Look out, world – The Economist (blog)

6 months ago Comments Off on Look out, world – The Economist (blog)

BY THE lofty standards of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, Donald Trump gave an awful speech on national security on April 27th—a blustery, error-strewn account of an “America First” philosophy that took little account of how the world actually looks from the Oval Office.

Throughout the address, which Mr Trump, unusually, read from a teleprompter, the property tycoon made foreign policy sound not much different from the business of buying and selling real estate. Whether discussing efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, his ambition to make allies pay their own defence costs, or explaining that he intends to “find out” whether America can improve relations with Russia (for instance by finding common ground in fighting Islamic terrorism), Mr Trump repeatedly cast himself as a man who will cut a “great deal for America” by being willing to walk away from the table. “When the other side knows you’re not going to walk, it becomes absolutely impossible to win,” he told his audience, brought together by a Washington think-tank, the Centre for the National Interest.

Alas this description of statecraft as a series of deals, brokered in eyeball-to-eyeball negotiations with foreign powers, bears no resemblance to real diplomacy. For an American president, world events arrive in an unending rush, and cannot be tackled one by one, by appointment. Nor can geopolitical and commercial rivals be dismissed and forgotten like disappointing business-partners, for all Mr Trump’s bravado, as when he said that if America and China do not find a mutually beneficial relationship “we can both go our separate ways.”

In the Republican presidential frontrunner’s telling, even the knottiest problems in geopolitics are simple exercises in brinksmanship—ready to be solved at speed once a steely negotiator like President Trump is sitting behind the big desk in the Oval Office. Thus the campaign waged by many previous presidents to stop European and Asian allies free-riding on American military spending will be solved if he is willing to “let those countries defend themselves.”

Mr Trump accused Barack Obama of refusing to “apply the leverage on China necessary to rein in North Korea”—suggesting that North Korean nuclear adventurism can be swiftly ended by sanctioning Chinese rulers until they turn on their next-door neighbour and client.

The Middle East appeared in the speech as a region that is simultaneously a quagmire which America has no business trying to improve, and a place whose problems can be solved with ease. Offering a veiled rebuke for George W. Bush and the neoconservatives who advised him to invade Iraq in 2003, followed by an explicit swipe at Mr Obama and his first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump criticised the “dangerous idea” that America could make Western democracies out of countries that had “no experience or interest” in such a change. America is “getting out of the nation-building business”, he growled, adding that as president he would not surrender America to “the false song of globalism.”

But even as he outlined his “America First” instincts, explaining why “war and aggression will not be my first instinct”, and sniping that many Americans wonder why their politicians “seem more interested in defending the borders of foreign countries than their own”, Mr Trump pivoted to suggest that defeating Islamic State would be a doddle. In an echo of Richard Nixon, and his hints of a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam during his 1968 presidential campaign, Mr Trump said that the days of Islamic State are “numbered” but said “I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. We must as a nation be more unpredictable. But they’re going to be gone.”

Mr Trump contradicted himself more than once. Thus, in a familiar Republican attack line he chided Mr Obama for picking fights with allies, and vowed that his America would be a “reliable friend and ally again”. But moments earlier he explained how he would begin his presidency by summoning allied leaders for a summit to discuss how they “look at the United States as weak and forgiving and feel no obligation to honour their agreements with us.”

When it came to weighing the costs and benefits of dealing with foreign powers, the businessman portrayed a zero-sum world in which profitable trade for another country is always at the expense of America. Yet when it came to describing how he would govern America, he imagined a win-win world without trade-offs: thus he suggested that he would “spend what we need to rebuild our military” but quickly offered the assurance that “we will look for savings and spend our money wisely… not one dollar can be wasted.”

In short, there was much for foreign policy elites to sneer at. But millions of American voters have no confidence in those same elites: the stripy-trousered experts and bigwigs who inhabit Washington’s foreign policy think-tanks, or the retired generals and ambassadors who advise more conventional presidential candidates. Perhaps Mr Trump is deluded when he makes the American presidency sound like an episode of “The Apprentice”, the reality TV simulation of the business world in which he could simply fire those who let him down. But the supposed experts were deluded when they said that invading and occupying Iraq would be cheap and quick.

Mr Trump is not a man for geopolitical details, but his anger at the lack of “respect” shown to America by foreigners is palpably sincere. Those in Washington, DC tempted to laugh at Mr Trump should ponder how well his words go down in the sort of Appalachian or working-class Southern towns that provide so many of the troops that actually fight and die in American wars overseas.

Mr Trump’s genius is to suggest that if America has suffered setbacks it is because it is too good and generous a nation for a wicked and ungrateful world, and that it is now time to be more selfish and harsh. Recasting his proposed entry ban on Muslims as a “pause for reassessment”, the candidate expressed a conditional willingness to work with Middle Eastern countries themselves threatened by the rise of radical Islam. “But this has to be a two-way street—they must also be good to us and remember us and all that we are doing for them,” he said.

Experienced foreign policy hands sigh at such conditions, noting that being a superpower has often been a thankless task, and that America accrues great benefits as well as costs from being a global guarantor of security. No matter. Mr Trump knows that many voters are fed up and want the world to be much more grateful—or be threatened with American withdrawal. Mr Trump is not a man for the niceties of policy. He is a man for telling voters what they want to hear. His speech was a foreign policy mess, but it was great politics.

Look out, world – The Economist (blog)

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