Trump says interesting things about foreign policy that scare our elites

Summary: Trump’s first speech about foreign policy is one of the few interesting speeches of this campaign. Liberals mocked it, ignoring the parts they agree with — or would have agreed with before their enthusiastic embrace of corporatist “trade” pacts and aggressive wars. Even Trump’s falsehoods are interesting. It scared our elites, reminding them that the resurgence of populism and progressism is redefining the political spectrum. If only we would take part in the process, perhaps choosing better candidates.

Highlights of Donald Trump’s speech on Foreign policy

Excerpts from Trump’s speech, with comments (transcript here)

My comments are in red. Much of the speech is political boilerplate attacking Obama and promises to have it rain only at night (“strategies!”), the usual bellicose right-wing pablum — all omitted from this (you’ve heard it endlessly since 9/11, from both parties). But Trump has some powerful insights, things seldom said by major candidates in US presidential campaigns. See those below, along with some interesting falsehoods.

“I would like to talk today about how to develop a new foreign policy direction for our country – one that replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace. It is time to shake the rust off of America’s foreign policy. It’s time to invite new voices and new visions into the fold.”

A strong opening. Journalists tend focus on Trump’s antics, ignoring the many sensible things he says. See other examples here. But the days are gone when they controlled the flow of information.

“The direction I will outline today will also return us to a timeless principle. My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make.  America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”

Nonsense, implying other presidents worked for larger — non-American — goals. But given the low confidence of Americans in their political institutions, it’s an effective ploy, one often successfully used in America.

“Unfortunately, after the Cold War, our foreign policy veered badly off course. We failed to develop a new vision for a new time. In fact, as time went on, our foreign policy began to make less and less sense. Logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance, and this led to one foreign policy disaster after another. We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Obama’s line in the sand in Syria. Each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos, and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper.

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

Absolutely right. Only the blind can disagree. I believe that many American agree.

NATO - shadowy figures

“Today, I want to identify five main weaknesses in our foreign policy. First, Our Resources Are Overextended. …Our manufacturing trade deficit with the world is now approaching $1 trillion a year. We’re rebuilding other countries while weakening our own. Ending the theft of American jobs will give us the resources we need to rebuild our military and regain our financial independence and strength. I am the only person running for the Presidency who understands this problem and knows how to fix it.”

Exports have been a success story for almost a half century, increasing as a share of GDP from 5.4% to 12.6%. Net exports have been a drain (imports growing faster than exports), in large part from our strong dollar fetish (not shared by the world’s most successful nations) and lack of a rational energy policy. But the export deficit as a share of GDP has been almost cut in half since 2006, and continues to shrink.

Exports: growing faster than the overall economy for 45 years

US exports as a share of GDP

Net exports: still negative, but cut almost in half since 2006

US net exports as a share of GDP
“Secondly, our allies are not paying their fair share. Our allies must contribute toward the financial, political and human costs of our tremendous security burden. But many of them are simply not doing so. …In NATO, for instance, only 4 of 28 other member countries, besides America, are spending the minimum required 2% of GDP on defense. …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. The whole world will be safer if our allies do their part to support our common defense and security. …”

This is just common sense. Changing this would be a revolutionary step. Asking them to spend more on defense would show if we are providing a service they value, or just building arms and attacking other nations for our own reasons. Our elites might learn something from our allies’ answer.

“Secondly {sic}, we have to rebuild our military …Our nuclear weapons arsenal – our ultimate deterrent – has been allowed to atrophy and is desperately in need of modernization and renewal. Our active duty armed forces have shrunk from 2 million in 1991 to about 1.3 million today. The Navy has shrunk from over 500 ships to 272 ships during that time. The Air Force is about 1/3 smaller than 1991.”

This is quite mad. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and no groups of terrorists pose an equivalent threat. Nor has our (or anybody’s) expensive military equipment shown much value when fighting insurgents. Cutting our military spending from 1991 levels is more than good sense. A better spending comparison is from 2000 to 2014, based on this CRS report.

CRS - DoD budget“…And what are we doing about this? President Obama has proposed a 2017 defense budget that, in real dollars, cuts nearly 25% from what we were spending in 2011.”

We had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and 40,000 in Iraq — and probably even more contractors in both. We now have hundreds in Iraq and under 10,000 in Afghanistan. American spends almost half of the global military-related spending (broadly-defined, including that the US puts in Homeland Security and DOE).

Defense spending comparison“…In the Middle East, our goals must be to defeat terrorists and promote regional stability, not radical change.”

Trump plans to revert US policy in the Middle East to that of the post-WWII era, reversing Bush Jr.’s revolutionary plans. Too late for that. It’s nostalgia for a bygone era.

“…We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China. We have serious differences with these two nations, and must regard them with open eyes. But we are not bound to be adversaries. We should seek common ground based on shared interests. Russia, for instance, has also seen the horror of Islamic terrorism.”

Trump plans to revert US policy with Russia back to that of Ronald Reagan. Does Trump know that conservatives hated Reagan’s treaties with Russia, condemning Reagan and making dired (but false) forecasts of doom? Ditto with China, ending the Bush Jr – Obama demonization of China, the framing of it as our next big foe.

“…However, unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are signs of strength.”

He means “unlike Hillary”. Much of this speech positions Trump as the anti-Hillary, with her delusionally bellicose interpretation of our “responsibility to protect” and her near-total lack of strategic sense.

————- See the full transcript at Trump’s website ————-


How much of this should we take seriously? Like most speeches by US politicians about foreign policy, this is a discordant mix of ideals. Which ones does Trump take seriously? If elected, on which ones will he spend political capital — and the lives of American troops? Unlike Clinton, Trump’s total lack of experience in office gives us absolutely no basis to judge. Like Obama in 2008, he’s a blank canvas on which we project our hopes and fears. Better than anything else in 2016 this illustrates the dysfunctionality of our modern politics. Can our political machinery produce no better candidates?

But then the machinery is running without us. it’s like a car rolling down Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, with guys in the back seat (the 1%, the Military-Industrial Complex, multi-national corps) struggling over the steering wheel. This will not end well unless we take the wheel. We’re forgotten that voting is just the beginning of citizenship.

For More Information

For two other perspectives on Trump’s speech see the New York Times‘ story and a more interesting and provocative analysis by Maximilian Forte (prof anthropology, Concordia University in Montreal).

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Campaign 2016, about the resurgence of populism, about Donald Trump, and especially these…

  1. In August I wrote The Donald Trump revolution, dismissed as all revolts are in the beginning.
  2. Donald Trump leads us back to the future, to the dark days of US history.
  3. Next phase of the Trump revolution: rise of the new populism.
  4. Important: Trump’s hope: a recession might put him in the White House.
  5. Important: Trump, not Sanders, is the revolutionary.
  6. Why the Outer Party hates Trump and will waste this opportunity for reform.
  7. Populism carries Trump to the nomination. He’s completed 1 of 4 steps to victory.
  8. Trump wins because he says some sensible things which journalists can’t conceal.
  9. The Left calls Trump an ‘authoritarian’, a false & futile attempt to suppress populism.
  10. Forecast: Clinton will crush Trump in November.

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