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.
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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.”

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