It might not come as a surprise to Donald Trump critics—or any clear-thinking person—but Trump’s “major” foreign policy speech Wednesday was riddled with contradictions.
Set aside the merits of an “America First” foreign policy (whatever that means), or that his basic foreign policy vision is indistinguishable from President Obama’s (they both want to dismantle the post-Cold War international system).
For now, consider these five glaring contradictions in what was supposed to be a speech that showed how serious and sober Trump can be about foreign policy.
1. We’re Going To Be A Reliable Ally… Unless Our Allies Don’t Pay Up
What are America’s allies to make of Trump’s claim that “America is going to be reliable again. It’s going to be a great and reliable ally again. It’s going to be a friend again” when he turns around and complains that our allies are not paying their fair share for protection? He took it a step further, saying, “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. We have no choice.”
So, America is going to be a great and reliable ally again. But we’re also going to extort protection money from our allies. With friends like that, who needs Russia?
And if we “let these countries defend themselves,” doesn’t that mean allowing them to develop or obtain nuclear weapons? Or at least build up vast arsenals of conventional weapons?
Yet Trump said he’s very concerned about weapons: “Too much destruction out there, too many destructive weapons. The power of weaponry is the single biggest problem we face in the world.” Last month he said outright that Japan and South Korea might need nuclear weapons and that “it’s only a question of time.”
2. We Have Permanent Enemies… But We Want Everyone To Be Our Ally
Speaking about the Middle East, Trump said, “We need to be clear-sighted about the groups that will never be anything other than enemies. And believe me, we have groups that no matter what you do, they will be the enemy.” It’s not clear who he’s talking about—“groups” in the Middle East could mean anything—but let’s say he’s talking about Shiite militias in Iraq. They will never be anything but our enemy. Got it.
A minute later, he said we won’t go abroad in search of enemies, and that he wants everyone to be our allies. The irony is that by breaking up our strategic alliances, Trump would multiply and strengthen our enemies. Breaking up our alliances is of course one of the highest strategic goals of our enemies.
3. We’re Going To Work Closely With Muslims… And Also Ban Them
It wasn’t just that so many of Trump’s statements in the speech were contradictory or incoherent. He also appeared to refute much of what he’s said in the past about foreign policy and immigration.
Trump claimed that to defeat radical Islam “We’re going to be working very closely with our allies in the Muslim world.” That’s great. But if Trump imposes his notorious Muslim ban, none of those allies would be able to enter the United States. (He even made a veiled reference to the ban in his speech, saying we need a “pause for reassessment” on immigration.)
4. We’re Going To Promote Western Values… Or Not
Western values properly understood are “universal”—they apply to everyone everywhere. Insisting that democracy and free speech and human rights were not just for Americans but also for the people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Bloc was a lynchpin of our strategy in the Cold War.
Trump doesn't seem to realize that Western values are universal.
Trump doesn’t seem to realize this. He said: “I will work with our allies to reinvigorate Western values and institutions. Instead of trying to spread universal values that not everybody shares or wants, 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.”
Does Trump see a difference between “trying to spread universal values” and “promoting Western civilization”? Perhaps he thinks Western civilization and values are not universal. If so, that would be a spectacular repudiation of the whole concept of Western civilization and the Enlightenment—and also stark reversal of more than a half-century of American engagenment with the world.
5. We Want Stability… And A Trade War With China
Throughout the speech, Trump emphasized that we need to promote stability. He said America is going to “get out of the nation-building business” in favor of “regional stability.” Fair enough.
Then he said that if China doesn’t start “respecting” the United States, “we can both go our separate ways.” He went on to outline, as he has many times, his plan for starting a trade war with China. If there’s anything that would do more to sow instability in the world, it would be for the United States and China to “go our separate ways” and wage a trade war. Maybe Trump doesn’t think so. But almost everyone else does—including the Chinese.
Whatever else Trump’s speech was, it was not “coherent.” Trump thinks U.S. foreign policy veered off course after the Cold War, that “our foreign policy began to make less and less sense. Logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance.”
Based on what Trump said Wednesday, under his administration we’d have more of the same—except in addition to foolishness and arrogance, we’d also have astounding incoherence.