Donald Trump

Show Business Patter Aside, Trump's a Fairly Conventional Militarist

How Trump's UN speech fits into his foreign policy.


Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/Newscom

In his first address to the United Nations, President Trump displayed both his show business chops and the contradictions inherent in his foreign policy choices. Many of those choices are far more mainstream than Trump's rhetoric, or the commentary on it, suggests.

Trump says he wants a July 4 military parade that mirrors the French's Bastille day festivities, with a celebration of military strength. That's certainly different, but not substantively, from Trump's predecessors, who were often laudatory of and deferential to military leaders.

Trump is reportedly looking to expand the drone war. Obama did a good job maintaining an illusion of accountability for the CIA's drone program. Trump may dispel this illusion, but he's not changing the nature of the program—it was always a dangerous program with little transparency and no effective accountability.

Since his election, Trump's foreign policy has not looked that much different from his predecessors. On Afghanistan, for example, Trump made the decision to stay, as did Presidents Obama and Bush. He merely couched it in different language.

Trump talks about the need for Europe to take more responsibility for its own defense and contribute more to NATO, yet he has embraced NATO as well as its ill-advised expansion.

His administration had taken the same meddling posture as past establishment foreign policy figures when it comes to respecting the rights of sovereign countries to govern their own affairs.

At the UN speech itself, Trump intoned that Americans "do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government."

Yet, later in the same speech, he praised U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and insisted that the internal situation in Venezuela was "completely unacceptable" and that the U.S. could not "stand by and watch."

"As a responsible neighbor and friend, we and all others have a goal, Trump told the U.N. "That goal is to help them regain their freedom, recover their country, and restore their democracy. I would like to thank leaders in this room for condemning the regime and providing vital support to the Venezuelan people."

Remarkably, Trump recently said explicitly that the military option was on the table for the South American country.

The interventionist stance on Venezuela Trump expressed at the United Nations could have easily been articulated by most of his predecessors. The difference, as always, is largely rhetorical.

In his speech, Trump also blasted Iran as part of a "small group of rogue regimes" and said the U.S. would "totally destroy" North Korea if it had too.

Rhetoric aside, his approach toward Iran and North Korea has been relatively tame. Trump has so far declined every opportunity he's had to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. There's been little substance behind his anti-Iran showmanship.

On North Korea, Trump has made efforts to engage China on the North Korea and to, in general, seek diplomatic solutions. His rhetoric may be more colorful than his predecessors, but here even his rhetoric is not all that different.

At the UN, Trump said the U.S. could destroy North Korea. Obama, too, has noted that the U.S. could destroy North Korea with its arsenal. It's a true statement and one of the facts acting as a deterrent to a North Korean nuclear strike.

Nevertheless, Trump's UN speech lead to predictable responses from foreign leaders, not just from countries like Iran but from European allies too.

"It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience," Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said.

American presidents have been very good at masking destructive U.S. foreign policy in lofty rhetoric. Trump isn't. But that should be welcomed as an opportunity to make U.S. foreign policy less destructive. Hiding flaws in rhetoric had never been a real solution.