Encircling Empire: Report #27 — Donald Trump’s “America First” Foreign Policy

Posted on 27 April 2016


For frequent updates, please “like” our Facebook page and/or follow on Twitter.

There are four parts to this report:

  1. Notes on Donald Trump’s first major foreign policy speech;
  2. An overview of Trump’s positions on NATO;
  3. An annotated list of articles on Trump’s foreign policy, in terms of its central ideas and their genesis, particular policy positions, and some of the implications of his approach; and,
  4. A short commentary.

eetrump

1. America First

First, here is an abridged, note-form summary of Donald Trump’s first major foreign policy speech, delivered today (Wednesday, April 27, 2016) at the Centre for the National Interest in Washington, DC. The complete transcript of the speech can be found on the CNI website. The notes below were mostly produced live, while covering the webcast of the speech.

“America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration”

  • Donald Trump begins by sounding like the classic Reaganite, “we won WWII, won the Cold War,” etc. etc.
  • Criticizes democracy promotion strategies (of liberal imperialism), which has resulted in a string of failures, destabilization
  • Focuses on increasing trade deficit in manufactures, growth of national debt
  • Complains that the US bears the brunt of costs for NATO
  • Reiterates his complaints about the Iran nuclear deal; no change in this line of argument on his part
  • Trump claims that Obama backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt
  • Trump emphasizes that he is pro-Israel, anti-Iran, and suggests a strange endorsement of missile defense after complaining of costs
  • Scathing commentary on Obama being met with no respect on recent trips to Cuba and Saudi Arabia
  • Condemns “China’s assault on (US) jobs and wages”
  • Trump criticizes US intervention in Libya, which resulted in chaos, lives lost, not a saving of civilians
  • He is especially scornful of Hillary Clinton’s failures in Libya, her role in Benghazi (“went home to sleep”), and the rise of ISIS
  • Trump proclaims: “We’re getting out of the nation-building business”
  • He further reinforces, spells out his argument for barring Muslim refugees and migrants from the US
  • “We have to be unpredictable”
  • While he previously complained of costs of US global defense, he now calls for increasing the size of the military
  • Promises vastly improved care for war veterans
  • Underscores the problem of mounting national debt, spending that is rising too high
  • China joining the WTO has been a disaster for the US
  • Trump emphasizes value of “stability” over/against “change” in the Middle East (i.e. no more regime change)
  • He argues that the US should not see Russia and China as adversaries; the US should find room for cooperation, and seek better relations with both
  • At least in this speech, it doesn’t sound like he wants to end NATO right at the start of his administration, so much as putting it on a form of probation, pursuing new goals that are post-Cold War and focused on terrorism
  • “War and aggression will not be my first instinct,” he stresses, emphasizing diplomacy, and reminds listeners that he was anti-war on Iraq
  • Obama and Clinton are surrounded by people with “perfect resumes,” who may have many excellent New York Times Op-Eds to their names, and who have a long history of disastrous failures
  • “Why are our politicians more interested in defending borders of other countries more than our own?”
  • “We will no longer surrender our country or its people to the false song of globalism”
  • Americans should no longer be subject to forced associations, to bad trade deals; NAFTA in particular is condemned
  • Companies that leave the US, will be made to face “consequences”

“We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down and will never enter…”

“After losing thousands of lives and spending trillions of dollars, we are in far worst shape in the Middle East than ever, ever before. I challenge anyone to explain the strategic foreign policy vision of Obama/Clinton. It has been a complete and total disaster.”

2. Trump on NATO

  • “I said here’s the problem with NATO: it’s obsolete.”
  • “It was really designed for the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist anymore.”

On NATO members:

“That means we are protecting them, giving them military protection and other things, and they’re ripping off the United States. And you know what we do? Nothing. Either they have to pay up for past deficiencies or they have to get out. And if it breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO.”

“Maybe NATO will dissolve and that’s OK, not the worst thing in the world.”

