(First in a series of special reports by WND White House reporter Garth Kant examining President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.)
WASHINGTON – America has never had a leader quite like President Trump.
He was the only 2016 Republican presidential candidate to condemn the Iraq war.
Now he is the president who launched 59 cruise missiles against Syria without drawing a red line first.
So, is Trump a dove or a hawk?
He came to power preaching “America First,” but has already reached significant trade agreements.
So, is the president an isolationist or a free-trader?
Trump is not easily categorized or put into any of the boxes normally used to describe an American president.
However, his primary mission is clear.
The president has famously and repeatedly described his top policy goal as “Make America Great Again,” or as it’s known in the Twitterverse, MAGA.
What does MAGA mean in foreign policy?
Indeed, just what is the president’s foreign policy?
The big picture was outlined as “very simple” in a May interview by the deputy assistant to the president, Dr. Sebastian Gorka, just before the commander in chief’s first overseas trip: “We are back as a nation. American leadership is back … and the era of strategic patience is gone, it’s over. There will be no more leading from behind.”
“This is not an interventionist American foreign policy,” he added, “but it is a White House that will fill the vacuum created by eight years of feckless Obama lack of leadership.”
Upon closer examination, Trump’s foreign policy appears to be as unique as the man himself, from what can be gleaned from the president’s advisers and others who have observed him closely. And from Trump’s own words.
A first clue came from a speech on foreign policy Trump gave as a candidate in August, in which he translated MAGA into MASA, with the opening line, “Today we begin a conversation about how to Make America Safe Again.”
Then, in his first speech delivered overseas, Trump unveiled the concept that will guide his foreign policy, called principled realism.
But what principles will guide him? What are the president’s policy goals and priorities? His strategies?
Does he have a grand vision? What does he hope to accomplish? What is Trump’s ultimate goal?
This series will explore these questions by examining how the president is conducting foreign policy in key spots around the world, such as the Mideast, Europe, Asia and the Americas.
It will also explore the proposition that Trump’s top foreign policy objective may be even greater – much greater – than just making America safe again.
There is a sense in the White House that this is a unique era with unique opportunities. And the president is a man who likes to think big.
Trump declared in his May 21 speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, “Our vision is one of peace, security, and prosperity – in this region, and in the world.”
He told the attendees of the Arab Islamic American Summit, “[W]e pray this special gathering may someday be remembered as the beginning of peace in the Middle East – and maybe, even all over the world.”
What follows is an explanation the president’s foreign policy with an introductory examination of:
- Principled realism
- Trump’s own words
- Trump’s uniqueness
- Principles of Trumpism
- America at a crossroads
During the presidential campaign, critics warned that Trump’s “America first” credo would translate into isolationism. The administration has asserted that not only is that not the case, but the president’s approach has been a return to the traditional foreign policy practice of prioritizing America’s national interests abroad, whether in security or trade.
Far from adopting a go-it-alone approach, in his first speech overseas the president emphasized his desire for international cooperation by saying, “I want you to know that the United States is eager to form closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce.”
Trump also used that speech to dispel accusations that he is xenophobic or anti-Muslim.
The president first publicly mentioned principled realism as an ideology guiding his administration’s foreign policy in that May speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia.
“We are adopting a principled realism, rooted in common values and shared interests,” he declared.
Trump then immediately stated the first principle: “Our friends will never question our support, and our enemies will never doubt our determination.”
That approach is succinctly expressed in the administration’s unofficial adoption of the motto of the Marine Corps’ 1st Division, “No better friend, no worse enemy.”
“That’s really the message they’re putting out there,” said Gorka in the May interview preceding the Riyadh speech.
The implication being, the administration will seek cooperation, but those who undermine American interests can expect to pay a price.
The speech’s next line was an assurance that the administration did not aim to remake the world or seek interventions: “Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption.”
That is closely related to a point Gorka has stressed emphatically, that the president has a supremely pragmatic approach, one in service of American ideals. An approach that has the humility to recognize its own limitations.
“We have a commander in chief who is incredibly pragmatic. You don’t get to be as successful a businessman as he is without being eminently pragmatic,” the presidential adviser said in a radio interview in February. “And his attitude to how we’re going to get along with (for example) Russia is, ‘Look, we’d like to, but if we can’t, that’s also a reality.’”
That business-like approach was evidenced as Trump’s Riyadh speech continued: “We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes – not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking. And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention.”
