What Donald Trump doesn't know might save us: He's unschooled, but at least he's no American exceptionalist or neo-con ideologue

Forget his impractical foreign policy solutions. Trump scares elites because he is rethinking U.S. military might

Published April 2, 2016 3:59PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/Wilfredo Lee)
Donald Trump (AP/Wilfredo Lee)

The Russians have long understood that words are actions. A linguist and literary critic prominent in the last century added to the thought by insisting that context is more important than text. The meaning of what one says, in other words, is relational: It can be understood only by way of when, how, to whom and even where one says it.

There is no escaping the thought of words as actions as it applies to foreign policy. Washington has its “moderate opposition” in Syria, and the designation is an essential tool of U.S. strategy, even as these moderates include a consequential, maybe decisive, number of radical Islamist factions. It is almost frightening to carry this thought anywhere near Russia and the Ukraine crisis, where all that Russian “aggression” right out of the clear blue, no reason at all for it, now has Defense Secretary Carter sending NATO weaponry and rotating troops a matter of miles from the Russian border.

Words as actions fly thick as mosquitoes in spring these days. Some of those I have in mind came from President Obama during his remarkable but problematic trip to Havana last week. Others came from Castro — Fidel, I mean — in reply to Obama’s.

Then there are Donald Trump’s words in those lengthy interviews on foreign policy he just gave the New York Times and the Washington Post. The transcripts are here and here. The Don — better than “the Donald,” somehow — seems to have wowed the policy cliques and the media clerks: They have since had many words of their own.

We have heard the words these past 10 days but now must look at them as actions, I urge. We need to see what is being done by way of what these people are saying, where, to whom and so on. Syria, Ukraine, all the Putin-bashing: It is easy to see the intended point (even if a surprising number of us are taken in). The media’s purposeful perversion of the truth is perfectly plain. But these other cases also deserve our attention; the points being made are subtler but not less important.

We live in a modern-day imperial power in the last throes of its aggressions. This is my read of our moment in a single sentence. The expansion phase is over, as the Russians, Chinese and others are in the process of telling us. The aggressions are not, surely, but it grows more difficult to aggress, and when we do it is defensive in character now, if this is not too much a paradox. It is all about denying where we are in history, and this is mostly what we hear and see when we consider our words as actions.


Anyone who accomplished what Obama has in our relations with Cuba would have been as eager as he to travel to Havana, the first American president in nearly a century to cross the Straits of Florida. The opening is an achievement, and may we make good on it by lifting the trade embargo. You would have thought Obama understood something of the complexity, even delicacy, involved when an American leader sets foot on Cuban soil and speaks. But he seems not to have grasped this, or the predicament he was stepping into.

I do not rate Obama’s speech at El Gran Teatro de Havana on March 22 anything like a complete failure. But it was not a success either, as the elder Castro made plain in his much-noted essay in Granma, the official newspaper, after Obama’s departure. What was Obama trying to get done when he addressed “the Cuban people” — if, indeed, they were his primary audience?

Obama sounded some very good notes. I rank his stress on a shared identity high among these. “We both live in a New World, colonized by Europeans," he said as he got under way. “Cuba, like the United States, was built in part by slaves brought from Africa.”

Then to the nature of the Cuban-American relationship. “I believe my visit here demonstrates that you do not need to fear a threat from the United States,” he said when he first touched on this topic. It is a spectacle, truly, when an American president is called upon to assure another nation we will not invade it, but given the history it had to be said. And later: “We are in a new era.” And later still: “It is time now for us to leave the past behind. It is time for us to look forward to the future together.”

One could not ask for more in these assertions, so far as they went. But in between them our president said many very unwise things. No amount of sweetened coating obscures the blunt, discourteous lecture Obama delivered to the Castro government in the guise of his well-wishing address to its citizens. “Even if we lift the embargo tomorrow,” he said as he hit stride, “Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.” His next sentence tells you all you need to know about where Obama was headed: “It should be easier to open a business in Cuba.”

From there Obama was off and running. He praised the Internet, innovation, “entrepreneurship” and open markets, our 21st-century objects of idolatry. He leveled cleverly indirect but otherwise unsubtle insults as to liberty and equality under law in Cuba. Then a couple of doozies: “Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, health care and food on the table, and a roof over their heads.” And later: “And I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

One can scarcely believe the nerve, given Cuba’s famously superior record in several of these categories. As to liberty, absent in Obama’s remarks, per usual when American leaders interact with others, is any grasp of causality. No revolution can be judged fairly without reference to its counterrevolution, as I have argued previously. And Cuba’s survival after nearly six decades’ worth of attempted subversion is an accomplishment with costs most Cubans understand and pay without more than the everyday variety of complaint. On the subject of elections, in our splendid political season, I will simply let Obama’s remark sit without comment among my fellow Americans.

