Commentary: Trump’s populist foreign policy won't win the White House

If Donald Trump’s aim in coming to Washington on Wednesday was to win over America’s foreign policy community, it really did not work.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, April 27, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

If he was looking to outline an approach that resonated with voters frustrated and dejected by America’s attempts to shape the world over the last 15 years, however, he may have been rather more successful. So politically divisive has the man dubbed the “tangerine tornado” become, however, that it may do him little good at the polls.

It’s perhaps the greatest paradox of this year’s already fascinating election. In many respects, Trump’s iconoclastic, isolationist stance is much more in tune with popular opinion. And yet Hillary Clinton will almost certainly defeat him, polls show. She, on the other hand is almost the ultimate insider, associated with America’s recent foreign policy establishment and thinking more than almost any other figure.

In many ways, there were few surprises in Trump’s Wednesday speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. He had already outlined many of his positions in interviews, particularly with the New York Times and Washington Post.

For all his talk of making the country great again, his “America First” strategy -- it’s probably not yet quite coherent enough to call a doctrine -- is unashamedly about having the United States do less. Less nation building, less in the way of military intervention, much less in the way of support for allies.

That’s a dramatic departure for the Republican Party, even if Trump does continue to stick with all his rhetoric when it comes to hunting down militants and protecting Americans abroad. Hardly surprising, therefore, that some of the most strident criticism comes from within the Republican foreign policy elite.

When Trump attacks what he refers to as “Obama-Clinton” policies of intervening in the Middle East, he is also clearly attacking the record of President George W. Bush.

Perhaps unsurprisingly -- he is, after all, now a politician -- Trump was actually relatively vague on circumstances under which he would use military force. A strategy for “victory with a capital V” would be a requirement, he said. But he would be willing to use force to protect America.

Based on that speech, it’s hard to imagine him authorizing a major large-scale troop deployment on the scale of the Iraq or Afghan wars. But then it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone who enters the Oval Office next year being enthusiastic about that kind of operation given the results so far.

Certainly, American voters have no enthusiasm for more major fights, particularly not the resulting expense in blood and treasure. Because of his “outsider” status, Trump can run much more aggressively against the record of those recently in power and that may play relatively well.

So may some of his arguments that America’s allies have become freeloaders, counting on protection from the United States that it cannot longer afford to provide. He stopped short of repeating his threats to quit NATO or encourage South Korea and Japan to get their own nuclear weapons. But he made it clear a Trump administration would be much less enthusiastic on helping out.

Such talk points to perhaps the largest single contradiction in his policy framework -- the messy combination of perhaps pulling support from allies while making a virtue of standing up rigorously to a newly assertive Russia and China. In confronting Islamic State, Trump says America should go out of its way to make itself “less predictable.” In confrontations with major nuclear weapons states, however, unpredictability may not be a virtue.

At the end of the day, the heart of Trump’s appeal lies in his ability to persuade a relatively large proportion of the electorate -- mainly white, often older -- that the problems America faces both at home and abroad are someone else’s fault. Trade protectionism is at the core of that approach -- by ramping up tariffs, Trump is explicitly promising to protect and build jobs in a way that economists see as unrealistic.

That doesn’t, of course, mean it doesn’t resonate. What was striking, however, was the complete absence from the speech of the previous cornerstone of his foreign policy: somehow forcing Mexico to pay for an enormous wall to keep out illegal migrants.

As the Mexican government has pointed out on several occasions, that simply isn’t going to happen. The reason it wasn’t in the speech, however, may come down to rather more domestic political considerations.

In his fight for the primaries, Trump seemed to view being outrageous, politically incorrect and combative as a remarkably effective route forward. It worked -- bringing him free media coverage and clearly resonating with many of those whose votes he needed to win the nomination.

As the general election approaches, however, those positions suddenly appear serious liabilities. Trump has alienated almost all Latinos. His comments on abortion in particular have alienated women -- a mistake Hillary Clinton seems extremely ready to capitalize on. His position with African-Americans is, if anything, even worse -- leaving simply not enough angry white men to carry him to the White House.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is also founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21; , a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank operating in London, New York and Washington DC. Prior to that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he also has been an officer in the British Army Reserve.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.