On Ukraine:

“And if you look at the Ukraine, we’re the ones always fighting on the Ukraine. I never hear any other countries even mentioned and we’re fighting constantly. We’re talking about Ukraine, get out, do this, do that. And I mean Ukraine is very far away from us. How come the countries near the Ukraine, surrounding the Ukraine, how come they’re not opening up and they’re not at least protesting? I never hear anything from anybody except the United States.”

On Russia:

“I think I will get along well with Putin.”

“We cannot be the policeman of the world.”

Sources: The Independent, April 7, 2016; Washington Post, April 2, 2016; New York Times, April 2, 2016; New York Times, March 26, 2016; Real Clear Politics, March 27, 2016.

3. Articles on Trump’s Foreign Policy

On the Facebook page for Zero Anthropology, we have been running a series that features articles specifically about Donald Trump’s foreign policy positions. While we can expect more to be added, it would be surprising to see any substantial change over the next few months, so we are ready to provide the list below as a useful resource for readers and researchers. The items are presented in chronological order.

From The America We Deserve, by Donald J. Trump, p.141-142, July 2, 2000:

“No humanitarian intervention; only to direct threats—My rules of engagement are pretty simple. If we are going to intervene in a conflict it had better pose a direct threat to our interest- one definition of “direct” being a threat so obvious that most Americans will know where the hot spot is on the globe and will quickly understand why we are getting involved. The threat should be so direct that our leaders, including our president, should be able to make the case clearly and concisely, which has certainly not been the case regarding the terrible events in Yugoslavia. At the same time, we must not get involved in a long-festering conflict for humanitarian reasons. If that’s our standard, we should have troops stationed all over Africa, and much of Asia as well”.

From Time to Get Tough, by Donald J. Trump, p. 5, December 5, 2011:

“Fair trade instead of embarrassing deal with South Korea: I’m for free and fair trade. After all, I do business all over the world. But look at the deal Obama cut with South Korea. It was so bad, so embarrassing, that you can hardly believe anyone would sign such a thing. In theory, the agreement Obama signed will do next to nothing to even out the trade imbalance, will further erode American manufacturing and kill more American jobs, and will wipe away the tariffs South Korea presently pays us to sell their stuff in our country. Why would Obama agree to these terms, especially when we hold all the cards? Why is our president signing the trade bill that the South Koreans want him to sign instead of the one that gives us maximum advantage?”

Donald Trump: Progressive champion?” By Eric Levitz, MSNBC, June 17, 2015:

“4. No more foreign wars: Long before the quagmire of Iraq, Donald Trump saw the folly of American military hubris….While Sanders may seem like the dove candidate of 2016, he supported the interventions in Yugoslavia and Kosovo, as well as the war in Afghanistan. 5. Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership and protect American workers: President Obama’s proposed trade deal is one issue where the 2015 Trump and the progressive base see eye-to-eye. While presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton still hasn’t come out in full-throated opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trump has been a vocal opponent of the deal for several months. Back in in April, Trump took to Twitter to voice his opposition to the deal, tweeting: ‘The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an attack on America’s business. It does not stop Japan’s currency manipulation. This is a bad deal.’ Trump is so committed to protecting American workers from the threat of globalization, his 2011 book ‘Time to Get Tough’ included a proposal to levy a 20% tax on all imported goods. While those five policies align Trump with country’s most left-wing voters, he’s also voiced his support for consensus Democratic positions, like a woman’s right to choose and the assault weapons ban. On the other hand, even while Trump was calling for universal health care in 2000, he was also advocating restrictions on food stamps, ending Social Security, expanding prison sentences, and denying gays and lesbians the right to marry. Still, progressives could learn a thing or two from some of the positions ‘the Donald’ has taken over the years. And to combat inequality, incarceration, and war, progressives may want their ideal 2016 candidate to be more like Trump”.

Donald Trump’s Problem With the US-Korea Alliance: The Republican presidential candidate accuses South Korea of free-riding on the U.S. military”. By John Power, The Diplomat, July 23, 2015:

“ ‘How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment?’ Trump complains in a video uploaded on his YouTube channel in 2013. ‘When will they start to pay us?’ he adds a little later.”

