The Corner

Politics & Policy

On Foreign Affairs, Trump Sounds a Lot like Obama

Well, I read Donald Trump’s foreign-policy speech from last Wednesday.

I tried to be impartial in reading it; I’m a Cruz supporter, but I’m also a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and reading and responding to speeches like this is my job.

Mr. Trump sounded a lot of the same themes as Barack Obama. Overall, it was thin gruel. Certainly there was nothing close to the kind of global strategy which, at the beginning of the speech, Mr. Trump rightly said was necessary.

‐ Mr. Trump opposes the defense cuts of the last few years. That is a good thing, but he didn’t say he would reverse the cuts. If he’s just arguing for more defense spending, but not for restoring the entire trillion dollars that was removed from the budget in 2011, he is doing no more than Barack Obama has done.

Mr. Trump also came out in favor of modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal, which was another plus. On the other hand, he also said at the end of the speech that there was “too much destruction out there, too many destructive weapons. The power of weaponry is the single biggest problem that we have in the world today.” I’m not sure how those two things fit together, and I doubt Mr. Trump is either; the last line seemed like a throwaway, and again was reminiscent of President Obama. The truth is that the “biggest single problem we have in the world today” is that the United States doesn’t have enough destructive weapons, or enough men to use the ones it has.

The only other defense programs Mr. Trump specifically mentioned were “3-D printing, artificial intelligence, and cyberwarfare.” That sounds like he has been deceived into believing that there is some technological miracle which can make up for the fact that, for example, the Navy is smaller than it has been in a hundred years and the Army is shrinking to pre-World War II levels.

The Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, recently testified that the United States is “outgunned, outmanned, and outranged” by the Russians in Eastern Europe. He’s right. Russian ready forces outnumber NATO forces, on average, 5–1 in men, armor, attack helicopters, and other important capabilities. If the Russians marched on the Baltic countries, they could be in Riga or Talinn within a few days. We’re not going to stop them, and therefore can’t deter them, with 3-D printing.

‐Speaking of the Russians, Mr. Trump said that he would “find out” whether the Russians would be “reasonable.” I can put Mr. Trump’s doubts to rest right now: Vladimir Putin will quite rationally and relentlessly continue to use Russian power to advance Russian interests to the detriment of the United States. Mr. Trump promised to have a summit with Putin, just as President Obama did, but that won’t change anything. Putin is not suddenly going to believe that a strong NATO is a good thing, that the rights of our Baltic allies should be respected, that the Assad regime in Syria should be removed just because it has committed genocide, that Russia’s partnership with Iran is mistake, or that the fall of the Soviet Union was actually not, in Putin’s own words, the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

‐Mr. Trump promised to defeat ISIS and said that “their days were numbered” but declined to say how he would to it, on the grounds that it was important to be “unpredictable.” That was an obvious evasion of his responsibilities both to plan and communicate his plans to the American people. Of course the United States should not tip its hands as to particular operations, but Mr. Trump’s failure to lay out the basics of a successful strategy suggests that he either does not know what to do or is not prepared to do it. What we should do to defeat ISIS is, in its basic outlines, rather simple.

Again, the similarity to President Obama’s lack of leadership is striking.

‐ Mr. Trump again insisted that he was “totally against the war in Iraq, very proudly.”  That is not true.  In September of 2002, Howard Stern asked him if he supported invading Iraq; Mr. Trump replied, “I guess so.” Earlier, in his 2000 book “The America We Deserve”, he wrote more fully about Iraq:

Consider Iraq. After each pounding from U.S. warplanes, Iraq has dusted itself off and gone right back to work developing a nuclear arsenal. Six years of tough talk and U.S. fireworks in Baghdad have done little to slow Iraq’s crash program to become a nuclear power. They’ve got missiles capable of flying nine hundred kilometers—more than enough to reach Tel Aviv. They’ve got enriched uranium. All they need is the material for nuclear fission to complete the job, and, according to the Rumsfeld report, we don’t even know for sure if they’ve laid their hands on that yet. That’s what our last aerial assault on Iraq in 1999 was about…We still don’t know what Iraq is up to or whether it has the material to build nuclear weapons. I’m no warmonger. But the fact is, if we decide a strike against Iraq is necessary, it is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion. When we don’t, we have the worst of all worlds: Iraq remains a threat, and now has more incentive than ever to attack us.

