Trump v. the Council on Foreign Relations
Trump’s foreign policy speech is being criticized by all the usual sources for all the usual reasons. If you’ve been following the foreign policy establishment and their cheerleader commentariat for any length of time, it must seem like déjà vu. They always say the same things, almost always in the same words, any time an outsider dares to speak on the sacred mysteries. “Incoherent” is of course the go-to, and it was trotted out many times today, by left and right alike.
But the speech, while not problem-free, was far from “incoherent.” It just said things that the foreign policy clerisy doesn’t like. That clerisy has never been very good at articulating its own policies in ways that the American people can understand—much less, in ways that persuade the American people that those policies are actually good for them. It prefers the smoke-and-mirrors approach: obfuscate, obfuscate, obfuscate. Specifically, insist that the simple is really complicated and the complex actually quite simple. Hence the distinction between victory and defeat in war is too complicated for mere simpleton citizens to understand, while of course it’s well within America’s power to democratize the Muslim world and only a racist Islamophobe would say otherwise.
When this rhetorical squid ink fails—and, surprisingly, it rarely does, which is one reason we’ve been stuck with the same mandarins for so long—they default to the pose and tone that “We, your superiors in wisdom and sophistication, simply know better about these things and you must defer to us.” Now, that is actually an ancient and largely true argument about the conduct of foreign affairs, which in nearly all successful nations has been placed in the hands of an elite. Thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli and Montesquieu to the American Founders saw no way around this and no reason to find it unjust or worrisome.
But it becomes a problem when the elite doesn’t know what it’s doing. Which has been America’s problem since the end of Cold War (if not before). And which Trump pointed out in pungent language. No wonder that, after today, our elite hate him all the more.
Of course, they will say (and already are saying) that their opposition is all about substance. We doubt that explanation is exhaustive. One fundamental objection to Trump is that he threatens the American foreign policy guild—the most closed, arrogant, insular, smug and incompetent guild operating in the world today. Worse, unlike the guilds of old, which in order to join you had to know something—say, how to make beer—to join this one, you don’t have to know anything. You just have to go to the right schools, learn to mouth the right words, and pay your dues by carrying some senior guildmaster’s golf bag for a decade or so, making sure to praise his every slice and hook (and help cover up mulligans now and then). If you do that, no amount or degree of failure will ever be held against you.
But even to the extent that the clerisy does object to Trump on substance, that only further illustrates the problem. Our elites are so out of touch that they freak out over many of the fundamentally sensible things that Trump said.
So let’s look at what he said. The structure of the speech was simple: two main sections—the first outlining five recent or current American foreign policy mistakes, the second explaining three ways that Trump will remedy those mistakes—bracketed by an introduction and a conclusion.
- Overextending our resources
- Not insisting that our allies pay their fair share
- Alienating our friends
- Losing the respect of rivals
- Lack of clear foreign policy goals.
Trump’s proposed remedies:
- Long term plan to halt the spread and reach of radical Islam
- Rebuild our military and economy
- Develop a foreign policy based on American interests.
The most obvious problem with the above is the apparent contradiction between mistakes 2 & 3. How can Trump say in one breath that he is going to squeeze our allies, and in the next lament that Obama has alienated them? Many critics seized on that point. We actually find something problematic here. But first, let’s get something straight. It’s quite possible to be taken for a ride by allies and gratuitously alienate them at the same time, or to insist that allies meet their obligations, just as we meet ours, even as we work toward greater cooperation. There is no inherent contradiction here. “The whole world will be safer if our allies do their part to support our common defense and security,” Trump said. Of course it will. That’s almost tautological.
The question is: how are you going to get them to do it, and what are you going to do if they don’t? We fear that Trump might be being a little pound-foolish here. He doesn’t specify, beyond “NATO,” which allies are free-riding us. Many Trump supporters point to the countries with large American bases and troop presence. We would urge caution on this point. Those bases are a huge benefit—to us. Not, of course, if you believe—as many paleo-Trumpites do—that America should simply “come home.” But as the speech makes abundantly clear, Trump does NOT believe that. If we’re going to have an active foreign policy that defends our commercial and long-range interests, if we want to maintain our ability to project power to defeat ISIS (and other threats), then those bases are essential. And to the extent that they are expensive, they are worth it. It would be great to get allies to pony up more. But to actually cut and run if they don’t would be to cut our nose to spite our face.
