Trump's Big Foreign Policy Speech: 3 Good, 3 Bad Things from Libertarian Perspective


Donald Trump's bigthink foreign policy speech today, hosted by the Center for National Interest in D.C., was only the second major address he's given from a teleprompter. (The first was also foreign policy related, to AIPAC back in March.) That could have been a sign that he or his advisers (if he listens to any) wanted to make sure he stayed soberly on message, that is, was less of the wildcard Trump voters seem to love so much.

Christopher Dick via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The speech was no retreat to establishment normalcy for Trump. While the sense one gets of his character and how his mind works from his campaign make it hard to believe he'll be solid on his apparent good instincts, the speech mostly stuck to and extended who Trump has already seemed to be on foreign policy writ large (not just the parts about the military) and had aspects both encouraging and discouraging to the libertarian anti-interventionist.

For the encouraging (and the overall caveat that specifics of believable followthrough are all mysteries right now):

1) He recognizes the mistakes of nation building and is aware of the potential dangers that arise from intervention. Specifically critiques Libya and Iraq interventions and the concept of nation building or enforcing Western democracy around the globe by force. (As a side note, he specifically though not by name called out past cadres of GOP foreign policy mavens who supported such interventions and more as people who would have no place in his administration.)

2) He's set on getting military allies to bear more of the financial burden of defending the world. There is no good reason that our debt-riddled country should take it upon itself to use its military, spread around the globe, to defend the globe mostly at our expense. Allied to that should be rethinking the very notion that we have far flung allies who we must go to war on behalf of at whoever's expense, though it's unclear how close he is to that conclusion. He did not repeat past comments about NATO being obsolete today.

3) He's at least capable of saying that peace and prosperity are overriding goals and that the globe is overly weaponized. Whether the context makes one able to give it much credit, it is nice to hear a major party candidate say "Unlike other candidates, war and aggression are not my first instinct. You can't have a foreign policy without diplomacy and caution and restraint are truly signs of strength."

For the discouraging:

1) His continued obsession with the idea that relatively free trade with China, Mexico, or others is some sort of unmitigated bad. Expressed here with the especially alarming strongman declaration that businesses that dare try to manufacture overseas will be in some way brought to heel by a Trump administration. In the same vein, his sense that freer immigration is also something we must avoid all represent the dark side of an "America First!" attitude that mistakenly believes that on the whole immigration or trade are "bad for America." (He's stressing policies for the American worker as opposed to the American consumer are key to where he goes wrong here.)

2) His clear statement that he does intend to promptly start or extend another war in the Middle East, against ISIS. Either from strategic sense or realization he has no particular idea how to do it, he privileges the idea that of course you don't say how or when, though he insists it would be soon. But he swears he will crush ISIS, which did arise to a large extent from the aftermath of past U.S. interventions. He doesn't want to nationbuild, so it is unclear how he can be so sure that a swift and unpredictable but absolutely certain ISIS crushing won't leave, either the next year or next decade, an even more maniacal and dangerous Middle East and that perhaps absent continued homeland assaults, wiping out radical Islam overseas isn't necessarily an intelligent necessity for direct U.S. interests, or even possible. Similarly, his "no Iran nuke under any circumstance" stance could easily presage yet another Middle East war.

3) His belief that the biggest spending military in the world by insane margins is somehow not spending enough, and vowing to spend more on it.

There were other random inconsistencies or ironies in the talk, such as leading with the historically charged, neocon-alarming term "America First!" then instantly praising the wars with Germany and Japan that that original movement preferred we tried to keep out of; mixing calls for stability with calls for unpredictability; mixing stubborn imperial hubris and obsession over dumb symbolic alleged lack of respect for the U.S. that likely get his populist base's blood boiling with a supposed overarching love for peace that is ill served by being so chip-on-shoulder about dumb shit. 

But he is still saying things that actually make some sense of the fact that some libertarian noninterventionists openly consider him the best of a set of bad major party choices.