Trump’s 19th Century Foreign Policy: His views aren’t as confused as they seem. In fact, they’re remarkably consistent—and they have a long history”. By Thomas Wright, Politico, January 20, 2016:

“In sum, Trump believes that America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order it helped to create and has led since World War II. He has three key arguments that he returns to time and again over the past 30 years. He is deeply unhappy with America’s military alliances and feels the United States is overcommitted around the world. He feels that America is disadvantaged by the global economy. And he is sympathetic to authoritarian strongmen. Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments”.

The Lion and the Sheep: Why they hate Trump”. By Justin Raimondo, Antiwar, February 29, 2016:

“Trump represents a deadly challenge to the high command of the War Party – the neoconservatives who lied us into war in Iraq – and were called out for it by him. These people are the main driving force that is ideologically committed to maintaining Washington’s imperial pretensions even as we plunge further into bankruptcy. They are behind the vicious smear campaign that equates Trump with Mussolini, Hitler, David Duke, and the Devil himself. They see that they are losing control of the GOP – their pathway to power – and they are reacting like the cornered rats they are”.

Open Letter on Donald Trump from GOP National Security Leaders”. March 2, 2016: Text of what is now known as the Neocon hate letter.

Super Tuesday Funeral: Neoconservatism, An Obituary: Trump sweeps the primaries”. By Justin Raimondo, Antiwar, March 2, 2016:

“The neocons hate Trump because his foreign policy is the exact opposite of their imperialist delusions. He wants to withdraw US troops from Europe. He wants to do the same in the Pacific theater. He demands that these countries start paying for their own defense. This is treason as far as the neocons are concerned”.

The oligarchs’ super-PAC anti-Trump savagery: Pat Buchanan: ‘Not in memory has the leadership of a party been so out of touch’”. By Patrick J. Buchanan, WND, March 8, 2016:

“Not in memory has the leadership of a party been so out of touch. The Republican rank and file are in revolt, not only against the failures of their fathers but the policies of their present rulers. Some among the GOP elites, who have waited patiently through the Obama era to recapture control of U.S. foreign policy, are now beside themselves with despair over Trump’s success. Fully 116 members of the GOP’s national security community, many of them veterans of Bush administrations, have signed an open letter threatening that, if Trump is nominated, they will all desert, and some will defect – to Hillary Clinton!”

The Neocons vs. Donald Trump”. By Jacob Heilbrunn, The New York Times, March 10, 2016:

“Mr. Trump represents a return to the party’s roots. It’s the neocons who are the interlopers. The extent to which the neocons and their moralistic, crusading Wilsonian mission overtook the Republican foreign policy establishment, beginning in the 1970s, was so nearly complete that it can be hard to remember that a much different sensibility had previously governed the party, one reminiscent of Mr. Trump’s own positions: wariness about foreign intervention, championing of protectionist trade policies, a belief in the exercise of unilateral military power and a suspicion of global elites and institutions”.

American Exceptionalism and the Election Made in Hell (Or Why I’d Vote for Trump Over Hillary)”. By William Blum, CounterPunch, March 11, 2016:

“If the American presidential election winds up with Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump, and my passport is confiscated, and I’m somehow FORCED to choose one or the other, or I’m PAID to do so, paid well … I would vote for Trump. My main concern is foreign policy. American foreign policy is the greatest threat to world peace, prosperity, and the environment. And when it comes to foreign policy, Hillary Clinton is an unholy disaster. From Iraq and Syria to Libya and Honduras the world is a much worse place because of her; so much so that I’d call her a war criminal who should be prosecuted. And not much better can be expected on domestic issues from this woman who was paid $675,000 by Goldman Sachs – one of the most reactionary, anti-social corporations in this sad world – for four speeches and even more than that in political donations in recent years. Add to that Hillary’s willingness to serve for six years on the board of Walmart while her husband was governor of Arkansas. Can we expect to change corporate behavior by taking their money?…. And Mr. Trump? Much more a critic of US foreign policy than Hillary or Bernie. He speaks of Russia and Vladimir Putin as positive forces and allies, and would be much less likely to go to war against Moscow than Clinton would. He declares that he would be ‘evenhanded’ when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as opposed to Clinton’s boundless support of Israel). He’s opposed to calling Senator John McCain a ‘hero’, because he was captured. (What other politician would dare say a thing like that?) He calls Iraq ‘a complete disaster’, condemning not only George W. Bush but the neocons who surrounded him”.

Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds on His Foreign Policy Views. The New York Times, March 26, 2016:

“TRUMP: So anyway, but the question was asked of me a few days ago about NATO, and I said, well, I have two problems with NATO. No. 1, it’s obsolete. When NATO was formed many decades ago we were a different country. There was a different threat. Soviet Union was, the Soviet Union, not Russia, which was much bigger than Russia, as you know. And, it was certainly much more powerful than even today’s Russia, although again you go back into the weaponry. But, but – I said, I think NATO is obsolete, and I think that – because I don’t think – right now we don’t have somebody looking at terror, and we should be looking at terror. And you may want to add and subtract from NATO in terms of countries. But we have to be looking at terror, because terror today is the big threat. Terror from all different parts. You know in the old days you’d have uniforms and you’d go to war and you’d see who your enemy was, and today we have no idea who the enemy is.”

In Donald Trump’s Worldview, America Comes First, and Everybody Else Pays”. By David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, March 26, 2016:

“Mr. Trump’s views, as he explained them, fit nowhere into the recent history of the Republican Party: He is not in the internationalist camp of the elder President George Bush, nor does he favor George W. Bush’s call to make it the mission of the United States to spread democracy around the world. He agreed with a suggestion that his ideas might best be summed up as ‘America First.’ ‘Not isolationist, but I am America First,’ he said. ‘I like the expression.’ He said he was willing to reconsider traditional American alliances if partners were not willing to pay, in cash or troop commitments, for the presence of American forces around the world. ‘We will not be ripped off anymore,’ he said”.

Highlights From Our Interview With Donald Trump on Foreign Policy”. The New York Times, March 26, 2016:

“On his standards for using American troops abroad, such as for homeland protection, for humanitarian intervention, or to aid allies: ‘It sounds nice to say, “I have a blanket standard; here’s what it is.” No. 1 is the protection of our country, O.K.? That’s always going to be No. 1, by far. That’s by a factor of 100… After that it depends on the country, the region, how friendly they’ve been toward us. You have countries that haven’t been friendly to us that we’re protecting. So it’s how good they’ve been toward us, etc., etc.’”.

Trump and the Liberal Intelligentsia: a View from Europe”. By Jean Bricmont, CounterPunch, March 30, 2016:

“Even though he is far from being a pacifist (impossible among Republicans), the left has been so thoroughly taken in by the delusions of humanitarian imperialism that Trump’s program ends up looking like the most progressive on the political scene in a long time. (Even Bernie Sanders has not denounced the intervention policy so sharply.)….in defeating Trump in November [, we] shall then be faced with four, or perhaps eight, years of even more militarism, threats of war and war itself, while our self-styled left celebrates the latest victory of democracy, feminism and anti-racism.”.

Donald Trump Tells Crowd He’d Be Fine If NATO Broke Up”. By Ashley Parker, The New York Times, April 2, 2016:

“RACINE, Wis. — Donald J. Trump on Saturday went further than ever before in his criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, telling a crowd here that he would be fine if NATO broke up. Mr. Trump had previously questioned the need for the organization, and on Saturday he reiterated his criticism that other NATO countries were ‘not paying their fair share’ in comparison with the United States. ‘That means we are protecting them, giving them military protection and other things, and they’re ripping off the United States. And you know what we do? Nothing,’ Mr. Trump said at a subdued rally here on the outskirts of Milwaukee. ‘Either they have to pay up for past deficiencies or they have to get out.’ ‘And if it breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO,’ he concluded”.

