The Corner

Politics & Policy

Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech: Naive

In response to Fear and Loathing in Athens

Jonah calls Trump’s foreign policy speech “not horrible.” In his extended piece on the homepage, Andy calls it “incoherent and shallow.” I’d call it naive.

Whenever a nation elects foreign policy neophytes who compound their lack of diplomatic experience with a lack of boots-on-the-ground military service, a certain amount of naïveté is inevitable. People have to learn, and they learn on the job. It’s dangerous when that job is the presidency.

As I’ve argued before, both Bush and Obama were plagued by excessive idealism — Bush about our friends and Obama about our enemies. Bush had an extraordinarily optimistic view about the capacity of people in the Middle East to embrace democratic institutions in the short term and failed to foresee the extraordinary levels of hate and violence lurking in both Afghan and Iraqi society. Obama believed he could reason with that hate, and if he could address the so-called “legitimate grievances” of the Muslim world, that we could turn the tide against jihad. 

Trump claims to have learned the lessons of the past, but he’s substituting Bush and Obama’s naive faith with one of his own — a naive faith in himself. For example, he claims that ISIS will be gone “very, very quickly” when he’s president (he refuses to tell us how — in the name of “unpredictability”), but there is no conceivable or possible strategy that will “quickly” rout ISIS from its strongholds in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere that doesn’t involve both a large-scale ground force and a sustained occupation. Yet that’s exactly the kind of entanglement he claims he can avoid. 

His Russian strategy is almost painful. He declares that “common sense” means the “horrible cycle of hostility must end.” Actually, competing national interests mean that the cycle of hostility will likely continue. Trump will quickly find that Putin’s “common sense” drives him to re-establish Russian power — at the expense of American influence. 

The speech was not all bad. His call to expand and modernize our military was spot-on, for example, but a modern military still needs a capable commander-in-chief. If Trump is elected, he’ll soon learn a bitter lesson — nations will not stop acting in their own self-interest merely because he is president, and to the extent that Trump attempts to exert American power to alter their perceived self-interest, he’ll find himself facing the same quandaries that have faced American presidents for years. In other words, reality is still reality — even for Donald Trump.

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