Donald Trump’s speech on Wednesday outlining his foreign policy was akin to observing voters invited to an all-you-can-eat buffet and being served exactly the dishes that most appealed to each of them.
The Republican presidential candidate’s dominant theme was re-establishing America’s political and economic dominance and leadership at home and abroad. He denigrated the alleged role of President Barack Obama in undermining American strength and respect abroad, conveniently ignoring any responsibility for the U.S.’s problems caused by former president George W. Bush’s discredited invasion of Iraq, which spawned ISIS and inflamed much of the Middle East.
For the countless American voters who have lost their jobs purportedly due to poorly negotiated international trade deals, Trump assured them he would move aggressively to reverse the current situation and put the emphasis on rebuilding American economic leadership.
According to Trump, if other beneficiaries of American openness to trade don’t co-operate, his government would take measures to ensure their compliance or they would face the consequences.
He said that under his policies, the U.S. would regain its previous role as the leading economic power, especially in the high-tech sector.
Regaining American trade and economic ascendancy would be a major goal, greatly assisted by fresh-thinking officials capable of providing dynamic leadership.
While many American voters clearly back Trump’s quasi-protectionist trade and economic policies, his approach to America’s role in international affairs is another matter, especially for foreign governments, including Canada.
In what some are calling a return to the anachronistic inward-looking “America First” policy of the United States in the 1930s, Trump said that under his leadership, the U.S. would no longer be the sole nation expected to assume responsibility for the heavy cost of providing leadership on important issues.
In this regard, despite Trump’s criticisms of NATO, he pointedly referred to the need for members of the alliance to meet their existing obligation to guarantee their governments spend two per cent of their budgets on defence measures. (The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, like its predecessors, has only allocated about one per cent.)
Trump pointedly called upon countries such as Japan and South Korea to accept greater responsibility for meeting defence requirements in their region — an area where China has been building artificial islands to dramatize its territorial claims where other countries have competing claims, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei.
However, Trump said that, if elected president, he would put priority on establishing a more workable relationship with Moscow, which he considered feasible, and would also try to create a more realistic arrangement with China. Nonetheless, he stressed that if Beijing wouldn’t co-operate, the U.S. has the clout to make it clear China would ultimately suffer.
As for other countries, Trump repeatedly insisted that the Obama government has been a disaster in foreign relations, especially in the Middle East.
According to him, Obama has managed to alienate key countries such as Saudi Arabia while agreeing to deals that advance the interests of Iran. He said he never would have accepted the current nuclear agreement with Tehran.
Not surprisingly, Trump praised Israel, describing it as the only democracy in the Middle East, though he did not repeat statements that he believed he could bring about a breakthrough in the crisis in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel.
In a key passage, Trump said Obama’s policy of publicizing U.S. military moves in advance was ridiculous. According to him, “we must be less predictable” to ensure American moves are successful. In other words, the U.S. should not show its intentions but rather act without consultations or advance notification. How this approach coincides with greater involvement with NATO is an open question.
Trump insisted he would destroy ISIS in short order as a first priority.
Interestingly, despite the recent global agreements signed by the U.S. and Canadian governments to commit themselves to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, Trump had nothing to say on that increasingly important issue.
In summary, according to Trump: “America First will lead my foreign policy.”
Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.