Eleven months after taking the oath of office, President Trump delivered what aides described as a “landmark address” on national security. To those who have been following his pronouncements since the start of his presidential campaign, the details came as no surprise.
The speech was tied to the release of the White House National Security Strategy — a periodic report mandated by Congress that outlines the administration’s approach to foreign affairs. Though his predecessors let the document speak for itself, Donald Trump chose to present it in a major address.
White House officials say Trump wanted to deliver a speech in order to underscore his enthusiasm for the document. But one aide admitted it was unlikely that the president — known for his short attention span — read the whole thing.
The result was, well, confusing.
The document’s tone is serious and rather dark — focusing on numerous challenges including the potential for a revival of the Cold War. Trump’s speech, however, was more upbeat, and targeted more at his political base than the international community.
Though he delivered his remarks in a formal setting, the president often lapsed into the kind of rhetoric often heard at his campaign rallies, including a renewed call for a border wall with Mexico, and plenty of self-praise for the booming stock market and the falling unemployment rate.
And while the formal White House National Security Strategy — or NSS for short — speaks of “a new era of competition” with China and Russia, Trump’s speech seemed somewhat out of sync. Especially when it came to the Russians.
The NSS warns of “Russia using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies.” But in his address, Trump made no reference to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Instead, he mentioned a recent telephone call from President Vladimir Putin who thanked him for information passed on by the C.I.A. that helped thwart a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg.
Richard Haass, a career diplomat who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Axios news website that a read of the NSS turns up all kinds of contradictions that go beyond the president’s statements on Russia.
“The greatest problem with the document is its frequent disconnects with the policies implemented by Trump’s administration,” he wrote.
Haass said, for example, the NSS “talks tough on China, but the administration walked away from the TPP, the best tool to counter Chinese regional influence, and still wants China’s help with North Korea.”
The document also declares that the United States “must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities to compete in the current environment.” This, at a time of devastating cuts at the State Department.
Perhaps this is what happens when populist political considerations collide with foreign policy decision making, when “Make America Great Again” means “America first — no matter what the cost.”
“America is in the game, and America is going to win,” Mr. Trump said in the speech with more than a touch of bravado.
Just looked at what happened at the United Nations just hours before the president’s big speech.
For the first time in six years, the United States used its veto power to block a Security Council resolution. The vote was 14 to one on a measure calling on all nations to refrain from building diplomatic missions in Jerusalem — a clear rebuke of President Trump’s announced plans to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv.
At a briefing for reporters just prior to the release of the NSS, a senior administration official stressed that “America first does not mean America alone.”
But there are conflicting signals. Just ask all the allies — including Britain and France — who voted for the Jerusalem resolution at the U.N.