The president continued his embrace of realism over wishfulness, coupled with a desire to make effective alliances, in the next line, “We must seek partners, not perfection – and to make allies of all who share our goals.”
The section of the speech devoted to principled realism concluded with the president’s bottom line and ultimate objective, one that could be seen as both pragmatic and idealistic, even moral: “Above all, America seeks peace – not war.”
Overall, the administration is sending a message that the U.S will engage with the world and provide leadership toward peace and security, while acting as non-interventionist as possible. But, if sufficiently provoked, retaliation will be swift, sure and unmistakable.
“The point of our action this week is that diplomacy without force backing it up is just words,”
explained Gorka after the administration launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in April, in retaliation for the regime’s killing women, children and other civilians with chemical weapons.
The military strike also served to illustrate the latter half of the administration’s unofficial motto of “No better friend, no worse enemy,” as Gorka explained it was “a very clear warning: do not test President Trump.”
The sudden strike without public warning also illustrated a key Trump strategy: do not expect this commander in chief to signal his intentions in advance. “This isn’t the Obama administration. We don’t give our game plan away,” warned Gorka.
Presidential advisers are formulating a foreign policy that seeks to protect and advance American interests but not to dominate the world. To promote American ideals and improve the global situation where possible, but also to recognize that not every wrong can be righted.
It is becoming clear that the realism in “principled realism” is largely evidenced in its pragmatism.
The principles are expressed in the pursuit of American interests and values, including moral objectives such as securing peace and the safeguarding of innocent lives.
Illustrating that pragmatism in the Saudi speech, Trump spoke of “mutual respect” for the Arab leaders and reminded them he has “promised that America will not seek to impose our way of life on others, but to outstretch our hands in the spirit of cooperation and trust.”
That included a somewhat daring hope that the Saudis have turned a corner and that the administration can effectively partner with the regime against radical Islamic terrorists.
Before the president’s trip to Riyadh, WND asked top White House officials, “How do you partner with Saudi Arabia against radicalization when the regime has a history of promoting a radical version of Islam, Wahabbism, around the world in its madrasas (schools)?”
Calling it “a very good question,” a senior administration official said “it remains to be seen” if the Saudi shift is genuine. He said “we go by tangible results” and “we have a way of measuring” that.
“We’re optimistic, but we’ll see,” the top official cautioned.
“This administration, this White House, looks at the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” said Gorka before the Riyadh speech, contrasting that with “the last eight years where you created fantasies about how the world should be and what is achievable,” in reference to former President Obama’s support of the ill-fated Arab spring, which ostensibly sought to bolster democracies but ended up spreading jihadism across the region and plunging Europe into an immigration crisis.
But the heavy emphasis on pragmatism does not leave Trump foreign policy unprincipled. Some of those principles are determined by the national interest. Others are simply moral.
The moral component of principled realism was expressed as part of the administration’s explanations for launching the strike on Syria.
“When something as egregious as the use of chemical weapons against women and children occurs, we will take action,” said Gorka after the strike on Syria.
But, he also stressed, “It is in the national security interests of the United States to deal with the threat of chemical weapons used against civilians when it’s happening in a warzone where our primary threat, ISIS, is running around the battlefield.”
That illustrates what seems to be a key concept in the administration, that pragmatism and morality are not only not incompatible, they are complementary.
Realism and idealism, the two traditional schools of thought in international relations, are considered to be diametrically opposed, with the former generally relying on power and national self-interest, the latter on cooperation and morality.
But the president’s response to the Syrian gas attack was portrayed as both the pursuit of American national interest and an objectively moral act. The administration is not shy in emphasizing that American national interests drive international actions. But, they are still informed by moral content as their guide star.
In essence, Gorka even asserted morality IS pragmatic.
“Moral clarity is indispensable when you are up against people who are prepared to kill eight-year-old girls in the name of ideology,” he said after Riyadh speech.
“The region has been waiting for moral clarity, has been waiting for moral leadership. And we are providing it.”
And moral clarity means returning to such basic concepts as an objective right and wrong, and good and evil. And the imperative to confront evil.
“Moral relativism is what enables or assists those who have evil intents to perpetrate their crimes,” Gorka said. “So I think it’s a message that everyone of faith truly understands, that evil exists. It walks the earth. And we, with our friends, must obliterate it.”
