President Donald Trump's speech in Saudi Arabia was in many ways window-dressing to a new, $110-billion arms deal with one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. But his 30-minute talk, televised widely through the Arab and Muslim worlds, is an interesting statement that's worth spending serious time with. If Candidate Trump was openly scornful of Islam, often denouncing it as an inherently violent religion, he's singing a different tune now, saying he's not interested in how countries conduct their internal affairs as long as they don't export terrorists.
America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership—based on shared interests and values—to pursue a better future for us all.
Beyond in the rejection of what he would call a globalist worldview, Trump seems to be signaling a return to a non-humanitarian dimension to U.S. foreign policy. The problem is that he specifically justified his ineffective bombing of a Syrian airstrip on humanitarian grounds (that the Assad government had used prohibited chemical weapons on innocent civilians). More important, while he sounded somewhat non-interventionist as a candidate at times, he also pledged to "bomb the shit" out of Muslim terrorists in the Middle East and Afghanistan, a promise he has shown signs of keeping, even beyond Syria. It's worth pointing out, too, that even when the U.S. government has embraced or eschewed humanitarian motivations for foreign policy, it has never been constrained by such declarations. To pretend, for instance, that Bill Clinton's various interventions and actions were motivated by humanitarian concerns rather than vulgar domestic politics requires a suspension of disbelief beyond that of the most-devoted fan of Starlight Express or Cop Rock.
Yet from a libertarian perspective at least, it's good to hear a president rhetorically lay out a foreign policy that is basically limited to defending American interests rather than saving the world (how many countries and innocent people must die to prove America is virtuous?). Same, too, with getting overly involved with the internal workings of foreign countries. America should always be a place of refuge for people fleeing tyranny and oppression, and our government can and should exert influence to liberalize and open-up repressive hellholes. But the past 15 years of U.S. interventions (and if we're being honest, most of our overseas adventuring before that) have clearly failed. Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson's campaign may have floundered due to some misstatements about the Syrian civil war, but he was right in saying the United States should use trade, cultural exchange, and diplomacy to affect other countries. We simply don't have the knowledge or resources to bully or beat the world into our shape. Military intervention, regime change, and all the rest should be last resorts and exceptionally rare.
The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.
It is a choice between two futures—and it is a choice America CANNOT make for you.
A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive. Them. Out.
DRIVE THEM OUT of your places of worship.
DRIVE THEM OUT of your communities.
DRIVE THEM OUT of your holy land, and
DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH.
For our part, America is committed to adjusting our strategies to meet evolving threats and new facts. We will discard those strategies that have not worked—and will apply new approaches informed by experience and judgment. We are adopting a Principled Realism, rooted in common values and shared interests.
Our friends will never question our support, and our enemies will never doubt our determination. Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption. We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes—not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking. And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms—not sudden intervention.
To my mind, this is pretty good stuff. Of course, it is only rhetoric and there's no reason to suspect or expect any convergence between Trump's language and actions. There is a larger question, too, of whether this sort of talk will be read by autocrats as a greenlight to crack down on all sorts of legitimate dissent in the name of quashing terrorism. Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, to name two U.S. allies, can't be celebrating this sort of language even as Trump rightly places responsibility for the Middle East in the hands of the people and rulers who live there. And even as Trump invokes realism and local responsibility, it remains far from clear he will do anything to remove U.S. forces from around the world. Not only might that reduce the targeting of the United States by various terrorist groups who see America as a puppet master, it would be the proper follow-through to a worldview that holds we are not the solution to all the problems in the world.
Despite the non-interventionist flourishes in his speech, there's a larger contradiction in all this, too: Trump's foreign-policy realism is predicated ultimately upon a version of Fortress America, one in which our borders are closed (or at least more-closed) to people and goods from abroad. That's hugely at odds with the spirit of libertarianism and classical liberalism, which simultaneously holds that the United States should be slow to intervene militarily abroad but that we should be wide open to people and goods from all over the world. That is how progress, peace, and prosperity flourish. Yet such an inclusive vision of trade, commerce, and pluralism is about the last thing one would associate with Trump or his supporters.
Related: "How Trump Will Reshape Foreign Policy." About two months ago, the Cato Institute's Trevor Thrall told Reason that "I think [Trump] kind of has a zero-sum view of the world. We're going to win, and we're going to beat people up hard to do it." About 10 minutes.