Donald Trump has done it again! No, I’m not talking about the Republican presidential candidate blurting out a new insult or gaffe. I’m talking about yet another speech or set of remarks that has given the nation yet another opportunity to learn an important lesson about the essentials of a sound foreign policy.
Unfortunately, as in some previous instances, Trump didn’t capitalize adequately on this opportunity, and thereby sowed the seeds of confusion – especially in the ranks of a Mainstream Media too thoroughly imbued with and enthusiastic about establishment conventional wisdom to cover this subject objectively, let alone intelligently.
Trump’s latest chance to teach some badly needed diplomatic common sense came yesterday in his speech in Philadelphia on military readiness. Its two main points entailed a promise to increase American military spending greatly, and an attack on Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, as an out-of-control, indeed “trigger happy,” global interventionist.
Almost instinctively, the establishment media, along with numerous national security types I follow on Twitter, claimed to have caught Trump in a major contradiction. As two New York Times correspondents put it, the maverick tycoon repeated his “at times paradoxical approach of using fiery oratory to promise a military buildup and the immediate destruction of the Islamic State, while also rejecting the nation-building and interventionist instincts of George W. Bush’s administration.”
In other words, Trump is by and large proposing spending huge – and possibly unaffordable – sums to pay for a military that he doesn’t intend to use much. The clear implication: Could anything be more stupid and wasteful?
In a narrow sense, Times reporters Ashley Parker and Matthew Rosenberg committed the common but nonetheless inexcusable mistake of assuming that someone who opposes military or other forms of intervention anywhere must logically oppose them everywhere. And vice versa. It’s as if every area of the world or every situation faced by the United States presents threats or opportunities of exactly the same magnitude.
In a more fundamental sense, however, the Times‘ critique harkens back to a question posed by Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when she challenged the first Bush administration’s broadly circumspect approach to using force abroad: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” And this view is just as ditzy as the above all-or-nothing position.
To anyone even minimally schooled in national security strategy, it should have been embarrassingly and immediately clear that Albright hadn’t heard of the concept of deterrence. It’s been the overriding reason that countries, including the United States, have developed and maintained nuclear forces after America dropped atomic bombs in Japan in World War II.
But deterrence alone is also entirely valid justification for building and maintaining a strong conventional military. And it’s in no way intrinsically incompatible with the kind of relatively non-interventionist foreign policy instincts Trump has revealed. Indeed, as I have written, no approach to world affairs could make more sense for a country as fundamentally secure and economically self-reliant as the United States.
It’s entirely possible that Trump is wrong in his specific assessments of America’s most important international interests and how best to defend and promote them. But his suggestion that military strength has major value in and of itself, and that this value has no intrinsic bearing on how active or passive the nation should be in the international arena, is beyond informed criticism.
Trump did use in this speech the phrase “Peace through strength,” which in other circumstances would make the point nicely. Ditto for the follow-on claim that “President Obama and Hillary Clinton have also overseen deep cuts in our military, which only invite more aggression from our adversaries.” Similarly, he resolved “to deter, avoid and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military strength.”
But to an electorate and a foreign policy establishment and a national press corps accustomed to equating strength with interventionism, it wasn’t close to satisfactory. And Trump himself compounded the confusion by repeatedly referring to tactics and goals suggesting that he buys this idea, too. Hence his references to achieving “a stable, peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground”; to “promoting regional stability, and producing an easing of tensions in the world”; to “[making] new friends, [rebuilding] old alliances, and [bringing] new allies into the fold”; to promoting “gradual reform” in the terminally dysfunctional Middle East”; to “promoting our system and our government and our way of life as the best in the world…”
None of these goals is objectionable in and of itself. In the abstract, they’re of course admirable. But without the kinds of “When?”, “Where?”, and “How much?” questions he never asked, these objectives degenerate into the kind of grandiose, and even reckless, Wilsonianism that Trump’s previous attacks on “nation-building” have indicated he opposes.
Nor is it comforting to assume that Trump and his advisers stuck these stock phrases into the speech to assure voters that he’s solidly traditional in key respects, or to reach out to those conservatives more enamored with American global assertiveness. For such rhetoric always threatens to raise expectations and set the kinds of interventionist traps into which even the most cautious presidents have fallen. (Unless you think Lyndon Johnson relished the prospect of sending 500,000 American soldiers into Vietnam?)
Trump still has several weeks to flesh out his foreign policy approach more coherently and more sensibly. He could also wind up waiting to start staging teachable moments until he’s installed in the White House. But given the pace and unpredictability of world events, he shouldn’t assume that time is an ally in this respect.