To sum up, the evolving elements of the administration’s foreign policy of principled realism could be listed as:
- Pragmatism informed by morality
- Non-interventionism that reserves the right to retaliate
- The building of relations based on shared interests
- Strength and reliability: “No better friend, no worse enemy”
Trump’s own words
Trump’s first foreign policy speech, delivered when he was a candidate on Aug. 15, 2016, in Youngstown, Ohio, appeared to emphasize the compatibility of morality and pragmatism.
The speech focused on the global threat summed up in the words President Obama found so difficult to say: radical Islamic terrorism.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former Secretary of State, had a similar aversion, leading Trump to portray it as a moral failing.
“Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country. Anyone who cannot condemn the hatred, oppression and violence of radical Islam lacks the moral clarity to serve as our president,” Trump declared.
He contrasted that lack of moral clarity with the way President Reagan “repeatedly touted the superiority of freedom over communism, and called the U.S.S.R. the Evil Empire.”
“Yet,” the candidate continued, “when President Obama delivered his address in Cairo, no such moral courage could be found. Instead of condemning the oppression of women and gays in many Muslim nations, and the systematic violations of human rights, or the financing of global terrorism, President Obama tried to draw an equivalency between our human rights record and theirs.”
But Trump didn’t just accuse the Obama-Clinton foreign policy of amorality. He also portrayed it as having exercised a shocking lack of pragmatism.
He recounted how, when that administration took power in 2009, the Mideast was remarkably stable.
“Libya was stable. Syria was under control. Egypt was ruled by a secular president and an ally of the United States. Iraq was experiencing a reduction in violence. The group that would become what we now call ISIS was close to being extinguished. Iran was being choked off by economic sanctions.”
But, by the end of the Obama regime and its odd combination of interventionism and inaction, Libya was in ruins, Syria in a disastrous civil war, ISIS controlled vast territories and was on the march, terrorists were in the Sinai, Iraq was in chaos, Iran was flush with $150 billion in cash (courtesy of Obama) and on the path to obtaining nuclear weapons, and a refugee crisis was threatening Europe and the United States.
Calling the strategy of nation-building and regime change “a proven failure,” Trump said, “it is time to put the mistakes of the past behind us, and chart a new course.”
He called for a new approach to halt the spread of radical Islam that would include “our friends in the Middle East.”
Proposed actions that might be deemed pragmatic included decimating ISIS and al-Qaida militarily, as well as blocking funding for Hamas and Hezbollah and using existing U.N. Security Council resolutions to apply new sanctions against their sponsor, Iran.
But, perhaps significantly, Trump also portrayed morality as a practical tool, saying, “we must use ideological warfare as well.”
By which he meant, “my administration will speak out against the oppression of women, gays and people of different faith.”
“To defeat Islamic terrorism, we must also speak out forcefully against a hateful ideology that provides the breeding ground for violence and terrorism to grow,” the president asserted.
As for stemming the growth of radical Islam at home, the candidate espoused what might be termed a pragmatic application of ideology, stating, “A Trump administration will establish a clear principle that will govern all decisions pertaining to immigration: We should only admit into this country those who share our values and respect our people.”
Again he invoked morality as a complement to pragmatism, vowing, “Those who do not believe in our Constitution, or who support bigotry and hatred, will not be admitted for immigration into the country.”
Morality was front and center when the president chose to make his first overseas speech in the heart of the Islamic world, in Saudi Arabia, and tackle the issue of terrorism head-on.
“This is a battle between good and evil,” Trump starkly declared in an unequivocal assertion of the objective morality informing his stance.
Implying a moral imperative to stop radical Islam, the president asked, “Will we be indifferent in the presence of evil? Will we protect our citizens from its violent ideology? Will we let its venom spread through our societies? Will we let it destroy the most holy sites on earth?”
If the defeat of the Soviet Union was President Reagan’s great international mission, Trump seemed to have found his.
He said the goal of those attending the Arab Islamic American Summit was nothing less than “to meet history’s great test – to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism.”
Trump left no doubt that this was his most pressing foreign policy goal.
“There can be no coexistence with this violence,” he declared. “There can be no tolerating it, no accepting it, no excusing it, and no ignoring it.”
And Trump explicitly did what Obama would not do – asked Muslim leaders to face the reality of the problem within their own faith, telling them, “That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.”
He put it in terms meant to appeal to their conscience, adding, “And it means standing together against the murder of innocent Muslims, the oppression of women, the persecution of Jews, and the slaughter of Christians.”
Trump also expressed realism in his outreach, with his promise that “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others.”
