Trump doesn’t know what he doesn’t know about foreign policy


When it was announced that Donald Trump would be giving a major foreign policy speech, I imagined he might actually have something to say — or at least that whoever may be advising him about international relations would be writing a speech for the candidate to read that would lend coherence to the random notions that he has expressed throughout the early and middle stages of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Silly me. Last week’s “speech” was no more than a somewhat formalized regurgitation of the proudly ignorant and potentially dangerous ideas the Republican front-runner has been spouting for months.

Reviews of the speech from the voices of serious journalism were not kind. The New York Times said the speech “did not exhibit much grasp of the complexity of the world, understanding of the balance or exercise of power, or even a careful reading of history.” The Economist said Trump’s “description of statecraft as a series of deals, brokered in eyeball-to-eyeball negotiations with foreign powers, bears no resemblance to real diplomacy.” The Wall Street Journal said, “For prepared remarks, or for that matter even an after-dinner talk, Mr. Trump’s speech was especially rife with contradictions.”


Among those contradictions: Trump said he would give unflinching support to American allies, even as he denigrated NATO and said he would demand that U.S. strategic partners, from Europe to Japan, cough up more cash to pay the defense bill or else suffer certain unnamed consequences. He pledged to destroy Islamic State but gave no clue as to how he would do it or betray any complex understanding of the underlying forces that gave rise to ISIS. He insisted he wants friendly relations with China while condemning President Clinton for letting the Chinese into the World Trade Organization.

Trump could not resist straying from the script to dip into his trademark riffs about things that are “tremendous” and “beautiful” or people “who don’t know what they are doing.”

The truth is, Trump does not appear to know what he is doing, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Disturbingly, though, he evidences no awareness about how much he doesn’t know, instead indicating that his own self-described brilliance puts him at a level of qualification higher than anyone who has spent a career studying and working within the complex realm of international policy. Although Vladimir Putin has expressed admiration of Trump — either because he sees Trump as a kindred spirit or as a guy he can easily bamboozle — the rest of the world, and American allies in particular, are appalled that, by November, there might actually be a majority of Americans confused enough to put this braggart in charge of the world.

Average Americans have never been especially savvy about international policy, ignoring events in foreign lands until they are called upon to send their sons and daughters into battle to crush the latest threat from abroad. Voters generally prefer candidates who talk tough and keep things as clear cut as an action movie. Even though we have the recent example of George W. Bush whose bold talk and simple thinking got the country into costly, tragic trouble overseas, we never seem to learn.

Most people will not have heard or read Trump’s foreign policy address. Those who are inclined to support him will merely take note that Trump read some big words about foreign affairs in front of an audience of gray-haired guys in suits and they will hear chatter on cable news that this performance makes Trump look “more presidential.” That will be enough to confirm that he is their guy and all will be right with the world.

If only it were that simple.