Even as questions swirl about him in the wake of the missile attack on Syria and as he boasts about the “flexibility” of his foreign policy, President Trump has broken with the longstanding tradition of new presidents using speeches early in their administrations to flesh out their views of the rest of the world.
With the exception of Ronald Reagan, who spent April 1981 recuperating from a would-be assassin’s bullet, the third full month in office has included at least one major foreign policy address by the 11 presidents over the last seven-and-a-half decades. From Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama—six Republicans and five Democrats—all viewed it as important to send an early signal to allies and adversaries across the world of the direction they intended to steer now that they were at the helm of this nuclear superpower.
Ike talked about the “chance for peace” in the Cold War; Richard Nixon outlined the next steps in Vietnam; Bill Clinton talked about “America’s purposes in the world;” George W. Bush detailed “our shared future;” and Obama gave five foreign policy speeches in his first 100 days, offering the public both “a comprehensive new strategy” for Afghanistan and “how the war in Iraq will end.”
Unless he unexpectedly schedules a foreign policy speech in the next two weeks, Trump will be the first to conclude his initial 100 days in office without providing guidance more comprehensive than off-the-cuff remarks in interviews and press conferences. Particularly since Trump is the first president in U.S. history not to have prior military or governmental experience, both foreign governments and officials in Washington are grasping for any details they can get to flesh out the new president’s “America First” vision.
Ambassadors posted to Washington have peppered their Republican contacts and tried to cozy up to those seen as close to Trump in what has become a 21st century version of Kremlinology—the Cold War game of trying to decipher Soviet policy by looking at who was seated prominently atop Lenin’s Tomb. In late February, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, complained in a New York Times op-ed that he coauthored about the lack of serious foreign policy statements by Trump. “Instead,” he lamented, “the world has been left to interpret the sometimes irresponsible, uncoordinated, and ignorant statements of his team.”
Brzezinski called for Trump “to give an address that offers a bold statement of his vision.” Similar calls grew after the president reversed his long-standing noninterventionist policy toward Syria by raining missiles down on a Syrian air base. A White House spokesman brushed aside the need for such a speech, contending to National Journal that “foreign policy was a major topic” in the president’s address to Congress on Feb. 28. But fewer than 800 words in that 5,000-word address dealt with foreign policy, with only one mention of ISIS and not a single mention of Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan.
Asked to define the “Trump Doctrine” after the missile strike, White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday replied, “I think the Trump Doctrine is something that he articulated throughout the campaign, which is that America is first. We’re going to make sure that our national interests are protected; that we do what we can to make sure that our interests, both economically and national security, are at the forefront; and we’re not just going to become the world’s policeman running around the world, but that we have to find a clear and defined national interest wherever we act and that it’s our national security, first and foremost, that has to deal with how we act.”
Trump’s predecessors as president would have used major speeches, though, to explain how they defined the national interest and how they decide when to use military force, questions still unanswered by this administration. Further confusing the situation this week were the conflicting statements on U.S.-Syrian policy by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.
Michael Allen, who worked in the George W. Bush White House for seven years in national security and legislative roles, first urged Trump to make a foreign policy address in February when he encountered numerous questions from his contacts in Europe. Now managing director of Beacon Global Strategies, Allen said that on his trips to Europe he sees “just tremendous demand for information on where does he stand” on questions including NATO and the European Union. “The uncertainty has got to be at an all-time high.”
Alice Hunt Friend, who worked both at the Defense Department and the State Department during the Obama presidency, sees that uncertainty as well in Africa and Asia. “Everybody is guessing a lot,” she said. “And because they don’t have the specifics of what the president intends, they have to experiment and experiments can go wrong. It is in the president’s interest to be much more specific than he’s been.”
While the need to reassure allies and inform adversaries is obvious, Friend said a major address also would help Trump with the government officials who deal with foreign governments. “When I was in government, we used presidential statements all the time as a guide to what our actions should be in a tactical sense,” she said. “If you are writing talking points for your engagement with a foreign partner, you very frequently go back to presidential statements to make sure you are consistent with what the administration says its policy is.”
She said a presidential speech—or a series of speeches—would also assist Trump in getting his own way in any debate with Congress. “The American people have a right to know, but also it is helpful for a president to have the American people behind him.” But that won’t happen unless the people “understand what his objectives are and how he intends to meet them and support that vision.”
Dan Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University who formerly worked at the Treasury Department, said a presidential address “would be hugely helpful for American foreign policy.” He said Trump, as president, has to go beyond what Trump, as candidate, said about “America First” being his foreign policy. “That’s a slogan,” said Drezner. Nobody really knows how that translates to policy.
Further hindering a full understanding is Trump’s promise to inject unpredictability in U.S. dealings with the world. Speaking at the Mayflower Hotel last April, in one of two foreign policy addresses he gave during the campaign, Trump promised to make the United States both “reliable” and “unpredictable.” Analysts are still trying to mesh the two.
“He prizes tactical surprise,” said Drezner. “The problem is that surprise works for tactics, but it is an awful idea for strategy.” He added, “In foreign policy, credible commitment matters a lot more than tactical surprise. And that is something that Trump does not understand at all.”
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