Perhaps sensing that he is close to clinching the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump seems to have started to pivot away from his brash, bullying speaking style toward a more studied, reserved demeanor, perhaps in anticipation of taking on Hillary Clinton in the Fall and being perceived as a more mature candidate.
Whether by calculation or under advice from some of his newly-hired campaign advisors, Trump gave a speech on foreign policy at Washington, D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel, in which he laid out a number of his policy positions while decrying the current administration’s postures as “reckless,” “rudderless” and “aimless.”
Trump promised to save “humanity itself” by acting to “shake the rust off America’s foreign policy” through a doctrine of putting “America First,” which he advertised as the title of his speech. Trump uncharacteristically used a teleprompter, and the speech was said to have been prepared by a professional speechwriter rather than by Trump himself, an apparent first for the candidate.
Trump touched on a number of key positions, notably those regarding the Middle East, terrorism and the U.S. military.
Regarding events in the Middle East, Trump said that President Obama had not been treating ally Israel fairly and had coddled Iran, one of Israel’s longtime enemies in arranging a deal to remove economic sanctions against the Islamic nation in exchange for a pledge not to develop nuclear weapons.
Trump has denounced the deal repeatedly in previous statements, calling it one of the “worst agreements” the U.S. has ever made. Trump said that Israel is America’s “great friend and the one true democracy in the Middle East” but that it has been “snubbed and criticized by an administration that lacks moral clarity.”
Trump went on to say that the “legacy of the Obama-Clinton interventions” in the Middle East are “weakness, confusion and disarray… We have made the Middle East more unstable and chaotic than ever before. We left Christians subject to intense persecution and even genocide. Our actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria have helped unleash ISIS. And we’re in a war against radical Islam, but President Obama won’t even name the enemy.”
He made the same charge against Hillary Clinton. Regarding ISIS, Trump promised to defeat the group overwhelmingly and quickly, without offering specifics about tactics or strategy. However, Trump did not once mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and also did not back down from his previous stance that Israel might have to pay for some of the military aid the U.S. has given it in the past.
Indeed, the idea of other nations paying for their security arrangements vis-a-vis the United States has been a recurring point of Trump’s foreign policy ideas, as he has at various times mentioned South Korea and Japan as particular benefactors of the United States’ military presence that he feels its allies should pay more for.
In particular, NATO has been a Trump target, with the candidate suggesting on some occasions that the alliance might need to be scrapped entirely but recently suggesting merely that its European member states needed to make much greater financial contributions than they currently do, otherwise, in Trump’s words, “the US must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
Unquestionably, the main thrust of Trump’s speech was that he feels it is time for the nation to return to a doctrine of “America First,” especially in military strength. Trump stated that he “will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else… It has to be first. Has to be. That will be the foundation of every single decision that I will make. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”
Trump reiterated the need to strengthen the military rather than reduce its strength as he claims Obama has done since the president came to office. “Our military is depleted, and we’re asking our generals and military leaders to worry about global warming.” At the same time, Trump wants the U.S. to be “getting out of the nation-building business,” inspiring third-world regimes philosophically rather than with expensive military action.
In doing so, Trump continued to look inward rather than outward. He returned to the notion of “senseless” immigration policies that had brought “radical Islam” to “our homeland.” He accused the U.S. of hiding terrorism suspects among migrant crime cases, claiming that, “For every case known to the public, there are dozens and dozens more… We have no idea where these people are coming from. There’s no documentation. There’s no paperwork. There’s nothing.”
Regarding trade, Trump derided Obama’s “false song of globalism,” saying that he was skeptical of international agreements and promising that, “under a Trump administration, no American citizen will ever again feel that their needs come second to the citizens of a foreign country.”
Trump did not shy away from attacking Democratic rival Clinton in the speech, accusing her of negligence in the Benghazi, Libya attacks that killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Trump claimed that Clinton decided to go home and sleep after learning of the attacks, rather than taking charge that evening.
He accused Clinton of promulgating the lie that it was an offensive video that incited the consulate attackers, which she later recanted. Indeed, he said that the U.S.’ entire policy regarding Libya in the Obama administration had been “a disaster.”
Obama himself was not spared Trump’s wrath, as he accused the former of suffering “humiliations” by being snubbed and not being greeted at the airport personally by foreign leaders during recent state visits to Cuba and Saudi Arabia.
Condemnation of Trump’s speech from various world leaders and officials was predictably swift. The former president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, said Trump “has a backwards world view,” and that a Trump presidency would have negative consequences for Brazil and bring it closer to China.
China’s finance minister Lou Jiwei called Trump “an irrational type” in the wake of Trump’s proposal for a 45 percent tariff on imported Chinese goods. The deputy head of Fudan University’s institute of international affairs, Shen Dingli, called Trump “foolish” and accused him of taking advantage of a “naive America.”
It “would be catastrophic” if Trump were to tear up the Iranian nuclear deal, said a senior diplomat in Vienna, where the agreement was negotiated last summer. “It was the biggest step forward in decades towards peace and stability in the Middle East and in counter-proliferation. The idea that he would just destroy all that is simply terrifying.”
A Saudi analyst in Riyadh said that a President Trump would be “like a deer caught in the headlights, surrounded by advisers telling him what to do and he will have to deal with institutions. I don’t think he has a plan.”
Out of most foreign reactions to Trump’s speech, only Russia seemed to have praise for Trump. The top foreign policy official in Russia’s parliament, Alexei Pushkov, said that the country would look favorably on Trump’s “pragmatic” approach to foreign affairs. In the past, Russian president Vladimir Putin has referred to Trump as a “colorful and talented man.”
At home, media pundits and politicians were friendlier than they have been, with Republican House leader Newt Gingrich tweeting that Trump “gets it.” Former press secretary for George W. Bush Ari Fleischer said that Trump’s speech would “resonate well with a lot of traditional peace-through-strength Republicans.”
It will be interesting to see if this speech was truly the beginning of a trend for the Republican frontrunner or if it was a one-off. Certainly, a major objection to Trump from many of his detractors has been a lack of presidential comportment and disposition. Perhaps seeking to counter these charges and boost his favorability ratings, either Trump or his newfound advisors such as political consultant Paul Manafort have sought to effect a change.
Whether this new image is a spontaneous recasting or had been long-planned is difficult to discern. But as Trump’s campaign proceeds, we may begin to see a new candidate emerge from the bombast and hype of rallies and speeches past. Whether his current supporters will respond positively to this image remains to be seen.