The real free riders, incidentally, are the Gulf Arab states—much more so than any country in Europe or Asia. Yes, it’s nice to have the 5th Fleet in Bahrain. But its purpose is to keep the Strait of Hormuz open to keep the oil flowing. What if we didn’t need all that oil? Until the Saudis—the ne plus ultra of the ungrateful “ally” if ever there was one—spiked production in 2014, the US and North America more generally were on track for hydrocarbon independence. The purpose of Saudi anticompetitive dumping is to put American and Canadian frackers out of business. We could fix that with … a tariff! (Once again, we note that this sensible argument appears in the Weekly Standard—and, not incidentally, from the pen of a man past his early 20s and who knows something about economics; yes, that’s meant in contrast to you, NR kidlets. No doubt Kevin Williamson “knows” that anticompetitive dumping always harms the dumper in the long run. But what happens if some of us end up broke in the near- or medium-run? Should they just move?) And once prices stabilize at $50/barrel, putting the frackers back in business and getting U.S. production rising again, perhaps then we could start thinking about whether forward-deploying the 5th Fleet to the Gulf—plus all our other commitments to the Gulf State ingrates—are really necessary. Trump didn’t say any of this, but it’s all quite consistent with Trumpian principles—and anathema to the foreign policy clerisy.
Most everything else on Trump’s litany of errors is spot-on, though he’s almost certainly wrong that ISIS is making money off Libyan oil. We are particularly pleased that he has not succumbed to any paleo-peacenik delusions about Iran, which remains America’s most active nation-state enemy. We think his promise that “under a Trump Administration, will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon” is unfulfillable, but assume was just campaign rhetoric.
On to Trump’s prescriptions. We’re reasonably confident that these must have upset those on the “right” whose sole priority is to see American in retreat everywhere, conceding everything, acknowledging no enemy, avenging no attack or insult, defending no interest. Good! Those people are losers!
Trump is plenty anti-neocon for us. No more nation-building, full stop. No more democracy project. No more messianic, unrealistic crusades. If fact, the bulk of the speech reads like a neocon Penthouse letter: stronger military, rebuild alliances, destroy ISIS, protect Israel, deny Iran a nuke, regain respect. What’s not for Max Boot to like? Ah, this rejection of democracy project. Well, you can’t please everybody.
We’re not sure what Trump means by a “philosophical struggle” in the Muslim world. We hope he doesn’t mean the feckless “public diplomacy” of the post-9/11 era, or the “Let’s-reform-Islam-from-the-outside” dream palace of so many Western intellectuals. A “spiritual war” to attack radical Islam’s calumnies, conceits and errors could be fruitful. But let’s be clear that this would be down-and-dirty propaganda to defend ourselves, demoralize them, and cut them off from as much domestic and international support as possible. We will await further clarification from the candidate.
We’re quite pleased Trump reiterated his support for an immigration pause. We also here note that so much of the criticism of the speech was not actually about the speech. It was rather along the lines of, “Yeah, well, on X date, he said Y, whereas today he said Z.” OK fine. But we’ve known that all along. That’s, as it were, “priced in” to our qualified (but growing) support for Trump. To the extent that Trump remains consistent on the things we care about going forward, that support will grow even more. By that measure, today’s speech was an A+.
Trump was right to threaten ISIS. (Assuming he follows through.) Once again, the paleo-peacniks gnashed their teeth. Trump understands that ISIS (and al-Qaida, which he should have mentioned here but didn’t) want to blow up Manhattan again, and much else. They way to prevent that is not to invade the whole region and try to democratize it, but rather to deliver decisive military defeats that force our enemies to pour all their energies into rebuilding from square one, or as close to square one as we can push them back toward. Trump’s promise to eliminate ISIS is unachievable and may also be dismissed as campaign rhetoric. Still, “Fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” may have been one of the most abused slogans of the Bush era, but the core of it is correct.
