World, Politics

US2016: Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech sets off shockwaves

By J Brooks Spector 29 April 2016

The Daily Maverick has obtained access to secret communications from several foreign embassies in Washington as they reported back to their home offices regarding the most recent developments in the American election. Of particular interest, not surprisingly, was the recent speech on foreign policy issues by likely Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. J. BROOKS SPECTOR selects one of these for readers.

We were particularly interested in the especially frank summary sent back to his foreign ministry by the Monomopatan ambassador. Monomopata is a medium-sized nation in Africa, largely favourably disposed towards the US, and significantly dependent on aid from America.

Accordingly, we repeat the communication in its entirety for the edification of readers. Readers will note that diplomatic communications that mix straight reporting and judgments often shift from confidential or even unclassified to secret, paragraph by paragraph.







On Wednesday, 27 April, likely Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump delivered his first full-scale speech in which he attempted to outline and flesh out his views on American foreign policy. He offered both a sharp criticism of past policies, particularly that of the incumbent Obama administration, as well as the key features of how a Trump administration would conduct their relationships with the world.

The widely publicised speech was designed to provide a comprehensive framework for understanding Trump’s ideas about foreign policy. It was also supposed to put into context the more controversial ideas he had been offering up in his many speeches and television appearances, such as a wall between the US and Mexico, a major tariff on Chinese imports, restrictions on Muslim travellers into the US, a redistribution of defence costs among American allies and a vast expansion of US defence spending.

Even as this speech was delivered, one of Trump’s rivals, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, was taking the unusual step of naming his running mate, a former rival for the nomination, Carly Fiorina, the ex head of one of the country’s leading computer companies. Fiorina had run previously and unsuccessfully for the Senate from California, as well as this effort to gain the presidential nod. Media comments have all pointed to this as a kind of “hail Mary” play, a very long-odds effort designed to shift the focus of the contest away from Donald Trump and on to the Cruz/Fiorina combination for the next primary in Indiana. The most recent polls, however, still point to a Trump victory there, moving Cruz’s chances of becoming the nominee even further down the scale.

In addition, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, after losing four of five state primaries to Hillary Clinton on 26 April, has ordered a downsizing of his campaign staff, presumably preparatory to accepting his inevitable defeat for the Democratic nomination, even while still maintaining publicly that his campaign is in the race until the last primary vote is counted in California on 7 June. BEGIN SECRET: All of this should mean that the race for the American presidency in November will ultimately be between Hillary Clinton and Trump. Given that, most observers still say she will emerge victorious. END SECRET.

Donald Trump’s speech took place in one of Washington’s more prestigious hotels, the Mayflower, around midday. The event was sponsored by the Center for the National Interest, a politically conservative think tank (founded by the late Richard Nixon) that is the publisher of the influential policy periodical, The National Journal. Introducing Trump was AmbZalmay Khalilzad, a former George W Bush administration ambassador to the UN, Iraq and Afghanistan, and a figure now associated with yet another conservative Washington DC think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In addition, he heads Khalilzad Associates, an international consulting firm.

BEGIN SECRET: The choice of Khalilzad to kick off the event seemed somewhat curious, given his close identification with the George W Bush administration and its Near East/South Asia policies. This was particularly true, given that Trump has had harsh things to say about the Bush administration’s policies in previous speeches and debates and the fact that he repeated them in this speech as well. Also, Khalilzad told reporters afterwards that he met Trump for the first time in the green room of the venue, just before the candidate’s speech. This may be illustrative of the gap between Trump and his party’s foreign policy professionals.

In fact, in Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank’s discussion on Trump’s speech, Milbank also observed, “The group’s vice chairman, Dov Zakheim, signed a letter with other GOP foreign-policy leaders calling Trump and his policies ‘unmoored’, a ‘recipe for economic disaster’, ‘inexcusable’, ‘hateful’, ‘unacceptable’, ‘fundamentally dishonest’ and ‘a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States’ and calling him ‘utterly unfitted’ to be president. ‘He’s got to do a lot more than give a speech,’ Zakheim, who was out of town on vacation, told me by phone Wednesday. ‘It’s not us he has to convince — it’s the world.’ ”

A well-placed observer believed close to the candidate’s inner circle met with a small group of ambassadors (from Zenda, Ruritania, Meroe, and Bahawalpur, together with us) over lunch, following Trump’s speech. Off the record, he said that given that 100 Republican foreign policy and international economic policy veterans in government had all signed an open letter publicly rejecting Trump as a presidential candidate, his campaign staff had struggled mightily to find an appropriate person in international relations policy circles who could serve as kick-off speaker for the candidate’s address. END SECRET.

Attending the speech were about a hundred guests from the Washington media, think tanks and the like, as well as various Trump campaign staffers. Reporters have noted that the applause largely came from the candidate’s own staffers, rather than the other guests.

In his speech, Trump attempted to set out a clear vision of what he called his “America first” vision of foreign policy as a kind of hard-headed realism for what he called a post-Cold War era, replete with US national security failures. As the speaker said, “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. It has to be first. Has to be. That will be the foundation of every single decision that I will make.”

