Donald Trump today completed one of the presidential rites of passage – he gave The Big Foreign Policy Speech. Because he’s Trump, expectations were set abysmally low and, because he’s Trump, he still failed to clear them. The speech was notably un-Trumplike in that it was pre-prepared and delivered with the assistance of a teleprompter, but it also somehow managed to retain the incoherence and inconsistency that are the hallmarks of Trumpian discourse.
The whole thing was plagued with internal contradictions. One of his key points was the idea that America’s allies “are beginning to think they can’t depend on us,” and his primary piece of evidence was the nuclear agreement with Iran and our unwillingness to walk away from it. Had we actually walked away from the Iran deal, we’d have alienated all the critical allies who helped us negotiate it, which might lead them to believe they can’t depend on us. And, just a few moments after endorsing the retroactive abandonment of multilateral Iran negotiations, Trump said our “friends need to know that you will stick by the agreements that you have with them.” He claimed to have a plan for defeating the Islamic State, but refused to divulge it because “we must as, a nation, be more unpredictable.” Shortly thereafter he said the “best way” to achieve our foreign policy goals “is through a disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy.”
For these reasons and because he mispronounced the names of a couple of countries, Trump was resoundingly mocked, especially by conservatives and Republicans who still can’t come to grips with the fact that Trump will, in all likelihood, be their presidential nominee. But here’s the fun little secret about Trump’s speech – in most respects it wasn’t that different from the nonsense the “acceptable” Republican presidential candidates served up.
His speech was peppered with criticisms that America has become weak, our military is falling apart, our international alliances are breaking down, and our enemies no longer cower in fear of us. You’ll find the same exact themes in the foreign policy speeches of Marco Rubio, seen by many inside the GOP as a foreign policy wunderkind, who talks about the “deterioration of our physical and ideological strength” that “has led to a world far more dangerous than when President Obama entered office.” Rubio cut campaign ads arguing that “our allies don’t trust us, our enemies don’t fear us, and the world doesn’t know where America stands.” Trump’s plans to ramp up military spending (while also cutting taxes and promising to balance the budget) are also what Rubio promised to do.
The running theme of Trump’s speech is that there’s nothing wrong with American foreign policy that can’t be fixed with a little toughness and “strength.” How will Trump best China? With “strength.” How will he get the better of Russia? Yet more “strength.” This is a standard-issue Republican position – Rubio and Jeb Bush and pretty much every other Republican presidential contender reduced their foreign policies down to a question of showing greater “strength” than Barack Obama, usually by telegraphing their eagerness to use more military force than the president has been willing to. Trump also endorsed the now well-worn criticism that Obama refuses to use the magic words “radical Islam.”
Keep all this in mind when you see Republicans or even mainstream reporters complaining that Trump’s speech shows that he is “unserious” about foreign policy or put forth a foreign policy vision that doesn’t make sense. They’re attacking Trump because he’s Trump and he’s an obvious dolt, but they’re deliberately sidestepping the fact that much of what Trump said reflects in the incoherence and unreality of “respectable” Republican politicians when it comes to foreign affairs.