If Mr. Trump was “totally” and “proudly” against the invasion of Iraq, he had a strange way of saying so.

‐Mr. Trump continued his attack on America’s allies, saying that they have not contributed enough to their own defense, that America has spent “trillions building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia,” and that if the allies don’t do more, he “would be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”

First, the United States has most definitely not been “building up its military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia.” As Mr. Trump said earlier in the same speech, America has in fact been cutting its defense budget, and the collective defense for Europe and Asia is weak, which is why the Russians and Chinese have been so provocative.

Second, Mr. Trump again showed that he does not understand the purpose of the European and Asian alliances. They are not just about defending the democracies in those regions; their object is collective defense of common interests:  stability, freedom of trade and travel, and defense of democratic homelands, including America’s homeland.  The alliances were negotiated 60 years ago precisely because they are the easiest, cheapest, and most certain way of achieving these common goals with the lowest risk of escalating aggression and armed conflict. 

Mr. Trump thinks he can play chicken with the allies, and that they will have no choice but to continue the alliances on our terms.  That is not true; the allies, and particularly the more powerful ones like Germany and Japan, have the alternative of cutting their own deals with the aggressors and leaving the United States, and the smaller countries we are pledged to defend, on their own.  Lest that seem too farfetched, it is precisely what Mr. Trump himself hinted at when he proposed a summit with the Russians to determine whether they would be “reasonable”.  Mr. Trump’s approach is music to the Kremlin’s ears; there is a reason why the Kremlin is all but openly supporting Mr. Trump’s nomination.

It is beyond me how men like Mr.  Trump and President Obama can believe it is courageous, beneficial, or a sign of their unique genius, to play up to aggressive authoritarians, whose primary target is the United States, while showing continued disrespect for those countries that have, however imperfectly, joined their fortunes to ours.

‐Here is what, in the main, Mr. Trump had to say about China’s aggression in its near seas:

Fixing our relations with China is another important step — and really toward creating an even more prosperous period of time. China respects strength and by letting them take advantage of us economically, which they are doing like never before, we have lost all of their respect.

We have a massive trade deficit with China, a deficit that we have to find a way quickly, and I mean quickly, to balance. A strong and smart America is an America that will find a better friend in China, better than we have right now. Look at what China is doing in the South China Sea. They’re not supposed to be doing it.

China is not a friend now, and will not be a “better friend” in the future as long as it is run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Chinese under the CCP are at best a competitor and prospective adversary, and there is a significant possibility they will become an enemy unless they are deterred from their ambitions to regional hegemony. While economic power is one tool that can be used to deter them, it will take hard power and effective diplomacy over time to preserve the peace while protecting America’s interests in the Western Pacific.

The fact that Mr. Trump views America’s relationship with China almost exclusively through an economic lens, while understandable for a businessman, is discouragingly naïve.  Balancing the trade deficit with China, even if it were achievable, will not change the CCP’s calculus regarding the South China Sea, where they are systematically building a military infrastructure to support their claims of absolute sovereignty and inhibit the rights of other countries, including the United States, to operate freely.

It is encouraging, however, that Mr.  Trump realizes “they’re not supposed to be doing” that.


In one of the better parts of his speech, Mr. Trump spoke about the need to update America’s Cold War global strategy to the needs of modern times.  The lack of strategic purpose is indeed at the heart of the foreign policy failures in the last twenty years.

But Mr. Trump’s speech contained no strategy.  He spoke about “putting America first” and the need for “stability”, in much the same way that President Obama has talked about “international cooperation” and President Bush stressed the value of freedom.  All of that is fine, but bromides do not constitute a strategy.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has defended its interests by moving proactively to deter conflict at an early stage; to that end, America has assumed and exercised world leadership, built and nurtured alliances, and maintained robust tools of power. That was the strategy which won the Cold War during the Reagan years. At the beginning of Mr. Trump’s speech, he celebrated that victory; but nothing in the remarks that followed – in fact, nothing in Mr. Trump’s campaign so far — shows that he appreciates how the victory was achieved or what it will take to keep America safe in the perilous years ahead.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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