Shadow Government

What the Republican National Convention Tells Us About Trump’s Foreign Policy

Exaggeration, distortion, spin—that much was expected. More frightening were the things they didn’t say.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Aug. 24.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Aug. 24. Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images

Nobody expects a political convention to be an exercise in sober, dispassionate analysis—and in that sense, the first three days of the Republican National Convention did not disappoint. On the contrary, the RNC so far has been replete not just with the usual partisan spin and effusive praise for the nominee but with wild distortions, embarrassing obsequiousness, shocking violations of norms and laws, and numerous outright lies. The most egregious cases of spin included the claims of unprecedented economic performance (when in fact U.S. growth and job creation under President Donald Trump have been slower than under most recent presidents even before the economy entered the current recession), efforts to paint Trump as friendly to immigrants when he has worked relentlessly to restrict all forms of immigration and regularly engages in xenophobia, and—perhaps worst of all—the astonishing praise for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as the number of dead Americans approaches 200,000, by far the highest total anywhere in the world.

The distortions of Trump’s foreign-policy record haven’t quite reached that level of absurdity, but some have come close. On China, with relations in tatters, the “phase one” trade deal unimplemented, and no further agreements on the horizon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s only claim was that Trump has “pulled back the curtain” on bad Chinese behavior and “held China accountable.” Pompeo conveniently overlooked the massive costs of Trump’s trade war for Americans and the failure to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China. Pompeo also insisted that “because of President Trump, NATO is stronger,” when Trump has in fact alienated most NATO allies and repeatedly undermined the alliance’s mutual defense guarantee, the main reason for its existence. On North Korea, Pompeo gave Trump credit for having “lowered the temperature,” even though it was Trump who had turned up the temperature in the first place; Pompeo’s boast that the president got North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the table “against all odds” was puzzling in that Kim had been the one longing for a summit and made no concessions when he got one.

Other speakers used similar sleight of hand. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul tried to suggest that Trump, unlike Democratic nominee Joe Biden, opposed the Iraq War, when in fact he supported it and only changed his mind more than a year after the invasion. Former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell described watching Trump “charm” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, probably not the word Merkel would have used to describe his approach. Donald Trump Jr. blasted the defunct North American Free Trade Agreement as a “nightmare” and one of the “worst trade deals in the history of the planet”—even though the differences between that agreement and the one his father replaced it with are minor and not necessarily positive. Not willing to be outdone by his brother, Eric Trump somehow listed “peace in the Middle East” as one of the president’s “promises … kept,” which seems a stretch even when taking into account the recent normalization agreement between Israel and United Arab Emirates, which were never at war with each other in the first place.
The convention also sent the clear message that the Republican Party’s foreign policy has been completely taken over by Trump.

But such exaggerations were to be expected. The more noteworthy foreign-policy message of the convention lies in what most speakers left out. First on that list was any discussion of the existential threat of climate change. As the convention was taking place, California was experiencing some of the worst forest fires in its history, and the biggest hurricane in 15 years was making landfall on the Gulf Coast, a foretaste of the sort of catastrophic damage scientists agree the country will see much more frequently if urgent action is not taken. Yet not a single speaker addressed this issue, other than those who took pot shots at the Paris climate agreement or some Democrats’ plans for a Green New Deal, and Trump himself defended fracking while dismissing the prospects of wind and solar power. Just as Trump responded to the coronavirus outbreak by simply insisting everything would be fine and that it would just “disappear … like a miracle,” he and other convention speakers apparently decided the best way to address this potentially even greater threat was to avoid talking about it.

Nor did convention speakers talk about the erosion of democracy and human rights around the world—astonishing for a party that once cared deeply about such things. Perhaps this omission is understandable given the nepotism, corruption, and assault on democratic norms over the past four years under Trump himself. But Trump not only seems unwilling to condemn repression in Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, and elsewhere but also appears entirely comfortable with it. As the convention was taking place, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main opponent was undergoing treatment for poisoning in a Berlin hospital, the president of Belarus was threatening to crack down on peaceful protesters with Russian support, journalists all around the world were being stifled, and millions of Uighurs were being detained in Chinese prison camps. All these developments were swept under the rug even as speaker after speaker tried to portray Trump as a champion of freedom. The very organization of the convention itself—using the trappings of office for partisan gain in violation of U.S. law, devoting nearly half of the main speaking slots to members of Trump’s family, and letting a sitting secretary of state address the convention in overt breach of his own department’s regulations—sent a terrible signal about the importance of respect for democratic norms and rules, and undermined Washington’s ability to criticize other governments for violating them.

Finally, there was the absence of any emphasis on the importance to U.S. interests of allies and multilateral institutions, which made convention appearances only as the object of criticism or disdain. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told us that the organization is “a place where dictators, murderers, and thieves denounce America.” NATO allies were described not as key trading and security partners the United States needs on board to meet global challenges—including the pandemic that is killing Americans and devastating their economy—but as long-standing deadbeats who had “taken advantage of” the United States. Speakers repeatedly claimed Trump had enhanced respect for the country around the world, in sharp contradiction to evidence that approval of U.S. leadership has fallen to historically low levels and that confidence in Trump has cratered even among U.S. allies. As speakers praised Trump’s Iran policy, it was certainly not surprising that no one mentioned that fact that the policy had just been resoundingly rejected even by the closest U.S. allies at the U.N. Security Council or that it had failed to achieve its stated goals.
By reelecting Trump, Americans would be empowering an unprincipled narcissist to do whatever he wants, however he wants, regardless of legality, decency, or national interest.

The convention also sent the clear message—without anyone having to say it—that the Republican Party’s foreign policy has been completely taken over by Trump. It was extraordinary that the party declined to publish a party platform, instead pledging to “enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda.” No previous Republican nominee for president was asked to speak. Or perhaps they weren’t willing, judging by the more than 70 national security officials from former Republican administrations who have publicly endorsed Biden. During Trump’s first few years in office, the so-called adults in the room provided some hedge against Trump’s whims and worst impulses. They are now all gone, and the only top senior foreign-policy officials left—Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence—happen to be the most loyal and obsequious, which is of course why they have survived. The message of the convention is that Trump’s foreign policy is whatever he wants it to be at any given time, and if Trump wishes to change it on a dime the party will fall into line.

That is why the prospect of a second Trump term is so frightening. It is not just that Trump has actually proved to be a poor dealmaker with a thin foreign-policy record. Or even that he is ignoring such vital issues as climate change, democracy, and alliances. Or that he has gutted the State Department and other agencies of so much talent while removing the watchdogs who were put in place to prevent corruption and abuse of power. The truly frightening prospect is that by reelecting Trump and endorsing this approach, Americans would be empowering an unprincipled narcissist to do whatever he wants, however he wants, regardless of legality, decency, or national interest. If Trump is reelected after taking total control of his party, repeatedly violating laws and norms, using the presidency for personal gain, embracing autocrats and dictators, gutting international institutions, isolating the United States, and disparaging and offending allies, he will feel entirely unconstrained to do more of the same, and perhaps worse, in a second term. Nobody said this at the convention. But it was exactly the message they sent.

Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and the author of Losing the Long Game: the False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.

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