On April 27, Donald Trump gave a long speech on foreign policy. It was his first attempt to present his views on world affairs in detail. Refreshingly, it contained no reference to promoting freedom, democracy, and “human rights”; confronting tyranny and evil; or making the world a better place in the image of the exceptional nation. Trump’s team of advisors prepared a coherent case for “offensive realism” instead: Nation-states are the principal actors in the international system, they actively pursue self-interest in what is still a Hobbesian world, and America is not and should not be an exception to that timeless principle.
This is anathema to the elite consensus. The tone of media reaction was set by the New York Times: Trump’s “strange worldview . . . did not exhibit much grasp of the complexity of the world.” In other words, he has not internalized the ideological assumptions of the neoconservative-neoliberal duopoly. But to those who do not subscribe to the Beltway Weltanschauung, Trump offers a solid summary of what has gone wrong with America’s role in the world, and a viable new approach.
“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else,” Trump declared at the outset. “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” This is a commonsense summary of the fundamental purpose of every state known to history, from Thucydides to Richelieu to our own time. It is objectionable only to the proponents of the pernicious doctrine of America as a proposition nation, which has created endless problems for both America and the rest of the world. Trump is the only viable presidential candidate in recent history to return the raison d’état to its rightful place as the guiding principle of foreign policymaking. By doing so he has made an important contribution to the public discourse on world affairs.
USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and others have cried, in horror, that the notion of America First revives the “ugly” ghost of pre-World War II isolationism. The claim is absurd. Explicitly putting their nation first is the sine qua non of political leaders everywhere outside America. Even in Angela Merkel’s ultra-p.c. Germany, the “Deutschlandlied”—proudly proclaiming that Germany stands “above all else”—is still the national anthem, just as it had been during the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich.
Trump correctly noted that after the Cold War our foreign policy “veered badly off course,” and he named Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Syria as examples of flawed interventions that have spread chaos in the region and helped the rise of ISIS. His diagnosis—that U.S. foreign policy “is a complete and total disaster” devoid of vision, purpose, direction, and strategy—is dead right. His warning that America’s resources are overextended and the country crippled with massive debt and open borders is familiar to the readers of this column. His demand that our allies bear a fair share of the joint defense burden is reasonable. And kudos to Trump for his promise to look for new advisors in the field of foreign policy, and to shun the establishment responsible “for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.”
Trump is the only candidate to lament America’s failure to protect Middle Eastern Christians, who are “subject to intense persecution and even genocide.” He also noted that “we’re in a war against radical Islam, but President Obama won’t even name the enemy,” and that “Hillary Clinton also refuses to say the words radical Islam, even as she pushes for a massive increase in refugees coming into our country.” His pledge to work together with any nation in the region that is threatened by radical Islam was accompanied by the warning that “this has to be a two-way street, they must also be good to us”—a clear, long-overdue allusion to Saudi Arabia’s duplicity.
Particularly welcome is Trump’s pledge to improve relations with Russia, which “has also seen the horror of Islamic terrorism.” This is in marked contrast to his GOP rivals’ visceral Russophobia. Trump is more bellicose toward China, however, and his stated intent to use tariff barriers as a means of forcing Beijing to restrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions was the weakest part of his speech.
Trump closed by declaring that he would not try “to spread universal values that not everybody shares or wants,” and that he would not “go abroad in search of enemies.” These are good conservative principles. They provide a conceptual basis for a new foreign-policy strategy, which this country needs.
Trump’s antipathy to the establishment’s imperial pretensions and moral absolutism seems genuine. His closing statement, that “the nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony,” is a breath of fresh air.