Why the Establishment Hates Trump”. By John McMurtry, CounterPunch, April 5, 2016:

“While Trump’s narrative is that the American Dream seeks recovery again, the dominant media and political elite relentlessly denounce him as an implicit fascist and disastrous fake. Something deeper is afoot. An untapped historic resentment is boiling up from underneath which has long been unspeakable on the political stage. Trump has mined it and proposed a concrete solution always denied of his candidacy. From his promise to halve the Pentagon’s budget to getting the Congress off corporate-donation payrolls, the public money that the big corporate lobbies stand to lose from a Trump presidency are off the charts. But his attackers dare not recognize these explosive issues because they are all part of the problem….Trump even challenges ‘the Enemy’ cornerstone of US ideology when he says ‘wouldn’t it be nice to get along with Russia and China for a change?’ Not very fascist of him. He was also open to nationalizing the Wall Street banks after 2008. None of this sees the light of day in the hate-Trump culture that been effectively mounted across even left-right divisions. Most of all, Trump rejects the whole misnamed ‘free trade’ global system because it has ‘hollowed out the lives of American workers’ with rights to corporations to move anywhere to get cheaper labour and import back into the US tariff-free. But again the connected meaning is repressed. That Trump also wants to get the US out of foreign wars at the same time, the other great pillar of corporate globalization, is the real danger to the transnational corporate state he has set in motion”.

Donald Trump is right about one thing: NATO is obsolete—There are times when an iconoclast speaks a truth that others are unprepared to face, and this is one of them”. By Mary Dejevsky, The Independent, April 7, 2016:

“Trump’s description of NATO – the hallowed North Atlantic alliance – as ‘obsolete’ is a case in point. His terseness may have shocked, but he is right. So are his reasons. As currently constituted, he says, NATO is ill-suited to combating international terrorism, which is for him the world’s ‘single biggest threat’. He especially objects to the US footing so much of the bill, saying that other allies should ‘pay up or get out’, and refuses to see the US as the ‘world’s policeman’. As he told a town hall meeting in Wisconsin: ‘Maybe Nato will dissolve and that’s OK, not the worst thing in the world’”.

Is Hillary Clinton more dangerous than Donald Trump?” By Rania Khalek, The Electronic Intifada, April 14, 2016:

“The great neocon panic: In almost surreal contrast to Clinton, Trump has called for reducing America’s military presence abroad and has repeatedly stated his opposition to foreign intervention, calling the Iraq war that Clinton backed ‘a big fat mistake’ that ‘destabilized the Middle East.’ He even suggested a policy of neutrality in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a proposal he eventually walked back after incurring the wrath of pro-Israel hardliners, including Clinton, who declared, ‘America can’t ever be neutral … anyone who doesn’t understand that has no business being America’s president.’ The neoconservative establishment reacted by launching an all-out assault on Trump. The Emergency Committee for Israel, a neoconservative think tank, released an ad conflating Trump’s opposition to US regime change in Libya and Iraq with support for anti-American dictators. Soon after, a group calling themselves the ‘Republican national security community’ published a letter condemning Trump’s blasphemy against the core tenets of their hegemonic principles. Signed by a cadre of neoconservative intellectuals, former government officials and operatives, the letter criticized Trump’s flirtation with isolationism and opposition to corporate trade deals. It went on to denounce Trump’s bigotry and torture advocacy, though these complaints can hardly be taken seriously given that the people behind them have for decades advocated torture, bigotry and worse. Eliot Cohen, who organized the anti-Trump letter, went on to assert, ‘Hillary is the lesser evil, by a large margin.’ Meanwhile, on the advice of South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, Netanyahu is now rushing to sign a bloated US military aid deal, which he previously rejected as insufficient, before Obama leaves office out of fear that a President Trump might not be as generous”.

4. A Brief Analysis

If one had to summarize and synthesize Donald Trump’s foreign policy positions, it looks something like this: he is against the US acting as policeman of the world; against propping up Saudi Arabia; doesn’t really care about Ukraine; declares NATO obsolete; prefers Eisenhower to Reagan; and is against NAFTA, TPP, and other free trade deals.

