Missing: A Trump Foreign Policy Address

Nearly every president for eight decades had given a major speech outlining his foreign policy vision by this point in his tenure. Trump hasn’t.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
George E. Condon Jr.
Add to Briefcase
George E. Condon Jr.
April 13, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.”

What We're Following See More »
Trump Says He'll Call MBS to Ask About Khashoggi
5 hours ago

"President Trump said he plans to call Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump spoke on Saturday during an appearance in the Oval Office with Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was recently released by the Turkish government."

Trump on Blasey Ford: "We Won"
5 hours ago

Asked by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes on Sunday night, President Trump said he thought he treated Dr. Christine Blasey Ford fairly, even as he was accused of poking fun of her at a rally. He then declined to address the issue further, saying "I'm not going to get into it, because we won. It doesn't matter. We won."

Turkish Officials Claim To Have Video Of Khaggoshi's Killing
2 days ago

"The Turkish government has told U.S. officials that it has audio and video recordings that prove Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul this month, according to U.S. and Turkish officials. The recordings show that a Saudi security team ... killed him and dismembered his body, the officials said." Late Thursday, Turkey agreed to form a joint committee with Saudi Arabia to investigate Khashoggi's disappearance, signaling Saudi Arabia's likely intent to preempt sanctions from the United States. Members of Congress have asked President Trump curb weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Intel Learned of Plot to Capture Khashoggi
3 days ago
Turkey Says It Has Video Proving Khashoggi Was Killed
3 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.