as president. Trump’s major foreign policy address, delivered in Washington on April 27, was billed as the first of several policy statements that lay out the candidate’s views. Candidate Trump uncharacteristically delivered the speech via a teleprompter. If he did not write it, he must at least have approved of its contents. As such, the speech deserved careful attention and analysis.
Instead, Trump’s foreign policy speech was dismissed by many in the mainstream media as a pseudo-event, baffling, inconsistent, a jumble, and as “drawing negative reactions across the political spectrum.” Abroad, the speech was said to be met by amusement and befuddlement. Critics nagged that the speech was short on details. In its condescending editorial, the New York Times huffed: “Mr. Trump did not display any willingness to learn or to correct his past errors. For someone who claims he is ready to lead the free world that is inexcusable.” What “past errors” does the Times mean for someone who has never held public office?
Respected Wall Street Journal opinion writers lined up on different sides on the merits of Trump’s foreign policy address: Bret Stephens, in his GOP Gets What It Deserves, took issue with Trump’s “America First” slogan. Stephens concludes that Trump either chose “America first” “through a dense fog of historical ignorance” (about the isolationist America First Committee of the 1930s and 1940s) or that he is “resurrecting the most disastrous and discredited strain of American foreign policy for a new generation of American ignoramuses.” (I’d welcome a survey of Congress to see how many were familiar with the American First Committee).
Peggy Noonan in her more measured Simple Patriotism Trumps Ideology gives Trump a pass “on his lack of experience in elective office and the daily realities of national politics.” She concludes America is ready for Trump’s disinterest in ideology. What they find important is that “he is on America’s side” and appreciate his unabashed “I’m about America, end of story.”
Given the generally negative media reaction, I conducted my own small sample of conservative friends and colleagues – none Trump supporters – on what they thought of the Trump foreign policy speech. The common reaction was the same. With the exception of trade bashing, they found little with which to disagree.
As I interpret Trump’s “Put America first,” it is not a call to isolationism, but, to use his words, a pledge that his “foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. It has to be first.” I would argue that thoughtful people would label this as a rational principle of foreign policy. Why give up US interests for the benefit of others, some of whom may be our enemies? Of course, we cannot know how Trump will define American interests, and that may be the rub. He may decide emasculating NATO or abandoning Ukraine to Putin is in America’s interest. Elections are about choosing who will make decisions such as these. They are often a crap shoot.
Trump’s “Let’s Put America first” seems to me to be a statement of first principles. Despite the many flubs, gaffes, and miscues of the Trump campaign, putting the interests of the American people and American security above all else has been a constant themes of his campaign. Let us hope that Trump is struggling, to use Noonan’s words, “to blend into a coherent whole what he’s previously said when popping off on the hustings. He was trying to establish that there’s a theme….to reassure potential supporters that he is actually serious.”
Trump’s “Let’s put America first” stands in stark contrast to Barack Obama’s “America as a member of the community of nations” theme enunciated at about the same phase of the 2008 election campaign. In retrospect, we understand that Obama’s presentation of himself as a fellow citizen of the world was not empty rhetoric. His eight years have seen deference to international organizations and practices, preference for multi-national negotiations, and rejection of any go-it-alone in international dealings. Trump’s pledge to “put the American people and American security first” is a declaration that such thinking will not be tolerated in his administration. And I agree with Noonan that he has the American people on his side on this point. America has had enough of UN-based climate treaties and Iranian negotiations that give Russia and China oversized roles.
We have learned from Barack Obama’s “Hope and Change” that slogans matter. Obama has indeed given us “change” but by coercive executive action. America should be paying attention to Trump’s “make America great again.” More likely than not, he believes it.
Trump’s most dismissive critics neglect to note that his call for a foreign policy dictated by American interests falls within the mainstream of centuries-old Realpolitik. As we have learned over the past eight years, Obama’s reliance on and deference to international institutions (such as the often anti-American United Nations) represents an aberration that will likely not outlive his administration. Trump’s critics have no choice but to slur over the mainstream nature of Trump’s guiding principle by attempting to conflate it with pure isolationism.
I would urge a more sober analysis when Trump releases his next policy papers. The public will not read them. They are meant for the domestic and international punditry. If they are to be automatically trashed and not vetted for good and bad points, Trump might as well stick with his mass rallies and leave us in the dark about where he stands on the serious issues of the day.