What was Obama doing in this speech — what is the action buried in the words? A few things, in my read. The Havana visit being Obama’s punctuation mark, we should understand these things if we are to judge just what the president accomplished with the opening to Cuba.

One, Obama's all-but-stated mission is perfectly congruent with the American mission the world over and varies only in method from the strategy in Cuba since the Castro revolution: It is to cultivate a neoliberal economic order conducive to foreign corporate investment. No second Bay of Pigs, no more exploding cigars for Fidel, no more covert counterintelligence operations — this last we must count a maybe at this point. But the campaign continues by other means, as it does elsewhere. One of these means is words.

Two, Obama was attempting to transport to another country and people the peculiar bubble of unreality within which Americans now live. No president or secretary of state can escape this ideological imperative. A couple of examples will do.

President Obama is surely smart enough to recognize that Cubans have a different idea of what constitutes liberty and freedom. They are as individual as anyone else — Obama’s offensive suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding. But like most people other than Americans and members of the British Conservative Party, Cubans understand that the individual achieves his or her fullest potential only when the social self is conscious and activated. Obama could go nowhere near this simple thought. When Obama spoke, he gave Cubans a demonstration of our ideological confinement. The take-home: We may never have a serious conversations with the Cubans, given we simply cannot speak to others in any idiom other than our own.

The other example concerns remembering and forgetting. No Cuban forgets all that Americans did in our shared history. Read the speech. Consider Fidel’s anger on hearing it. Obama glossed every mention of the decades of ill America has done and the suffering this ill has caused so many Cubans. “Our governments became adversaries,” he said at one point. Deceptive syntax gets no cleverer: Hardly is that what happened. But it is typical of Obama’s language while in Havana. Four words cannot erase six decades of purposely destructive policy, but that is the action in Obama’s words.

Third and final point. Obama did not apologize for any of the past, as anyone who reads the speech will notice. This is because of his intended audience. I noted earlier that while pretending to address the Cuban people, he was talking to the Castro government. True, but not the whole story. At the very bottom of the well, Obama was addressing us, we Americans.

Liberty, health care, education, racial equality, equality under law. His mention of these things in Havana reminds me of Hillary Clinton’s supposedly dazzling assertion in Beijing a few years ago: “Women’s rights are human rights.” That remark had nothing to do with China — where women’s exceptional advances since 1949 are universally acknowledged — and would have no impact on China. Clinton was speaking to women voters back here, as the history Clinton’s comment has since accumulated should make plain.

Same with Obama in Cuba. His lecture will make no iota of difference to any Cuban. The intent was to let us know there is no letting the ideological guard down. He wanted to tell us, against much evidence, how happy all our liberty and equality and elections and innovations and small businesses and information cultures and make us. What better way to put the point across than to show us, as a piece of political theater, how envied we are — supposedly — by other people, if not other governments? (My favorite remark in this line: A young Cuban woman interviewed on one of the American networks said, “We don’t want any Wal-Marts and Starbucks coming here, if that’s what you mean.”)

These are the actions in Obama’s words. After I read the speech I was not the slightest surprised to read that Fidel came back with a ripping riposte. Its most quoted line echoed the young Cuban on television: “We do not need the empire to give us anything.” Truer and more plainly spoken than anything Obama had to say. His larger point was not to draw a line under this rapprochement — it has been there from the first, in my view — but to remind Americans of it: Do not count on disrupting what we have built over many decades and against odds that you stacked against us. This is Cuba’s punctuation mark.

“My modest suggestion,” Castro wrote of Obama, “is that he reflects and doesn’t try to develop theories about Cuban politics.”

On the first point, Mr. Castro, do not get your hopes up. Reflection is not part of our political culture. On the second, I do not think our political elites have any theories about Cuban politics worth worrying about.


Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Donald Trump gave those two foreign policy interviews to the Times and the Washington Post. And it has rained hard rain on him ever since. “Shocking ignorance.” “Dangerous folly.” “Ranting and schmoozing his way to the White House.” These, in all their complexity and analytic nuance, are typical of the commentary this week. Truly, this guy belched in chapel.

This column is by no means an endorsement of the Trump candidacy, and if I could put that point in blinking neon, I would. But some interesting things are said in the interviews and what are, effectively, replies in the media. Again, what are the words and what is being done by way of them?

Trump and those interviewing him ranged widely. They touched on how to treat the Saudis, Ukraine, competition with Beijing in the South China Sea, burden sharing, renegotiating faulty trade agreements, the accord governing Iran’s nuclear activities: The list is long. Trump’s positions on most of these questions riled one or another or all commentators.

