Hopes for Trump’s Foreign Policy Debut Are … Not High
Policy + Politics

Hopes for Trump’s Foreign Policy Debut Are … Not High

REUTERS/Joe Skipper

The list of people who are getting nervous about the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency is not a short one, but some of the most concerned are those whose focus is the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world.

Trump has promised to tear up treaties and trade deals, and to pressure the U.S. military and intelligence agencies to commit war crimes in the fight against terrorism. And while he promises to build a massive wall on the Southern U.S. border to keep illegal immigrants from entering the country, he rewrites US immigration policy by pledging to bar all Muslims from entering the US “until the nation’s leaders can “figure out what is going on.” 

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The billionaire currently leading the Republican Party’s race for the presidential nomination has given confusing accounts of his position regarding Israel and its relationship with the US and its neighbors. He has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a leader currently under international sanctions for invading neighboring Ukraine. He has suggested that US allies who benefit from the protection of the US military ought to pay up or – the implication is clear – watch US troops and defensive weaponry go away.

It’s no wonder that when Washington Post reporter Mary Jordan reached out to foreign diplomats in Washington, including some ambassadors, she found them in a state of near-panic over the prospect of having to conduct diplomatic relations with a mercurial former reality television star who said the following when he was asked about his foreign policy advisers:

“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things…. I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people; I talk to a lot of people and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are…. But my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”

On Monday, in what is expected to be his first major foreign policy speech, Trump is scheduled to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual Policy Conference. It offers him a high-visibility opportunity to put to rest the concern that he is a foreign policy dilettante with no deep knowledge, guiding principles, or even expert advice to help him make sense of a complex and sometimes dangerous global landscape.

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But foreign policy experts don’t seem hopeful that Trump is about to uncork a FDR-esque “Four Freedoms” speech. To some, in fact, Trump’s suggestion that he can formulate US foreign policy without any help is, by itself, practically disqualifying.

“His statement that he’s such a great mind that [seeking advisers] hasn’t been an issue? It’s preposterous,” said Robert Lieber, a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and the author of the forthcoming book, Retreat and Its Consequences: US Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order.

“The essence of leadership is to get smart, accomplished people who can give you good advice, so you can make good decisions,” Lieber said. “There is no evidence that he has done that.”

Trump’s foreign policy, such as it is, Lieber said, is neither substantive nor coherent. “There are almost no specifics in his foreign policy positions, and when he does give specifics, he frequently contradicts himself in the same speech.”

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Lieber said, “Trump really represents a certain attitude, but there is no substance, in any tangible way, about foreign policy other than that he has a strongly protectionist position on trade.”

Given the venue of his speech Monday, Trump can be expected to address the relationship between the US and Israel, and Israel’s security interests in the Middle East. So far in the campaign, Trump has touted himself as a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, but the evidence he typically offers is that he was once the grand marshal of the Israel Day parade in New York City.

He also, at one point in the campaign, said that he would like to serve as a “neutral” arbiter of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinian people. According to Lieber, that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the reality of the Middle East.

Any stability in the Middle East, and any prospect for lasting peace, he said, is dependent on the widespread understanding that “America has Israel’s back.”

“As long as it’s known that Israel is supported by the United States, it means that other countries see the need for a negotiated solution to differences,” he said. Take that away, he added, and Israel’s more bellicose neighbors start to think “maybe there’s a military solution after all.”