Trump moves to middle in his speech on ‘America First’ approach to foreign policy
Delivering what his campaign billed as a major foreign policy address, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump staked out unusual territory for him Wednesday — somewhere close to middle ground.
His speech to a group of foreign policy mandarins was notable for its contradictions, lack of specifics and occasional belligerence. But he did not repeat several radical ideas he has espoused on the stump — such as promoting the spread of nuclear weapons — that would upend decades of U.S. policy.
Speaking a day after he swept five states and moved within striking range of the GOP nomination, Trump clearly sought to reassure those nervous about his understanding of America’s military and diplomatic obligations and commitments around the globe.
He hewed broadly to the lines of orthodox Republican doctrine on national security and foreign policy, positing that the United States should assert its interests in global economic and diplomatic endeavors.
“It is time to shake the rust off of America’s foreign policy,” Trump said. “‘America First’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”
Trump repeatedly said that the United States under his administration would be a “reliable” power. But he also said U.S. policy would have to be “unpredictable” to keep the world guessing, a formula rarely used in high-stakes diplomacy.
He voiced a willingness to improve relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as he has on the stump. He did not mention Moscow’s belligerent actions in Ukraine, which have led to international sanctions on Russia.
He said his foreign policy would replace “randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace.”
Although he sharply criticized President Obama, many of his calls for stronger action largely echoed what Obama already is doing.
Trump did not call the NATO military alliance “obsolete,” as he has in the past. He instead issued a demand that Obama has repeatedly voiced, that member nations must pay their fair share — a quota calculated at 2% of a country’s gross domestic product.
He said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a bedrock of U.S. policy in Europe since shortly after World War II, needs to update its mission and structure, a position few would dispute.
“Countries must pay for the cost of their defense,” he said, “or let them defend themselves.” America, he added, “should only be generous with those who prove they are our friends.”
If he is elected, he said, America will be “getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world,” which is similar to the argument Obama made in his 2008 campaign.
“Instead of trying to spread ‘universal values’ that not everyone shares,” Trump added, “we should understand that strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments will do more to inspire positive reforms around the world than military interventions.”
Trump said that Obama had “snubbed” Israel and that the White House had helped make Iran more powerful by entering into an arms control deal that saw Tehran destroy its ability to build nuclear weapons in exchange for the removal of United Nations sanctions.
He did not repeat his frequent vow to build a wall on America’s border with Mexico, to deport 11 million Latino immigrants in the country illegally and to deny U.S. entry to most Muslims.
Instead, he spoke vaguely of stronger borders and of fighting extremism at home and abroad.
“We need a long-term plan to halt the spread and reach of radical Islam,” Trump said. But he vacillated between promising robust military action and saying the U.S. would take on only wars it can win.
Trump blamed Obama and his first secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, now the likely Democratic presidential nominee, for the rise of Islamic State and the destabilization of Iraq, Syria and Libya.
“The legacy of Obama-Clinton interventions will be weakness, confusion, disarray — a mess,” Trump said.
In a rare departure, Trump used teleprompters to read a speech, rather than wing it from a few notes. His host was the Center for the National Interest, a conservative group dominated by establishment Republicans.
Trump drew a subdued response from several hundred members of Washington’s foreign policy elite, who gathered in an ornate ballroom at the Washington Mayflower Hotel. Trump campaign staff and a few congressional supporters applauded strongly in the first three rows, but few others appeared to clap.
As he has before, Trump attacked trade deals such as NAFTA, saying they had robbed Americans of jobs and, in the case of China, put the U.S. economy in peril.
Several analysts were left scratching their heads, noting that Trump offered few specifics for how to achieve his vision of a peaceful and prosperous United States that both leads the world but stays out of its troubles.
James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, said this week that presidential candidates often tone down their positions when they get into office.
“Certainly you worry about rhetoric on the campaign trail. I think the history has been that once a president is inaugurated and is in office and realizes the burden and the responsibilities of the position, I think that has a tempering effect on anyone,” Clapper said.
“I am struck with how simple things are on the campaign trail and how the very same issues are hard in the confines of the Situation Room,” he said, referring to the secure room where the president meets his top intelligence and military officials.
Trump’s aides said his speech was the first of several he will give to offer more substance as the primary race moves into its final stretch.
The speech “reflects where the voters are,” said James Jay Carafano, a vice president at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “They are starting to look at him as someone who might be standing in the Oval Office [and asking], ‘Is he trustworthy?’ [Trump] recognizes he has to start to be that person.”
Democrats said the address proved Trump understands too little about foreign affairs to be entrusted with the nation’s security.
Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, said Obama’s use of “smart power,” and not Trump’s call to be “unpredictable,” was the key to effective foreign policy in a dangerous world.
“Blustering is not a strategy,” Albright said in a conference call with reporters. “Do you want someone unpredictable with the nuclear codes?”
Times staff writer Brian Bennett contributed to this report.
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