When it comes to his philosophy, matters become trickier. It would be just as difficult to argue that Donald Trump is pro­-imperialist as it would be to argue that he is anti-imperialist. He certainly does not define himself by using the word “imperialist,” one way or another—so this will likely always remain the construct of the analyst, projected onto Trump. Trump rejects the label of “isolationism”. He does endorse the “America First” banner. He does not neatly fit into any of the now dominant categories, and that is part of the reason why some of those listed above may be tempted to call him an iconoclast. However, not fitting into any of the dominant ideological categories, for a leading US presidential candidate, is itself already a major departure from the past 60 years of US foreign policy history. As others have argued, “Trump is repudiating the entire framework of U.S. foreign policy since 1947”.

There are other departures. Trump is not radically anti-NATO—but his statements about NATO represent another big break from the recent past, especially the last 26 years. In context then, they can appear “radical” by contrast. Trump has also been clear that he does not favour ringing the globe with US military bases, and prefers diplomacy over aggression—there is “too much destruction out there,” he said today, after condemning Obama-Clinton policies for a foreign policy that has “blazed the path of destruction in its wake”.

Trump is clearly despised by the neoconservative clique that has dominated US foreign policy for more than a decade, along with its neoliberal humanitarian interventionist twin. After all, it was a neoliberal risk assessment group that ranked Donald Trump in the top 10 of risks to the world economy, claiming this is the first time it has listed a US presidential candidate. While Trump was invited to speak at the Center for the National Interest, earlier its flagship magazine had called for “stopping Trump” citing him as a threat to US national security. The disfavour with which he has been received by the hegemonic class is also reflected in the fact that Donald Trump is near the bottom of the list of recipients of donations from the US military defence industry. Even Bernie Sanders has received vastly more in donations from people employed as military contractors, than Trump has. Trump has arguably made “imperial decline” not just palatable to the masses, but even desirable in some respects, unlike any other candidate. In a basic sense, this notion of decline (which underpins his campaign theme), coupled with his rejection of expansionism, pits him against the mainstream of American Exceptionalism, and clearly against US triumphalism.

Much of the pervasive and insidious penetration wrought by US liberal imperialism since the advent of George H.W. Bush’s “New World Order,” continuing to the present, is clearly in jeopardy from Trump’s attacks. Trump has rejected regime change, democracy promotion abroad (and hence some of the cultural imperialism that goes with that), and the adventurism of humanitarian interventionism. He is a staunch critic of what was done to Iraq by Bush and to Libya by Obama-Clinton.

As Dennis Miller recently said on Fox News: “We live in an age of the violent do-gooder”. I am not one to normally quote Miller approvingly, but this is an excellent characterization. Humanitarian intervention has been especially a signature policy of the Democrats, and George W. Bush. If any position needs to be “justified” in terms of anti-imperialism, it is the position of most of the US and European left, dubbed the “cruise missile left” by some. As I recall, most of the leading anti-interventionist voices in the US media, at the time of the war on Libya in 2011, were to be found in conservative publications—the familiar names being those of Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and George Will. Most of the left was either silent, or applauded Obama and celebrated the spread of US views of “human rights,” supported US “democracy promotion,” and favoured regime change drunk on the celebration of the mythical “Arab Spring”. Thus, among Bernie Sanders’ celebrity supporters, we find Rosario Dawson who declared her support for right-ring protesters in Venezuela who were seeking regime change against a leftist government, and Mark Ruffalo, who repeatedly declared his support for regime change in Libya. Donald Trump has rejected the “violent do-gooder,” and for those of us who are serious about anti-interventionism, and against the US civilizing mission, then this is a refreshing change.

Trump’s foreign policy is largely an extension of his domestic socio-economic policy, to a degree that contrasts with other presidents and presidential candidates more than it compares. It is one that is fundamentally anti-free trade. Only a small minority of Trump’s supporters think that “free trade is good”—27%—while 55% of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, by contrast, think free trade is good for the US. Of course, as numerous scholars have long observed, there is a continual balance between domestic and external factors when it comes to the formulation and implementation of foreign policy—that much is not “new”. What is important about an emphasis on domestic socio-economic priorities is the kind of dynamic that introduces into foreign policy, which is substantially different from one that pursues free trade to suit the corporate oligarchy.

Advertisements