Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump took a swipe at neoconservatism Wednesday, arguing in a major foreign policy address that the U.S. shouldn’t be in the “nation-building business” and suggesting Washington should be more willing to work with unsavory regimes as long as doing so advances American interests and creates “stability in the world.”
Speaking blocks away from the White House, Mr. Trump broke from his typical off-the-cuff style and used a teleprompter, telling a reserved audience largely drawn from Washington’s think tank establishment that his approach “replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy and chaos with peace.”
The much-anticipated speech drew both praise and heat from the foreign policy veterans as Mr. Trump called broadly for an “America first” foreign policy and sought to temper doubts about his worldview and familiarity with international issues, all just one day after moving closer to the GOP nomination with sweeping wins in five Northeastern primaries.
Only occasionally ad-libbing as he read his prepared remarks, Mr. Trump hammered President Obama for letting America’s “rivals and challengers think they can get away with anything,” asserting the administration has pursued dangerous and misguided detentes with regimes such as Cuba and Iran while avoiding confrontation with North Korea over its growing nuclear provocations.
“To all our friends and allies, I say America is going to be strong again. America is going to be a reliable friend and ally again,” he said. “We’re going to finally have a coherent foreign policy based upon American interests and the shared interests of our allies.”
Asserting that “‘America first’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” the billionaire businessman appeared openly to be trying to channel Ronald Reagan during the 38-minute speech, saying both parties had lost their way in the world in the quarter-century since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He took no questions from the audience after his remarks.
He said American foreign policy has “veered badly off course” since the end of the Cold War. He slammed the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and took aim at what he described as a disastrous era of “Obama-Clinton” interventionism.
At least one Republican hawk was quick to slam the speech as vague and contradictory, embracing isolationism and protectionism.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, South Carolina Republican, tweeted that the speech was “isolationism surrounded by disconnected thought.”
“Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave,” Mr. Graham added.
But others praised Mr. Trump for offering more sober and specific details than he has to date on his foreign policy vision. “Donald Trump delivered a very good foreign policy speech in which he laid out his vision for American engagement in the world,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker in a statement.
“In a year where angry rhetoric has defined the presidential race on both sides of the aisle, it is my hope that candidates in both parties will begin focusing not only on the problems we face but on solutions,” the Tennessee Republican said. “I believe today’s speech could be an important step in that direction.”
Mr. Trump did embrace many conservative Republican critiques of the Obama record, slamming the president for refusing to acknowledge that the U.S. is “in a war against radical Islam.”
Containing the spread of jihadis may require the use of American military might, he said, but the conflict should also be understood as “a philosophical struggle, like our long struggle in the Cold War.”
“President Obama won’t even name the enemy,” he said. “Unless you name the enemy, you will never, ever solve the problem.”
New tack on China, Russia
But Mr. Trump went his own way on China and Russia, saying that, if elected, he’ll seek to “live peacefully and in friendship” with both, but only after playing a kind of businessmanlike hardball with Moscow and Beijing.
“An easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia — from a position of strength — is possible,” Mr. Trump said. “If we can’t make a good deal for America, then we will quickly walk away from the table.”
“China respects strength, and by letting them take advantage of us economically, we have lost all of their respect,” he added. “We have a massive trade deficit with China, a deficit we must find a way quickly to balance.”
But after threatening to take a tough line in order to wring trade and investment concessions from Beijing, Mr. Trump then added, “A strong and smart America is an America that will find a better friend in China. We can both benefit or we can both go our separate ways.”
On the campaign trail Mr. Trump has come under fire over what many have described as off-the-cuff posturing on sensitive global issues — from his repeated calls for the border fence “paid for by Mexico” to his proposed temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
He also has been criticized over his statements in favor of using waterboarding torture techniques on suspected terrorists, allowing more nations in the world — including Japan and South Korea — to acquire nuclear weapons to ease America’s security burden, and his claim that NATO is “obsolete.”
Ahead of Mr. Trump’s speech at the Mayflower Hotel on Wednesday, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s campaign warned that he “has used the most reckless rhetoric of any major presidential candidate in modern history.”
“Nothing he can say can hide the long list of dangerous national security proposals he’s put forward,” the campaign said in a statement. “These are not off-the-cuff quips. … Trump has a long record of recklessness and has espoused a world view that goes against everything that makes America great.”
Mr. Trump fired back in his Wednesday address, sharply criticizing Mrs. Clinton’s handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
“After Secretary Clinton’s failed intervention in Libya, Islamic terrorists in Benghazi took down our consulate and killed our ambassador and three brave Americans,” Mr. Trump said. Then, instead of taking charge that night, Hillary Clinton decided to go home and sleep. Incredible.”
The White House took a low-key response to the Trump critique, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying he had not watched the address and would “catch the highlights later.”
Told by a reporter that Mr. Trump had mispronounced the African country Tanzania in his Mayflower speech, Mr. Earnest replied, “Apparently, the phonetics are not included on the teleprompter. All right, on to more serious topics.”
Commander in chief
Wednesday’s event played out like an exercise in attempting to portray the billionaire developer as a plausible commander in chief.
“Our goal is peace and prosperity, not war and destruction,” Mr. Trump said at the event organized by the Center for the National Interest, an organization long considered to promote a “realist” approach to international relations.
“The best way to achieve those goals is through a disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy,” Mr. Trump said.
“Our friends and enemies must know that if I draw a line in the sand, I will enforce it,” he said. “However, unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are signs of strength.”
At another point he said that “if America fights, it must fight to win,” and that he will only send the military into battle “if we have a plan for victory.”
Mr. Trump reiterated his calls for strengthened immigration controls and the pursuit of trade deals that protect American workers.
He slammed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), calling it “a total disaster for the U.S. [that] has emptied our states of our manufacturing and our jobs.”
“Never again,” Mr. Trump said. “We will keep our jobs and bring in new ones. There will be consequences for companies that leave the U.S. only to exploit it later. Under a Trump administration, no American citizen will ever again feel that their needs come second to the citizens of foreign countries.”
Mr. Trump also expanded on his previous comments toward NATO, saying that “the whole world will be safer if our allies do their part.”
“Our allies must contribute toward the financial, political and human costs of our tremendous security burden. But many of them are simply not doing so,” he said. “They look at the United States as weak and forgiving and feel no obligation to honor their agreements with us.
“In NATO, only four of 28 other member countries, besides America, are spending the minimum required 2 percent of GDP on defense,” Mr. Trump added. “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense — and, if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
But he also said the U.S. itself has failed to spend enough on its own defense during recent decades, claiming that “our active-duty armed forces have shrunk from 2 million in 1991 to about 1.3 million today” and that the U.S. Navy “has shrunk from over 500 ships to 272 ships during that time.”
“We will spend what we need to rebuild our military. It is the cheapest investment we can make,” Mr. Trump said. “We will develop, build and purchase the best equipment known to mankind. Our military dominance must be unquestioned.”
“But,” he added, “we will look for savings and spend our money wisely. In this time of mounting debt, not one dollar can be wasted.”