Donald Trump

Donald Trump's National Security Speech Won't Change U.S. Foreign Policy

Rhetoric on international relations rarely matches actual U.S. actions.


Jim Loscalzo/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

President Donald Trump gave a big national security speech yesterday, tied to the release of a written national security strategy. This marked a change from presidents Obama and Bush, who submitted their congressionally mandated national security strategies without an accompanying address. But the document itself is just as useless as its predecessors. U.S. foreign policy does not tend to comport with presidential rhetoric.

Trump's national security strategy claims that the U.S. will avoid nation-building and needless interventions. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took to Twitter to applaud this as a "realist foreign policy," something he has advocated himself for years. But there's precious little evidence that the Trump administration is actually interested in that kind of approach in the real world, as opposed to in their rhetoric.

As Bonnie Kristian noted last week, Trump's "new" national security strategy is unlikely to change the American pattern of "promiscuous intervention," if for no other reason than that the administration has not yet attempted to change that pattern at all. From Afghanistan to Syria, the Trump administration has pursued a foreign policy that largely follows the contours set by the other post-9/11 presidents.

Trump's Afghanistan policy boils down to less transparency about the quagmire, while in Syria the president ordered the bombing of government targets earlier this year while ramping up America's military presence in the country. Trump has also expanded the war on terror in Somalia and around the Muslim world.

The disconnect between Trump's national security strategy rhetoric and the reality runs the other way too.

The strategy document, for example, identifies China as a competitor, which The New York Times describes as a "radical departure" from the language used in the Obama era, when China was presented more as a strategic partner. Yet you'd be hard pressed to point to any actual Obama-era policy that treated China more as a partner than as a competitor. The main point of Obama's "Asia pivot" was to contain China's influence. The Trans-Pacific Partnership excluded China, the largest Pacific economy other than the U.S.

Trump, meanwhile, has made some attempts to improve diplomatic relations with China, engaging its leadership on issues like North Korea more substantively than his predecessor. He has also mostly avoided needless escalation in places like the South China Sea, where many countries, including China and some American allies, have mutually exclusive territorial claims.

The Chinese have noted this discrepancy. "On the one hand, the U.S. government claims that it is attempting to build a great partnership with China," a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington said in a statement this morning. "On the other hand, it labels China as a rival."

There were disconnects, even, between the national security strategy document and the speech Trump gave in support of it. Most prominently, the document appears to take a harder line against Russia, accusing it and China of being "revisionist powers" operating on the "edges of international law" to undermine the U.S. and change the status quo in their favor. In his speech, Trump said he hoped for a "great partnership" with those two countries "but in a manner that always protects our national interest."

That phrase "national interest" does a lot of work in U.S. foreign policy. It's an ill-defined term that justifies all kinds of policy decisions, mostly interventionist ones. In Trump's incarnation, the national interest includes ensuring the U.S. is a "winner" in trade and other economic arenas. That imposes a zero-sum thinking that can only lead to the U.S. losing out. Attacks on free trade, while popular with some voters, are an exercise in killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Given Trump's decades-long history of pushing protectionism and trashing trade, this may be one of the few places where his foreign policy will end up matching his rhetoric. That would be a tragedy.

NEXT: A.M. Links: House Votes on GOP Tax Bill Today, Trump's Lawyers to Meet Mueller's Investigators, Three Deaths Confirmed After Washington Amtrak Derailment

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “But there’s precious little evidence that the Trump administration is actually interested in that kind of approach in the real world, as opposed to in their rhetoric.”

    I mean he did stop the CIA program that was arming Syrian opposition forces, which was really just ISIS. So, there is some evidence.

    1. Some media types will never be able to admit Trump is doing okay as President.

      Even if escalating violence in Syria is de-escalated, North Korea is handled, ISIS is neutered, taxes are reformed, new originalists are nominated to the SCOTUS, ObamaCare is repealed, etc.

      1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

        This is what I do…

  2. The main point of Obama’s “Asia pivot” was to contain China’s influence. The Trans-Pacific Partnership excluded China, the largest Pacific economy other than the U.S.

    That point escapes Dotard and his jesters.

    The TPP cut 18,000 tariffs on US exports and the Con Man is oblivious to that fact.

    1. I know the True Libertarian response is “a real FTA would fit on one page!” but just like zero taxes that shit will never happen.

      1. “Dotard”

        I know that brutal communist tyrants are like heroes to commie trash like you, but quoting a man responsible for state-created starvation and murder in order to insult make believe ‘literally Hitler’ makes you look like an idiot

        1. It’s not a look for him but a lifestyle.

  3. “Rhetoric on international relations rarely matches actual U.S. actions.”

    Rhetoric by politicians on any subject rarely matches actual U.S. actions. That’s why average people hardly pay any attention to it.

    That’s why average people find it both amusing and alarming when journalists take Trump’s tweets so seriously.

    If you want to understand what Trump is about on foreign policy, watch what he does and what he’s done.

    Trump made common cause with Putin on ISIS and Syria because he’s a pragmatic realist.

    Obama and Hillary refused to consort with Putin–not even when it was in America’s security interests to do so–because they were ideologically rigid neocons. They were as interested in pursuing lofty goals like gay marriage in Moscow as they were in pursing American security interests by collaborating with the likes of Putin. In fact, they were both more interested in a U.S. invasion of Syria than they were in destroying ISIS by working together with Putin. That’s what being a neocon is all about.

    What Trump says is “blah, blah, blah”.

    What Obama said was “blah, blah, blah”.

    What Hillary said was “blah, blah, blah”.

    What Rand Paul says is “blah, blah, blah”.

    If you want to know what politicians are about, watch what they do and what they’ve done.

    Picking over speeches and tweets only leads to silliness.

  4. So, everyone freaks about what Trump says via twitter because the outragers are sure Trump will do it.

    When Trump says he wants to limited nation building and foreign entanglements… HE’S A LIAR!

    This is why its “n”th Dimensional chess. You outragers get fed Trump info to freak about meanwhile Trump tries to do what he campaigned on.

  5. Trump’s national security strategy claims that the U.S. will avoid nation-building and needless interventions…But there’s precious little evidence that the Trump administration is actually interested in that kind of approach in the real world, as opposed to in their rhetoric.

    Note how Trump has continued the Obama plan to topple the Assad regime, replace it with a “friendly” government, and then rebuilt the Syrian nation… Oh, wait, he hasn’t done that?

    Note how Trump has been toppling random countries in an interventionist wet dream… oh wait that hasn’t happened.

    1. I don’t like Trump’s ideas about giving cops more military gear — but fuck, his foreign policy should be exactly what Reason wants. He TRIED to rope in Russia to deal with Syria but, of course, we’ve now had a year of investigations because he did something smart. He got stuck with North Korea after decades of kicking the can down the road. He’s stuck with a horrid Iran deal from an administration that seems to have colluded with Iran HEAVILY and the press is just not that interested in.

      He’s done quite well given the crap hand he was given.

      1. There’s no way anyone will like everything about Trump–or any POTUS. But credit where it’s due. His foreign policy–so far–has been exactly what we need.

        I think most people don’t want their local PD militarized.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.