The Republican front-runner says America’s foreign policy is terrible — and the portions are too small.
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I was eating my mother’s gefilte fish while watching Donald Trump’s foreign-policy address Wednesday afternoon. First, it was lunchtime; second, it is Passover; and third, the fish patties in front of me — an amalgam of lots of different ingredients (porgy, rockfish, matzo meal) that, mashed together, resemble nothing immediately recognizable as naturally occurring food — couldn’t help but echo the strange consistency of the policy combinations Trump put forward.
Punctuating his carefully scripted speech with Trumpian bursts of “believe me” and “very bad” — consider them bright bits of rhetorical magenta horseradish — Trump set out his vision of America in the world: America first, but America everywhere. America cutting down on its debt, but also expanding its standing army and revamping its nuclear arsenal. America standing up to China, but also striking an alliance with it. America supporting its allies, but also cracking down on them. America being restrained and judicious in its use of force, but also getting involved militarily and fighting to win.
In Trump’s foreign-policy vision, much like in his vision for making America great again, the contradictions abound. “First,” Trump said, “our resources are totally overextended.” Barack Obama (who else?) desperately weakened the American economy, piled up debt, deepened a trade deficit, and sharply cut military spending. “Our active duty armed forces have shrunk from 2 million in 1991 to about 1.3 million today,” he continued. “The Navy has shrunk from over 500 ships to 272 ships during this same period of time. The Air Force is about one-third smaller than 1991.”
Leaving aside the veracity of these claims — that, for example, the military spending cut that critics say diminishes America’s battle-readiness was part of an across-the-board spending cut to reduce the very debt Trump complains about — Trump’s proposed fix for this is, well, a head-scratcher. “We will spend what we need to rebuild our military,” he said. “But we will look for savings and spend our money wisely.” He also called for overhauling America’s nuclear arsenal. But, as David Sanger of the New York Times notes, Obama, who has so weakened our military, has already embarked on a nuclear revitalization program. And, predictably, it’s not cheap: $1 trillion. Maybe Trump could find some bargains and strike some of his famous deals, but it’s hard to see how he plans to expand the military, refurbish our nuclear arsenal, and cut down the debt.
Presumably, once the Trump administration has made America’s military great again, the Donald might like to use it. And indeed, he said he would, on his first target: the Islamic State. “ISIS will be gone if I’m elected president,” he said. “And they’ll be gone quickly. They will be gone very, very quickly.” But how, other than being “unpredictable,” does he plan on doing this? About a month ago, he told the Washington Post editorial board that while he would “knock the hell out of ISIS” in some form, he’d “rather not do it with our troops” — even if the military brass recommended it.
On the matter of friends and foes, Trump was as flexible with his logic as with the rest. “We’ve picked fights with our oldest friends, and now they’re starting to look elsewhere for help,” he said. He was talking about Israel, but it could very well be true of the Saudis, who have been alienated by the Obama administration’s dealings with Iran and by the president calling them “free riders.” No more such wishy-washy, nickel-and-diming between friends in the Trump administration! “To our friends and allies, I say America is going to be strong again,” Trump declared. “America is going to be reliable again. It’s going to be a great and reliable ally again. It’s going to be a friend again.” It’s going to be the kind of friend, though, that makes sure you put in exactly $25.42 for the check because don’t forget the tax and tip on that iced tea you ordered. “Our allies are not paying their fair share,” Trump said. “In NATO, for instance, only four of 28 other member countries besides America are spending the minimum required 2 percent of GDP on defense.”
And why keep confusing our allies by cozying up to our adversaries like Iran? We need our adversaries to fear and respect us. Take China.
“Our president has allowed China to continue its economic assault on American jobs and wealth, refusing to enforce trade deals and apply leverage on China necessary to rein in North Korea. We have the leverage. We have the power over China, economic power, and people don’t understand it. And with that economic power, we can rein in, and we can get them to do what they have to do with North Korea, which is totally out of control.
“He has even allowed China to steal government secrets with cyberattacks and engaged in industrial espionage against the United States and its companies. We’ve let our rivals and challengers think they can get away with anything, and they do.”
Fast-forward the tape a little? There it is: “We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China,” Trump said. Let’s be friends with China, the kind of friends we “have the power over,” the kind of friend “we can rein in and we can get them do what they have to do.” (Also, who tried being friends with Russia? Obama. Remember the “reset”?) Perhaps I’ve been misreading Russia and China all these years, but these two countries, constantly champing at the bit to get a little more influence and respect as world powers, and smarting at historic slights at the hand of the haughty West, are probably not looking for the kind of friendship where America manipulates them into doing whatever it wants. Just a guess.
And then there’s this statement, which really makes no sense at all: “Instead of trying to spread universal values that not everybody shares or wants, we should understand that strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments will do more to inspire positive reforms around the world than military interventions.” Strictly linguistically, what does it even mean? Universal values are too niche, so their subset — the West is, I hear, part of the universe known to man — will have broader appeal?
But here I am being priggishly snobby, when, really, Trump has no intention to spread any kinds of values at all. The chaos in the Middle East today? “It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a Western democracy,” Trump said. And, echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man that he has said he’d “get along very well with,” Trump added that America “tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed.”
Consider Putin’s September 2015 address to the U.N. General Assembly:
“It seemed, however, that far from learning from others’ mistakes, everyone just keeps repeating them, and so the export of revolutions, this time of so-called democratic ones, continues. It would suffice to look at the situation in the Middle East and North Africa.… Rather than bringing about reforms, an aggressive foreign interference has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself. Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty, and social disaster.… I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you’ve done?”
Trump’s solution? “In the Middle East, our goals must be, and I mean must be, to defeat terrorists and promote regional stability, not radical change.” Guess who else prefers stability to radical change?
Putin didn’t seem to be the only influence on Wednesday afternoon’s address. There were lines in the speech that seemed to have come from an eclectic array of sources.
“A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really truly signs of strength,” Trump, not Obama, said.
“The world is most peaceful and most prosperous when America is strongest,” Trump, not Hillary Clinton, said. “America will continue and continue forever to play the role of peacemaker.”
“I will not hesitate to deploy military force when there is no alternative. But if America fights, it must only fight to win,” Trump, not Colin Powell, said.
It takes skill to whip together such an incongruous blend of ingredients — isolationism doesn’t generally go well with fighting the Islamic State and spreading Western values. But, personally, I’ll stick with my mother’s gefilte fish. Because, even in the worst-case scenario, it won’t lead to widespread death and destruction.
Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images