He also made the pragmatic point of telling Arab leaders with whom he sought an alliance against terrorism, “We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”
Trump applied the principled realism tenet of building of relations based on shared interests, including such shared values as the protection of innocent life and the building of a better life for the Arab leaders’ peoples.
The president noted, “in sheer numbers, the deadliest toll (taken by Islamic radicalism) has been exacted on the innocent people of Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern nations,” adding that by some estimates, “more than 95 percent of the victims of terrorism are themselves Muslim.”
“Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free from fear, safe from violence, and innocent of hatred,” Trump reflected. “And young Muslim men and women should have the chance to build a new era of prosperity for themselves and their peoples.”
While Trump strongly emphasized such humane interests shared by the West and the Muslim-majority nations represented there, he sharply distinguished those present from jihadists.
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations.
This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.”
And, in words undoubtedly meant to encourage rather than frighten, the president restated the maxim of “No better friend, no worse enemy” in terms of mutual benefits, which also carried an implicit warning, telling Arab leaders, “we can only overcome this evil if the forces of good are united and strong – and if everyone in this room does their fair share and fulfills their part of the burden.”
Underscoring the principle of not dictating American demands to allies, he reminded the leaders that their fates were in their own hands, stating, “It is a choice between two futures – and it is a choice America cannot make for you.”
Trump may have made a point of telling his Arab audience that having shared values did not mean imposing Western values on his hosts. But he also had no problem telling a European audience of the necessity of defending their own Western values, and indeed, Western Civilization.
In a speech in Warsaw, Poland, on July 6, the president made a not-so-veiled reference to radical Islamic terrorism, as well as “the creep of government bureaucracy,” in describing “dire threats to our security and to our way of life.”
He cited Poland’s survival of Nazism and communism as “an example for others who seek freedom and who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization.”
And he was not afraid to defend Western values, again and again.
Referring to the latest threat to Western Civilization, the president vowed, “Our citizens did not win freedom together, did not survive horrors together, did not face down evil together, only to lose our freedom to a lack of pride and confidence in our values. We did not and we will not. We will never back down.”
“We cannot accept those who reject our values and who use hatred to justify violence against the innocent.”
The speech was hailed as soaring and inspirational by the president’s supporters. New York Post columnist Lt. Col. Ralph Peters called it “the most impressive speech by a U.S. president on European soil since Ronald Reagan raised the challenge, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’”
In marked contrast, the president’s critics in the establishment media took his unabashed defense of Western civilization as an ethnocentric and religiously bigoted defense of racist white nationalism.
However, the president did not denigrate other cultures. He lauded the accomplishments of the West. He even described Muslims as partners in combatting the terrorist threat to the West.
“During a historic gathering in Saudi Arabia, I called on the leaders of more than 50 Muslim nations to join together to drive out this menace which threatens all of humanity,” Trump reminded the audience.
Portraying those Arab leaders as allies of the West, Trump told Poles, “We must stand united against these shared enemies to strip them of their territory and their funding, and their networks, and any form of ideological support that they may have.”
And, in reference to Europe’s immigration crisis, the president suggested the same policy he has promoted at home: “While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people, our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind.”
He praised Poland’s valiant history while appealing to its culture’s sense of objective morality, stating, “The triumph of the Polish spirit over centuries of hardship gives us all hope for a future in which good conquers evil, and peace achieves victory over war.”
As for building relations upon shared interests, he reminded the Europeans, “The world has never known anything like our community of nations.”
Intended as objective proof of the value of Western civilization, Trump listed its many artistic accomplishments, its innovations including “the rule of law and protect[ing] the right to free speech and free expression,” the empowering of “women as pillars of our society,” and its “timeless traditions and customs.”
“And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. That is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.”
Still, despite all these blessings and achievements, Trump had a dark warning.
He starkly stated, “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?”
It is not the kind of question Westerners are used to hearing from a national leader. Not since Reagan have Americans heard a president warn of a threat to the nation’s existence, and to Western Civilization itself.
It’s also been a number of years since an American president has been so pro-American, particularly abroad.
Referring to what he called Obama’s “global apology tour,” Trump said in his August address, “Perhaps no speech was more misguided than President Obama’s speech to the Muslim World delivered in Cairo, Egypt, in 2009.”
Trump is brash. But he is also the most successful businessman to ever lead the nation. He is unlike any other president, ever. That makes him a mystery. But it also makes him something that may portend great potential.
Perhaps the most apt word to describe the man is unique.
Gorka has stressed that Trump is “a very different kind of president.”
A look at that, and just how important it is, in the second part of this series.