Looking to soothe fears that he lacked the experience and gravitas necessary to manage the most powerful military in the world, Donald Trump delivered a rare pre-written speech Wednesday in Washington outlining his foreign policy vision.
In many ways it raised more questions than it answered, bouncing between typical anti-Obama talking points, jarring threats to America’s friends and rivals, and soothing talk of peaceful global cooperation.
At one point early in his remarks, Trump threatened to outright abandon the nation’s bedrock alliances in Europe and Asia over a funding dispute.
“The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves,” Trump said. “We have no choice.”
He then pivoted, almost in the next breath, to complaining that President Obama had not reassured U.S. allies strongly enough that America would not abandon them.
“Our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us,” Trump said. “We’ve had a president who dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies.”
As an example, Trump cited the Iran nuclear deal, which was opposed by Israel but negotiated by an international coalition that included the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China as well as the European Union.
Pledging an “America first” approach, Trump questioned America’s active role in Europe, Asia and the Middle East; railed against foreign aid; and promised trade wars with countries like Mexico and China that failed to comply with his demands. Trump has been a strong critic of President George W. Bush’s 2003 decision to invade Iraq, and he cited his opposition to the war (despite a lack of any evidence he opposed it until after it began) and highlighted his criticism in his speech as proof of his judgment. Nonetheless, Trump pledged to defeat ISIS and build up America’s military capability.
The address was characterized by his usual skepticism of military intervention in the Middle East, which he blamed for destabilizing the region, and a deep resentment of perceived “humiliations” abroad. There was little new material in his remarks: Just as he does in his typical speeches, Trump blamed much of America’s problems on the poor negotiating skills of its leaders, whom Trump said were not “willing to walk” from the table in trade and defense talks.
At the same time that he proposed potentially cutting off America’s alliances and chided past leaders for overreaching with misguided attempts at "nation building," Trump reassured the world that America would still play a leading part abroad.
“America will continually play the role of peacemaker,” Trump said. “We will always help to save lives and, indeed, humanity itself. But to play that role, we must make America strong again.”
Trump’s speech was most notable for what it left out: His glib contempt for human rights and frequent delight at imagining new violent punishments to deploy against America’s perceived enemies.
There was no mention, for example, of his dashed-off proposals to reinstate waterboarding and worse forms of torture or murder the innocent families of suspected terrorists. He did not call his opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz, a crude word for failing to endorse these human rights violations with the same level of enthusiasm. Nor did he repeat an apocryphal tale he often uses to fire up supporters about Gen. John Pershing dipping bullets in pigs blood before executing dozens of Muslim fighters en masse in the Philippines.
Trump did mention his signature proposal to ban all non-American Muslim entry to the United States, which has generated intense criticism from American allies abroad. The fallout forced Trump to cancel a planned trip to Israel, which has a substantial Muslim minority, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced himself from the proposal.
“We must stop importing extremism through senseless immigration policies,” he said in his speech.
At the same time, Trump said he would work closely with “our allies in the Muslim world,” so long as they respected America’s goals.
Responding to the speech in a statement, Sen. Ted Cruz largely avoided tackling its substance and instead criticized Trump's new top campaign aide Paul Manafort for his "entanglements with corrupt foreign regimes and anti-Democratic rulers." Manafort has a history of lobbying work with regimes accused of human rights abuses.
Trump’s remarks come as the real estate mogul moves closer to securing the GOP nomination, which would pit him against presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, whose time as secretary of state would put foreign policy front and center.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking on behalf of the Clinton campaign, denounced Trump's speech was "a series of slogans and contradictions" in a conference call with reporters.
"He talks about regaining the trust of our allies, while talking about blackmailing them," she said.
Polls show the public is deeply concerned about Trump’s ability to manage international affairs. An April NBC/WSJ survey found 61 percent of voters gave Trump poor marks when asked whether he had the knowledge and experience to handle the presidency, while 64 percent gave him similar marks when asked whether he could handle an international crisis. Only 26 percent said the same of Clinton on experience, and 41% regarding an international crisis.
With that backdrop, the goal for Trump now is to ease concerns about his competence, starting with his critics on the right.
Many of the party’s most prominent and experienced hands have strongly criticized his positions. Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for example, condemned his proposed Muslim ban last year for running “completely counter to the values and principles of our great nation.”
Trump’s tune hasn’t changed. But, in a sign that the Republican establishment is reaching the “acceptance” phase of the grieving process, Corker sang Trump’s praises on Wednesday.
“Today, Donald Trump delivered a very good foreign policy speech in which he laid out his vision for American engagement in the world,” Corker said in a statement.