The Times report had a usefully succinct thumbnail summation of the Trump line on foreign policy. “In Mr. Trump’s view, the United States has become a diluted power, and the main mechanism by which he would re-establish its central role in the world is economic bargaining,” the two Times reporters who spoke with him wrote. “He approached almost every current international conflict through the prism of negotiation...”

Interesting. I will come back to this shortly.

Two questions seem to have stirred the nests more than any others. The most important of these concerns NATO. The Don being the Don, he put it this way to the Times reporters: “No. 1, it’s obsolete … and No. 1, we pay far too much.” Here is how Trump defended his position to Jonathan Karl on ABC's "This Week," the Sunday news program, a few hours after the Times interview was published:

NATO was done at a time you had the Soviet Union, which was obviously larger, much larger than Russia is today…. We have other threats. We have the threat of terrorism, and NATO doesn’t discuss terrorism, NATO’s not meant for terrorism. NATO doesn’t have the right countries in it for terrorism. And we pay… a totally disproportionate share of NATO. We’re spending the biggest, the lion share’s paid for by us, disproportionate to other countries….

So I look at that. I look at the fact that it was a long time ago. You know, there’s nothing wrong with saying that a concept was good but now it’s obsolete or now it’s outmoded. Now, it can be trimmed up and it can be—it can be reconfigured and you can call it NATO, but it’s got to be changed.

The second question had to do with relations across the Pacific. Trump asserted that he would renegotiate the American security treaty with Japan, which dates to 1952. And he would withdraw American troops from Japan and South Korea unless these two nations contribute more to their cost, while possibly allowing both to weaponize their longstanding civilian nuclear power programs.

“I mean, that’s not a fair deal,” Trump said of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, a pact with a long and contentious history behind it. Asked if he was serious about removing U.S. troops from Washington’s longstanding Asian allies, Trump replied,

The answer is not happily but the answer is yes. We cannot afford to be losing vast amounts of billions of dollars on all of this. We just can’t do it anymore. Now there was a time when we could have done it. When we started doing it. But we can’t do it anymore. And I have a feeling that they’d up the ante very much. I think they would, and if they wouldn’t I would really have to say yes….

We had a warning several weeks ago that the national security and foreign policy cliques were inflamed by the Don’s positions. “Trump’s vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle,” 120 “experts”— quotation marks required in a lot of cases — wrote in a much-noted open letter. Read it here.

Context and text: I read this week’s uproar over Trump’s two interviews with this as background. It is about one thing, and we can treat both of the above policy questions together because they are about the same thing, too.

Trump has many, many indefensible, impractical positions, but this is not my point right now. Trump’s problem is the action in his words: He has put the projection of American power, with the military as the primary instrument of policy, on the table. He has shoved the truth of imperial overstretch in our faces. What you hear back is an effort in unison to stuff a cork in this bottle before any more wine spills. “Not a topic” is the common theme.

“Now we know that Donald Trump would rip up the post-1945 world order,” Roger Cohen wrote on the Times opinion page at midweek. This is the problem, you see. I cannot think of a better idea, to be honest, although it is not at all clear this is Trump’s intention. Observe the resistance of power to any hint of change: This is my point. And note as you do that it does not matter what any American figure thinks, says, does or insists upon: History is shredding the postwar order as we speak and at considerable speed.

NATO as obsolete? It is the mildest way to describe this trouble-making anachronism ever in search of whatever raison d’être it can conjure. Many people take this as prima facie obvious. We cannot afford the empire? Consider your town’s budget, your state’s budget, the local school or the condition of the nearest expressway and decide for yourself. The security pact with Japan is emphatically unfair, but for reasons other than Trump thinks: It is a victor’s intrusion 70 years after the fact.

We should all be thinking about a new world order and about how we might contribute constructively to it, but — words are actions — this conversation is banned.

I was musing the other day about how Trump stacks up next to Hillary Clinton on the foreign side. By way of a mirror image, some interesting contrasts became clear.

Trump is not an exceptionalist: We have fallen far, and no providential hand will “make us great again.” That is up to us alone. He is not an ideologue: This dimension of the American policy discourse does not appear to interest him. He is into making deals: Talking comes first. And he speaks plainly to us and all others, never in code: He knows no other way.

Think about these four things, separating out what you think of Trump as a political figure. The consciousness of exceptionalism, American ideology, the primacy of the military in American foreign policy, the incessant deceptions of the policy cliques (of which Clinton is a prominent member): These are all essential to maintaining “the postwar order,” such as it is.

Trump is not my guy by a long way, but it is interesting to listen to what he says, and then to watch what happens because of what he says.


By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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