Real Foreign Policy Talk: James Robbins

President Trump has discarded Obama’s idealism for a realistic approach.

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Donald Trump made an impassioned plea for a return to American global leadership, guided by national interest and tempered by a recognition of the limits of the policies of previous administrations.

Early in the speech, Trump established his theme of American leadership. “Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead,” he said. “All the nations of the world – friend or foe – will find that America is strong, America is proud and America is free.” This is an implicit break from the Obama administration’s humbler, more deferential approach to international politics.

The notion of emphasizing a proud, strong and free America was something the previous government would have found at best distasteful, at worst offensive and destabilizing. By contrast, the Trump White House has shifted American policy towards a “peace through strength” framework in which global stability is best achieved when the United States wields a firmer hand.

Trump pledged a “direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world” with “American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies across the globe.” He emphasized that his approach would be one of the mutual respect and reciprocity. “America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path,” he said, but added that it was not his job to represent the world. “My job is to represent the United States of America. But we know that America is better off, when there is less conflict – not more.” He pledged to increase the depleted defense budget in order to give the military “the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve.”

Trump also addressed the NATO issue, which had been a point of contention during the 2016 campaign, when critics charged that a Trump administration would spell the end of the alliance. But Trump pledged strong support for NATO, “an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism.” He reemphasized the need for equitable burden sharing, saying “our partners, whether in NATO, in the Middle East, or the Pacific [must] … pay their fair share of the cost.” And, “based on our very strong and frank discussions,” he noted that members of the alliance are “beginning to do just that.” He likewise said that the United States was “willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align,” noting that countries America has gone to war with (such as Japan and Germany) are now among its closest allies.

The president noted that his administration has “inherited a series of tragic foreign policy disasters” and that “we must learn from the mistakes of the past.” With respect to the Syrian refugee crisis, he pledged to look to its root causes. “The only long-term solution for these humanitarian disasters,” he said, “is to create the conditions where displaced persons can safely return home and begin the long process of rebuilding.”

Consistent with his “America First” theme, Trump was critical of the United States spending “trillions of dollar overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled,” and defending the “borders of other nations, while leaving our own borders wide open.” He pledged a new emphasis on securing American borders from narcotics smuggling, human trafficking, and illegal immigration, as well as new vetting procedures to prevent the infiltration of radical extremists who could create a “beachhead of terrorism” in America.

In the fight against terrorism abroad, Trump reiterated his directive to the Department of Defense to “develop a plan to demolish and destroy” the Islamic State group, and pledged to “work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.” He also noted that he had “imposed new sanctions on entities and individuals who support Iran’s ballistic missile program,” and reaffirmed America’s “unbreakable alliance with the State of Israel.”

In the most moving segment of the speech, Trump paid tribute to Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy SEAL Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens, who died on Jan. 29 of wounds received during a counterterrorism raid in Yemen. “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” Trump said, and “to those allies who wonder what kind of friend America will be, look no further than the heroes who wear our uniform.”

Overall, the speech communicated Trump’s determination to root American national security policy firmly in the bedrock of national interest. In this, he is steering a course away from the foreign policy idealism of the Obama years, and from the former president’s more submissive tone. The message is that the United States will seek a strong leadership role where interest dictates, and take a hard line against America’s enemies. Yet, at the same time, the country will neither seek conflict nor let it fester. It is a balanced and realistic vision for peace and stability.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow for national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and the author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.”


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