BEGIN SECRET: More than one commentator has already pointed out that particularly loaded phrase, “America first”, might well have been a particularly unfortunate choice, harking back, as it does, to aviator Charles Lindbergh’s own use of it as he had tried to keep America out of World War II and had offered placatory words towards Nazi Germany. This locution is being interpreted as a kind of neoisolationist approach, a view that may well have serious repercussions on nations such as ours, given our current dependence on US food aid and infrastructure development funding. END SECRET.

Moreover, Trump seemed to alternate between insisting he would lead a nation that would be a “consistent” force in the world, even as the country’s policies would be “unpredictable”. In delivering this speech he also left out the most radical of his foreign policy proposals, such as the wall between the US and Mexico paid for by the latter. And he did not mention an earlier trial balloon about encouraging Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons for their respective self-defence needs.

But the speaker excoriated the incumbent president’s efforts to achieve the P5+1/Iran nuclear accord, claiming Iran has already massively violated the agreement and that the Obama administration has embraced Iran while deeply slighting its longstanding Mideast ally, Israel. He also severely chastised the Obama administration for its failure in eliminating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, calling these failures, and others, examples of a foreign policy comprising “randomness” and “chaos”.

Interestingly, his criticisms were not limited to Obama’s time in office. His critique also included reprimands of Republican President George W Bush for launching the Iraq war.

He also ridiculed the nation’s foreign policy establishment as being a collection of “old people” with “perfect resumes” who have continued to denigrate his own diplomatic and national security credentials. As Trump said, “It’s time to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy.” BEGIN SECRET: Given the background of who had introduced him, that was a particularly confounding phrasing. END SECRET.

In trying to put some specifics on his policies, the candidate argued that the American approach to fighting IS under his administration would be “strong”, although he offered no insights into the strategy, troop levels or conditions of their deployment in achieving that goal. In speaking of the Middle East, Trump seemed to level some of his sharpest criticisms of the Obama administration, and by implication, at his likely challenger for the presidency.

As he said, “We’ve made the Middle East more unstable and chaotic than ever before.” He grouped the Obama administration’s abandonment of Egypt’s Mubarak in the face of massive demonstrations against his regime together with the Obama relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and with Obama’s backing away from his earlier red line over Syria’s use of chemical weapons against the population. BEGIN SECRET: Left unexplained was how a President Trump would have behaved differently under these circumstances, or why – besides his continuing reaffirmation of strength and unpredictability. END SECRET.

Similarly, he spoke about easing tensions with Russia while negotiating “from a position of strength”, but without discussing what that would imply for current US economic sanctions over Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. In addition, he argued that he would be able to balance the major American commercial trade deficit with China, and to do it “quickly”, but without discussing any of the tools of economic diplomacy such as tariff policies or the network of already existing trade agreements, either bilaterally or internationally.

A key theme in his speech also spoke to insisting American allies in Europe and Asia begin to commit to paying much more in the common defence. This seemed to imply that there would be some hard bargaining with allies like Japan, South Korea, Germany and the UK, among others. SECRET: Trump seemed unaware of the details of basing arrangements or the substantial payments made by many of these allies for American basing there. Defence analysts have explained to us that with such provisions in place it is actually cheaper for America to station its personnel abroad than at home. END SECRET.

Several times during his presentation, according to media commentators, the speaker seemed to be contradicting himself. In once case he said he would achieve his objectives via “disciplined, deliberate and consistent” policy even as he also said he would lead a nation that would be “more unpredictable” in dealing with its enemies around the globe. Underlining this, he said, “We have to be unpredictable, starting now.” BEGIN SECRET: Where that leaves allies and friendly nations such as ours is somewhat confusing. END SECRET.

Not surprisingly, public responses to this speech were, generally, less than favourable. Even many of the favourable comments seemed to be more than a little tepid in their warmth. Retired Admiral James Stavridis (former Nato commander in Europe) said, “No one wants an unpredictable ally. It sounds like isolationism.” And Christopher Hill, a widely respected diplomat and former ambassador to Iraq during the Bush administration, added that the “America First” slogan “is precisely what the world worries about”.

Some Republican stalwarts have risen to Trump’s support. Former congressman and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich tweeted, “This was a serious foreign policy speech by Trump. It is worth reading and thinking about. It will be ridiculed by Washington elites.”

And Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair, Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, added, “a very good foreign policy speech”, although he added that he looked forward to a time when “candidates in both parties will begin focusing not only on the problems we face but on solutions”.

Media reporting on this maiden formal foreign policy speech by Donald Trump was largely negative, however. In The Atlantic, Russell Berman wrote, “For Trump, the speech appeared to be an altogether uncomfortable experience, the kind of forced attempt at looking ‘presidential’ that he has frequently scoffed at while campaigning. At times, he ad-libbed a ‘Not good!’ or ‘Bad!’ or ‘A mess!’—As if to signal to his fans that it was really him speaking, not some low-energy impostor with a battery missing. Trump concluded with a few extra platitudes, vowing to make America ‘strong’ and ‘reliable’ and, yes, ‘great again’. When he was done, the crowd applauded politely and Trump walked slowly off stage, finally done with a formal speech he seemed painfully unaccustomed to delivering.”

