Foreign policy does not determine American elections. Indeed, of all Western countries, we are the least interested in it. The reason is simple: We haven’t had to be. Our instinctive isolationism derives from our geographic exceptionalism. As Bismarck once explained (it is said), the United States is the most fortunate of all Great Powers, bordered on two sides by weak neighbors and on the other two by fish.
Two world wars, nuclear missiles and international terrorism have disabused us of the illusion of safety-by-isolation. You wouldn’t know it from the Democratic presidential race, where foreign policy has been treated as a nuisance.
Republicans, however, have furiously debated foreign policy. Donald Trump has contributed significantly, much of it off-the-cuff, contradictory and confused. His foreign policy speech on Wednesday was meant to make him appear consistent, serious and presidential.
He did check off the required box – delivering a “major address” to a serious foreign policy outfit, the Center for the National Interest (formerly the Nixon Center). As such, it fulfilled a political need.
As did its major theme: America First. Classically populist and always popular, it is also quite fraught. On the one hand, it can be meaningless – isn’t every president trying to advance American interests?
On the other hand, America First has a history. In 1940, as Britain fought for its life and Churchill begged for U.S. help, it was the name of the group most opposed to U.S. intervention. It disbanded four days after Pearl Harbor.
The irony is that while President Obama would never use the term, it is the underlying theme of his foreign policy – which Trump constantly denounces as a disaster. Obama, like Trump, has the view that we are overextended and overinvested abroad.
This is also Bernie Sanders’ theme. No great surprise. Both the left and right have a history of advocating American retreat and retrenchment. The difference is that liberals want to come home because they think we are not good enough for the world. Conservatives want to wash their hands of the world because they think the world is not good enough for us.
Obama’s gone abroad confessing our various sins – from the 1953 Iranian coup to the ultimate blot, Hiroshima, a penitential visit Obama is currently considering.
Trump would be rightly appalled by such a self-indicting trip. His foreign policy stems from a nationalism that believes that these recalcitrant tribes and nations are unworthy of American expenditures of blood and treasure.
This has been the underlying view of conservative isolationism from Lindbergh to Rand Paul. It is not without its attractions. But Trump’s version is inconsistent and often contradictory. After all, he pledged to bring stability to the Middle East. How do you do that without presence, risk and expenditures (financial and military)?
More incoherent is Trump’s insistence on unpredictability. An asset maybe in real estate, but in a Hobbesian world our allies rely on consistency, often in matters of life or death. Yet Trump excoriated the Obama-Clinton foreign policy for losing our allies’ trust because of its capriciousness.
Trump’s telepromptered speech was intended to clarify his foreign policy. It produced instead a jumble. The basic principle seems to be: Continue the Obama-Clinton retreat, though because of national self-interest, not national self-doubt. Except when, with studied inconsistency, he decides otherwise.