Trump’s inaugural address was a natural extension of his campaign speeches. It was brash, bold, nationalistic, and focused on a few key themes. Still, while the speech was driven by domestic concerns, it did offer some interesting foreign-policy takeaways.
First off, Trump’s biggest foreign-policy priority is trade. “We must”, he said, “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our product, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” Such words indicate a looming showdown with China. Along with China’s undercutting of U.S. labor-market costs, its theft of American intellectual property has been a central complaint of Trump’s. To deal with this challenge, he seemed to imply he’ll blend economic protectionism — “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength,” he said — and other measures. But what might these other measures be? Well, for one, perhaps a more aggressive use of cyberwarfare. NSA director Mike Rogers is known to favor a more offensive U.S. posture in cyberspace, and today’s speech suggests Trump is inclined to agree. The NSA has the capability to cause serious damage to Chinese commercial interests that steal U.S. intellectual property. Until now, those capabilities have rarely been used.
That said, Trump’s most aggressive words were saved for ISIS. In an implicit riposte to President Obama’s refusal to use Islamic descriptors for ISIS, he lamented the challenge of “radical Islamic terrorism.” It’s a threat, he promised, that America “will eradicate from the face of the Earth.” That may seem blustery, but Trump has significant means to escalate U.S. action against ISIS. Pentagon officials have long been dismayed by the former president’s reluctance to use more Special Operations forces and combat enablers against ISIS. And as I noted recently, in both Raqqah and Mosul, the U.S. has key, timely opportunities to exert more pressure on ISIS. Yet there was an isolationist addendum to the Middle Eastern element of Trump’s speech, because the president also clarified that “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example.”
What about Putin?
Unsurprisingly, Trump did not mention Russia. But he did strongly hint that he will pursue a new relationship with the Kremlin: The new administration will “reinforce old alliances and form new ones,” he promised. On paper, we might infer Trump meant new alliances in general. But in the context of the next line — the one about eradicating ISIS — it’s clear Trump was referencing Russia. After all, Putin’s appeal to Trump has always been ISIS-centric. Putin wants Trump to believe that as soon as the U.S. starts respecting Russian concerns, Russia will cooperate with the U.S. in countering Islamic terrorism. Unfortunately, as I explained in my last column, Putin is playing spy games here. He has little interest in a close U.S.–Russia alliance. Instead, the Russian leader is likely to offer Trump a quick, temporary victory in order to manipulate him.
Finally, it’s worth noting Trump’s lament at “the very sad depletion of our military.” He has repeatedly promised to increase defense spending, and his emotion here suggests doing so will be a legislative priority for the incoming administration. That would make sense in political terms. Republicans on Capitol Hill share Trump’s interest in increased military expenditures. By pushing for more defense spending — offset by cuts to non-military discretionary spending — Trump could begin to build trust with congressional Republicans who remain skeptical of him. He might also be able to screen himself from criticism that he cannot be trusted to support U.S. alliances such as NATO.
Putin is playing spy games. He has little interest in a close U.S.–Russia alliance.
Ultimately, the narrative message today was a mix of American unilateralism and deliberate isolationism. Trump promised that his “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, [and] on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” That sounds good. It might even turn out to be good. But as Trump himself noted, all nations act in their own interests. If Trump views U.S. interests exclusively in the short term — e.g., by ignoring the threat of retaliatory tariffs from abroad — he could do real damage to America’s long-term prospects.