At the end of last month Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump stepped up to the podium and said, “It is time to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy”. What this precisely meant was not made clear, but with the limited air time Trump receives, perhaps we can excuse him for being brief.
In Trump’s speech he made a number of broad statements that were not backed up by the next important step of how these could be achieved. These statements included that his “foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else”; that “ISIS will be gone if I am president. They will be gone quickly” and; “I will be America’s greatest defender and most loyal champion. We will not apologize for becoming successful again…”
Trump’s address was met with befuddlement from both politicians and media personalities alike. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that “Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave”, and remarked that the speech was “unnerving”, “pathetic” and “scary”. Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf thought that Trump’s solution to “almost everything was, let me handle it. You know, Russia, I’ll talk to them. China, I’ll talk to them. ISIS, I got a plan.”
President Obama even got in on the act during the annual White House press corps dinner earlier this month, admitting that Trump had some foreign policy experience because “he has spent years meeting with leaders from around the world”. He then proceeded to list “Miss Sweden, Miss Argentina, Miss Azerbaijan”.
Putting Trump’s incoherent speech aside, this is not the first time he has spoken about foreign policy. Unfortunately though, these previous statements do not provide much clarity.
Firstly, the most alarming (and unsurprisingly the most publicised) declaration made by Trump was his call last December for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. If that was not enough, in an NBC interview a month earlier he also claimed he “would certainly implement” a database system tracking Muslims in the United States.
Moreover, Trump has proposed to build a “great, great wall” along the southern border and force Mexico to pay for it. Trump stated “Mexico has taken advantage of us” and listed Mexican “gangs, drug traffickers and cartels” as those that have “exploited” America’s borders.
What makes these statements hard to interpret is that Trump constantly backtracks. For example, while giving this latest foreign policy speech Trump failed to raise either the shutdown or the wall. He simply said that “we must stop importing extremism through senseless immigration policies”.
Further to this, he has recently made 180 degree turns on both military spending - first stating he’d slash the military budget, and now saying he will increase it - and nuclear proliferation - first claiming that the biggest problem in the world is nuclear proliferation, and now stating that South Korea and Japan should get nuclear bombs.
This indecision may be a good thing or it may be a sign that he is erratic and volatile. According to former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, it is more likely the latter, stating, “I think a lot of leaders around the world, both among our friends and potential adversaries, are quite concerned,”
Trump is not in power, and there are a hundred hurdles to overcome before he could think about changing America’s foreign policy, chief among them a republican establishment that will likely never completely support him, low approval ratings especially amongst women, and a relatively strong democratic presumptive nominee in Hilary Clinton.
Still, there remains a real chance that Trump will reside in the White House come January next year. Following the exits of Ted Cruz and John Kasich, Trump can now focus solely on beating Hilary Clinton in the general election. While Trump has consistently polled approximately six points behind Clinton nationally, these figures were provided before Trump and Clinton were the presumptive nominees. According to Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight “Ignore hypothetical matchups in primary season – they also measure nothing.”
The hurdles to a Trump White House may not be as high as people think. And from what we know and don’t know about Trump’s vision for America’s foreign policy, that is enough to be concerned.
Andrew Brooks is a lawyer in Melbourne with a passion for US politics.
Image credit: Gage Skidmore (Flickr: Creative Commons)