The signature line of Donald Trump’s big foreign policy speech is: “I won’t tell them where, and I won’t tell them how.” By “them,” he was referring to the Islamic State, which he vowed to destroy. But he might just as well have been referring to his audience. In a nearly hour-long speech, he revealed almost nothing to us of the actual where, when, and how of his foreign policy—with one notable exception.
I’ll get to that exception in a moment, but first a survey of the fog. Trump’s foreign policy speech consisted in roughly equal measures of vague sloganeering, broad and contradictory promises, and criticism of everybody else’s foreign policy.
For example, he opened with the declaration that “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else.” Which is great. But every politician says that, even the ones who don’t really mean it. Saying you want to protect American interests doesn’t mean much unless you can define specifically what American interests are and how you’re going to protect them. Later, Trump told us that our goal in the Middle East must be to “defeat terrorists and promote regional stability.” If only anyone had ever thought of that before. Or take this bold proclamation: “The power of weaponry is the single biggest problem that we have today in the world.” It was the second or third “single biggest” problem named in the speech, depending on how you count.
The great thing about making these broad, unspecific promises is that you can make competing promises without ever having to reconcile them. So you can say that “the countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the US must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves”—and then pivot straight to the complaint that “our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us.” I wonder where they might possibly get that idea. Or you can say, “I will not hesitate to deploy military force…and will only do so if we have a plan for victory with a capital V.” And then you can turn around and laud diplomacy because “caution and restraint are really, truly signs of strength.” It is possible for both of these things to be true at the same time, but you need a specific, detailed policy to describe exactly how you would integrate them—where you would pursue military victory and where you would use diplomacy. But even before the speech began, Trump’s campaign was telling us that there would be no policy details in it, and they weren’t lying.
What there was a lot of, though, was talking about how bad everybody else’s foreign policy is, from those Bush idiots who thought “Western democracy” is a good idea, to Hillary Clinton sleeping through the Benghazi attacks. Criticism is great, because it allows you to denounce policies that, with 20/20 hindsight, you already know to be failures, without having to say anything about what you would have done. You can complain that “President Obama gutted our missile defense program and then abandoned our missile defense plans with Poland and the Czech Republic. He supported the ouster of a friendly regime in Egypt that had a longstanding peace treaty with Israel, and then helped bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in its place.” Then you can continue merrily on, without ever describing your own policy on missile defense or the Egyptian regime.
This was summed up in Trump’s non-description of his foreign policy team: “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.” So Trump will hire really great people. He won’t tell you anything about them, but he can tell you what losers the other guys are.
Did I say that these different elements of the speech were roughly equal? Now that I think of it, that last element was dominant. The majority of the speech was Trump criticizing everyone else for being a loser while telling us almost nothing about what he would do differently. In other words, it was exactly like the rest of his campaign.
Except that one policy issue was consistent: Trump’s desire for a trade war.
Protectionism was his one recurring theme, the one specific measure he kept citing as the means to achieve his foreign policy goals. He began with it, promising that “ending the theft of American jobs will give us resources we need to rebuild our military.” He kept returning to it, vowing to bring order and stability to North Korea by using our “economic power” over China to make them “do what they have to do with North Korea.” Whatever that is. And he ended with a long denunciation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which “has emptied our states—literally emptied our states of our manufacturing and our jobs.” (US manufacturing output has, in fact, grown considerably since the passage of NAFTA.)
Trade war is Trump’s hammer, and everything looks like a nail.
This should be no mystery, because trade war is also the centerpiece of Trump’s domestic policy. Asked at the debates about the solvency of Social Security, he answered that he would impose tariffs on China and bring jobs back to the United States, and this would pay for everything. So if trade war is his plan for entitlements, debt, and economic growth, why shouldn’t it also be his plan for China, Russia, North Korea, and rebuilding the military?
Even if trade war were a good idea—and it isn’t—it does not constitute a coherent foreign policy. But for Trump, it’s a fixation.
Unfortunately, this is also a popular fixation for a large portion of voters who are eager to blame everything on foreigners stealing our jobs. Which is to say that it is a foreign policy perfectly calibrated to win Republican primaries in places like Pennsylvania and maybe Indiana, among blue-collar voters who don’t really care about foreign policy. And they were the real audience for today’s speech.