President Donald Trump on Monday framed his foreign policy as an extension of his populist economic message, lambasting past presidents and trumpeting his own achievements during a speech meant to outline the guiding principles of his national security strategy.
In a speech that closely resembled a campaign address, Trump offered a laundry list of accomplishments and a reiteration of his view that Americans have been left behind as a result of decisions made by past administrations, including on immigration, the Iran nuclear deal, and trade pacts.
And while Trump repeated some core aspects of the foreign policy strategy document that his aides have spent the past eleven months preparing, he reserved much of his address for touting domestic economic growth and lambasting his predecessors for damaging American security.
“For many years, our citizens watched as Washington politicians presided over one disappointment after another; too many of our leaders — so many — who forgot whose voices they were to respect, and whose interest they were supposed to defend,” Trump said in a speech to collection of uniformed military personnel and members of his cabinet assembled at an auditorium in downtown Washington.
“On top of everything else, our leaders drifted from American principles, they lost sight of America’s destiny, and they lost their belief in American greatness,” Trump said. “As a result, our citizens lost something as well. The people lost confidence in their government and eventually even lost confidence in their future.”
Trump said his election last year was an indication that Americans yearned for another direction.
“We will stand up for ourselves, we will stand up for our country like we have never stood up before,” Trump said. “We know that American success is not a foregone conclusion. It must be earned and it must be won. Our rivals are tough, tenacious and committed to the long term, but so are we.”
Speech skipped strong references from policy
The congressionally-mandated strategy document spells out overarching themes for Trump’s foreign policy.
National security aides to Trump began preparing the strategy statement shortly after he entered office, and drew from his public speeches during the campaign and as President to craft the 48-page document. Trump formally endorsed it during a meeting with cabinet members last week.
During his remarks, however, Trump avoided the more specific references contained within the strategy document, including to Russia’s attempts to influence elections.
Instead, Trump called Russia and China “rival powers” who “seek to challenge American influence, values and wealth,” but stopped short of calling out Moscow for its election meddling.
“We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest,” Trump said, recounting a conversation he held with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday about shared US intelligence that helped thwart a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg.
“They were able to apprehend these terrorists before the event with no loss of life and that’s a great thing, and the way it’s supposed to work,” Trump said. “But while we seek such opportunities of cooperation, we will stand up for ourselves and we will stand up for our country like we have never stood up before.”
That’s a softer approach than what’s contained within the national security strategy, which was released in full shortly before Trump began his remarks. The document describes China and Russia as “revisionist powers” who “want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests.”
The doctrine envisages a world in constant rivalry for economic and security influence, but downplays global agreements signed during past administrations meant to bring the world’s nations into better agreement on issues like trade and climate change.
Congress requires the President to deliver a National Security Strategy that outlines the guiding principles of the administration’s foreign policy. Trump’s two immediate predecessors did not present their strategies in person, opting instead to present them in writing to lawmakers and the public.
Trump determined that a major address would help underscore the document’s adherence to his campaign promises of protecting American interests, aides said. They hoped the speech would help provide coherence to a foreign policy that’s been viewed as confused by some lawmakers and foreign governments.
Didn’t mention election meddling
Trump offered a view of America’s role that discounted the country’s role in achieving global agreements like the Paris climate accord or the Iran nuclear deal. Instead he characterized US foreign relations as competitive and pitted with rivalries.
“We know that American success is not a foregone conclusion. It must be earned and it must be won. Our rivals are tough. They’re tenacious and committed to the long term, but so are we,” he said. “To succeed, we must integrate every dimension of our national strength, and we must compete with every instrument of our national power.”
Many of the strategy’s central tenets are familiar aspects of Trump’s political agenda, including his insistence that trade with other countries be fair and reciprocal. But other aspects of the strategy seem discordant with Trump’s own insistence that ties with Russia be improved.
While the President’s strategy doesn’t directly address Russian attempts to influence the US presidential election last year, it does make reference more broadly to attempts by Moscow to interfere in democratic contests.
“Today, actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies. Adversaries target media, political processes, financial networks, and personal data,” the document reads. “The American public and private sectors must recognize this and work together to defend our way of life.”
Trump did not mention those lines during his remarks, instead sticking to broad declarations of American superiority on the global stage.
“With this strategy, we are calling for a great reawakening of America, a resurgence of confidence, and a rebirth of patriotism, prosperity and pride,” he said.