Former Congressman Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, opined that Trump had managed to position himself to Hillary Clinton’s left, saying, “She is going to be the neocon and he is going to be the one preaching restraint in foreign entanglements … almost isolationist, anti-interventionist. … He’s once again … tapped into the angst of a lot of Americans.” This judgement was echoed by Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass who said on the same broadcast, “A Clinton is about to be outflanked to the left.”

Meanwhile, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (and a vocal opponent of Trump) was clearly less than impressed as well. He tweeted, “Are we sure the guy running the teleprompter has the pages in the right order? #notmakinganysense … Did teleprompter guy actually write the speech? … Trump speech is pathetic in terms of understanding the role America plays in the world, how to win War on Terror, and threats we face … Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave.”

And in response to the Trump speech, the Obama White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, told the media, “I think when it comes to this president’s foreign policy, there is no denying that the United States is safer and stronger than we were when President Obama took office back in January of 2009.”

Writing in The Washington Post, Tufts University Professor Daniel Drezner savaged the speech, saying, “So, if I’m being generous, Trump’s logic is: Global deals should be renegotiated to strengthen the United States, and the world benefits from this by becoming safer.” But, “None of Trump’s foreign policy contradictions got resolved. Just because I can gin up a theory for why Trump is saying what he’s saying doesn’t mean that it’s true. Trump will demand that allies pay more for security but nonetheless believes that they would trust a President Trump more than the current president. He blasts policies that tried to promote democracy in the Middle East but then pledged to be ‘strengthening and promoting Western civilisation and its accomplishments’. He said the nation needed to become more ‘unpredictable’ and then promised to offer ‘a disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy’. The speech reads like someone stitched together pieces of fabric without bothering to see if anything clashed.”

BEGIN SECRET: One Washington analyst told us he thought Trump was mainly reaching out to those very different and warring Republican constituencies. “For the neocons, he bashed Iran, invoked the memory of WWII and the Cold War, stressed that we are engaged in a philosophical war with radical Islam, talked about Western values, etc.” Meanwhile, “For the realists, he ridiculed nation-building, criticised the Iraq war, vowed to protect narrowly American interests, seemed open to deals with Russia and China, endorsed dictatorship in Egypt.” And “For the military-industrial complex, he vowed to amp up military spending.” Then, too, “For the great unwashed, he stressed domestic economic restoration and the determination not to be suckered by foreign devils. And for the weirdos out in conspiracy land, he talked about Benghazi and Obama/Clinton-fecklessness.”

Surprisingly, this veteran analyst, in contrast to many in the media, added, “Overall, I thought it was a pretty successful speech. Look to Republican reactions, not to media or democratic reactions. If diverse Republicans semi-praise the speech (‘signs of growth’, ‘encouraging’), then it succeeded. And if it didn’t hang together – and it didn’t – it’s because the Republican Party doesn’t hang together any more…. The transformation into Trump 2 has begun. Did you see that Bob Corker [noted above] praised the speech? The charm offensive is already paying off.”

Another long-time friend of our embassy, a veteran congressional staffer and lobbyist added, “He is speaking at a 6th grade level (per Dana Milbank, [a columnist for The Washington Post]) like the character in [the film] Network. He is like the guys in the bar who ask ‘why are we subsidising Germany and Korea? Why do we send money overseas, etc.’ He offers bumper-sticker solutions to complex problems. He is speaking to people who are not getting ahead in life and who look to blame someone or something. He thus picks on our global activities. It is simple scapegoating rather than trying to respond to the impact of technology, globalisation, and our educational system. I don’t think the speech will be reprinted in Foreign Affairs.”

In this mission’s view, we must now begin recalibrating how we relate to parts of the US foreign policy community and begin contemplating how we can situate ourselves in dealing with the US and in seeking a relationship with appropriate level members of the Trump foreign policy staff. This is so we can be ready to forge connections with a Trump administration, should it come to that. At a minimum, I recommend we ensure we are represented in Cleveland for the Republican National Nominating Convention. In addition, we should begin to touch bases with official Trump supporters in a cautious manner, even before the convention.

Going forward, the real challenge for us will be to achieve such a task without upsetting our already good relationship with Hillary Clinton. She visited our nation six years ago during an African tour and was instrumental in increasing disaster assistance for our nation. Assuming she is nominated as the Democratic Party candidate, we would hope to be able to build quickly on such ties, especially since the general view is that she will eventually win the November election. Still, Donald Trump has shown such tenacity and skill in becoming the Republican front-runner, even as he has challenged his party’s old orthodoxies, that he should not be counted out in advance. We need to carefully hedge our own bets as a result. END SECRET. DM

Photo: US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures as he discusses his primary wins in the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, during a speech in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, New York, USA, 26 April 2016. EPA/JUSTIN LANE


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