Which leads us to Trump remedy #2: Rebuild our military and economy. All the usual caveats apply: how are we going to pay for it, etc. We don’t know, but he is right about the dire state of our armed forces and the necessity to rebuild. He’s right about the need for nuclear modernization. And he’s right about the foolishness of using the military for leftwing sociology experiments.
The last section was broad and we won’t comment on every point. Trump is right that America has leverage points over China and other countries, which we could use to gain advantages to ourselves but which we don’t. He’s right that it’s at least worth trying to build better relations with Russia—though he underestimates the difficulty, given (for instance) the daily diet of anti-American, anti-Western propaganda the Kremlin pumps out, which rivals the worst of Al Jazeera. His point that NATO should be addressing migration—the greatest threat to Europe right now—is so sensible that it’s no wonder NATO hasn’t even considered it.
His pivot to attacking the “Obama-Clinton” foreign policy (after implicitly, but not by name, criticizing George W. Bush) is clever and effective. Above all, we were delighted by his bracing dismissal of the foreign policy clerisy, which is worth quoting in full:
My goal is to establish a foreign policy that will endure for several generations. That’s why I also look and have to look for talented experts with approaches and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war. We have to look to new people.
We have to look to new people because many of the old people frankly don’t know what they’re doing, even though they may look awfully good writing in the New York Times or being watched on television.
The part about “new people” was ad-libbed—and exactly right. And shows that, indeed, on many things, Trump’s instincts are good.
One more longish quote:
Finally, I will work with our allies to reinvigorate Western values and institutions. Instead of trying to spread “universal values” that not everyone shares, 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.
Leave aside his misplaced use of the word “values.” Only we Straussians know the real problem with it and it’s too hard to convince well-meaning others to ditch it. We also have to overlook the fact, which Trumps seems either to deny or not realize, that “universal values” in fact derive from and are honored only within Western civilization. That said, when was the last time you heard a major Western leader make a full-throated defense of “Western civilization”—using those exact words—and declare that strengthening and promoting the West is his core purpose? That alone should turn around a lot of pro-Western anti-Trumpites.
A final note. The first thing that struck me when listening to the speech was the use of the word “peace” in the second paragraph. Naturally, being Straussian, I later went to the text to count words. “Peace” or a variant appears a total of nine times in the prepared text and ten in the actual delivery. Compare that to a mere five times in Mitt Romney’s 2012 VMI speech, only one of which actually referred to his own aspirations for his administration or his country. (Seven of Trump’s ten refer to his own desire for peace.) On this score, Trump actually compares favorably to John McCain in 2008 (13 times) and George W. Bush in 1999 (16 times). Yet Trump is a dangerous neophyte unfit for the Presidency compared to the Republican Party’s recent, more statesmanlike entries?
Trump passes perhaps the most important test for a statesman charged with grave matters of war and peace: he understands that war is for the sake of peace and that peace should always be the goal of war. We give credit to Bush and McCain for saying the right things about peace. Bush, we are willing to believe, would have followed through absent 9/11. But it didn’t work out that way.
In fact, we are struck by just how similar Trump’s speech today and Bush’s at the Citadel really are. Both talk about rebuilding the military. Both promise to honor commitments to veterans. Both promise to review existing deployments and alliances, and to scale back where our presence no longer makes sense. Both promise that focus will replace incoherence. Both promise to defend America against unconventional threats. And so on.
The differences only emerge when you compare what we can only assume will be Trump’s single address on foreign and defense policy to Bush’s other campaign foreign policy speech, which focused on diplomacy as distinct from the military. There, Bush is much more committed to internationalism, multilateralism, free trade, democracy promotion, and the “moral” element of foreign policy. In other words, to things that one might charitably say made sense at the time but that subsequent events have rendered much more questionable.
When the clerisy insists it opposes Trump on substance above all, we presume that these points of departure from Bush—which is to say, from the post-Cold War bipartisan consensus—are what they have in mind. When Trump says “many of the old people frankly don’t know what they’re doing,” it is, similarly, these elements that he has in mind. Whatever was true in 1999, in 2016 Trump is right and the clerisy is wrong.