Trump’s Rhetoric Would Change U.S. Foreign Policy Far More Than His Actions

American foreign policy exhibits countless examples of idealistic rhetoric employed to justify realistic action. The Monroe Doctrine declared “our southern brethren” in the Western Hemisphere closed to European colonization, yet these same brethren were soon open to American intervention. During the Cold War, officials from the progressive Harry Truman administration to the conservative Ronald Reagan administration painted U.S. containment policy in terms of protecting the free world from tyranny. Yet, simultaneously, the United States used diplomatic, military, and intelligence means to support autocratic regimes in Iran, Chile, Nicaragua, Indonesia, and elsewhere.

Donald Trump, who may very well be the Republican nominee for president, represents a clear break from this rhetorical tradition.

Many articles have already lambasted Trump for his policy prescriptions, or lack thereof. His interview with the Washington Post editorial board and his latest discussion of foreign policy with the New York Times create more questions than answers—Trump admitted as much when he called on the United States to be “unpredictable.” Analyses of his policies will continue throughout the next eight months, particularly if Trump manages to secure the GOP nomination. A Trump administration could implement policies that profoundly change U.S. foreign policy; but  Trump’s campaign rhetoric alone—even if he ultimately loses—could sow the seeds for a more immediate, and enduring, change in the United State’s role in the world.

Understanding the significance of Trump’s rhetoric requires contextualizing his proposals within the tradition of U.S. foreign policy. Though certainly outside the mainstream, some of Trump’s positions are not unprecedented. Many before him have called for a withdrawal from alliances and international organizations. Ron Paul, who polled as high as 34 percent in 2012 Republican primary states, long advocated for U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations. Openness to using nuclear weapons may seem beyond the pale today, but General Douglas MacArthur, whom Trump has repeatedly lauded, called for the use of atomic weapons in Korea to create a belt of “radioactive cobalt” along the border with China to prevent an invasion.  Trump’s embrace of torture is not even a decade removed from the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program that sent terrorist suspects for “enhanced interrogation” to 54 countries, including “brutal dictatorships, and a few outright U.S. adversaries.”

What sets Trump apart from any other candidate before him is not necessarily his policies, but the rhetoric he uses to package them. Regardless of the course chosen, U.S. leaders have consistently framed foreign policy within the confines of idealistic rhetoric that references our nation’s founding ideals of freedom, democracy, and individual rights. Even when the United States has failed to live up to these ideals, appealing to these values has granted a certain moral authority to U.S. foreign policy, which has been a valuable tool in building the international order that the United States continues to dominate.

Two of Trump’s most outrageous comments clearly demonstrate his break with this rhetorical tradition. In December, he criticized operations in the Middle East against ISIS as “a very politically correct war” and said that the United States “[has] to take out their families.” Of course, targeting innocent civilians is forbidden under international law, a fact that Trump did not acknowledge until three months later. Trump has also called for the use of torture “beyond waterboarding,” using as justification the fact that ISIS uses more brutal tactics. The logic that our enemies’ behavior justifies an in-kind response makes one wonder what else a Trump administration would authorize in the name of ensuring national security.

Such statements from the Commander-in-Chief would make it impossible for the United States to even attempt to live up to the values of freedom and self-determination that have been at the heart of its international leadership. The United States has used moral authority to build coalitions, station U.S. troops abroad, conduct free trade, and support diplomatic efforts to advance its national interests. One such example is George C. Marshall’s June 1947 announcement of the Marshall Plan, in which he states:

“Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.”

Directing U.S. policy towards “hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos” is far more magnanimous than the true political aim of the Marshall Plan: preventing war-ravaged Western Europe from falling under communist influence.[1]  Yet without appealing to these values, the United States loses a powerful tool in enlisting other nations to support its foreign policy.

A Trump presidency could bring about massive changes in U.S. foreign policy. Above all, it could bring about a damaging and enduring end to the United States’ moral authority. Even as a candidate, Trump’s rhetoric is causing global unease. Alliances may change over time, unforeseen threats may prove too challenging to the international system, and history suggests that the United States’ still unmatched military power is a temporary phenomenon. The “America First” philosophy that Trump echoes is not new, and will not disappear as an aspect of U.S. politics. However, moral authority is fragile and ephemeral. There is no alliance, no “deal”, and no transaction that defines it. The United States’ possession of moral authority depends on the rest the world’s interpretation of U.S. actions. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric leaves little room for interpretation, and the damage to U.S. power could be done before he even had a chance to implement his policies.


[1] Note that evidence for this claim is also present in the link to Marshall’s 1947 speech at the Marshall Foundation website under the heading “Results of the Speech”

Andrew Bariahtaris is a member of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and currently works at a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Occidental College in 2014 with a degree in Diplomacy and World Affairs.

Image: Donald Trump at a New Hampshire townhall (credit: Michael Vadon/Flickr)

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