By Steve Holland and Emily Stephenson
Rolling out an “America first” foreign policy, Republican front-runner Donald Trump vowed on Wednesday that if he were elected president, US allies in Europe and Asia would have to fend for themselves if they did not pay more for the US defence umbrella.
Trump’s speech, delivered with a teleprompter in a staid Washington hotel ballroom, was an attempt to show he can be more presidential and move past the rancorous rhetoric that he routinely uses on the campaign trail.
“It is time to shake the rust off of America’s foreign policy. It’s time to invite new voices and new visions into the fold,” he said in a speech that savaged the foreign policy of Democratic President Barack Obama as a disaster.
But the message Trump delivered appeared contradictory at times and was largely devoid of details.
He spoke of building up the US military as a deterrent to US adversaries, but said American allies in Europe and Asia would have to pay more for US defences provided by Washington.
He issued this stern message on paying for defence, but said the United States under his leadership would be “a reliable friend and ally again.”
He was sharply critical of immediate past presidents, both Republican and Democratic, for getting Americans involved in military conflicts abroad, but said the United States may well need to use force to defeat Islamic State militants.
US Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a hawkish Republican who was a presidential candidate until dropping out early this year, panned Trump’s speech, saying it did not reflect conservative policy.
“It’s isolationism surrounded by disconnected thought, demonstrates lack of understanding threats we face,” Graham wrote on Twitter. “Not sure who is advising Trump on foreign policy but I can understand why he’s not revealing their names.”
The New York billionaire spoke the day after victories in five Northeastern states that moved him closer to capturing the Republican Party presidential nomination for the Nov 8 election.
Trump has gone from outsider last year to party front-runner with a plain-talking campaign that has often appealed to working class voters who feel let down by globalization, free trade and the decline of American manufacturing in recent decades.
His foreign policy speech echoed that populist message: depicting a need to ease the US financial burden overseas, focus more on nation-building at home and make sure American companies pay a price for outsourcing jobs to countries where labour is cheaper.
“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make,” Trump said. “‘America first’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”
Trump’s nearest rival for the Republican presidential nomination, US Senator Ted Cruz, said in a tweet, “Donald’s speech is the most dramatic evidence thus far that he fails the presidential test.”
‘SELLING A DREAM’
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said Trump’s speech did not contain enough details to call it a strategy.
“Ultimately, he’s selling a dream and he’s still not offering a plan. He’s representing the sales office, but he’s given no clue of who will be the architect and who will do the construction,” he said.
Trump did not stray from the ideas that have helped put him close to winning the Republican presidential nomination.
He was particularly withering in his critique of Obama’s foreign policy, saying the president has let China take advantage of the United States and not been able to persuade Beijing to rein in North Korea.
“We have the leverage. We have the power over China, economic power, and people don’t understand it. And with that economic power, we can rein in and we can get them to do what they have to do with North Korea, which is totally out of control,” Trump said.
Trump, a real estate developer who frequently touts his ability to negotiate deals, said he would negotiate with China from a position of strength.
“China respects strength and by letting them take advantage of us economically we have lost all their respect,” he said.
According to social media analytics firm Zoomph, Twitter reaction to the speech was more positive than negative, with roughly 100 posts per minute mentioning the Republican front-runner.
Perhaps the most specific policy prescription offered by Trump was to say he would organize two summits, for NATO allies and Asian allies, to discuss “rebalancing” the alliances to ease the financial burden to the United States.
“The countries we defend must pay for the cost of this defense. If not, the US must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice,” Trump said.
Trump said he would build up the US military to keep pace with Chinese and Russian military programs but would use American armed forces only when absolutely necessary.
With US-Russian relations strained over numerous issues including Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Trump said “an easing of tensions with Russia from a position of strength” is possible.
US Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, said Trump got input from a number of sources.
“He talked to a lot of people. However, I would just note that all you’ve got to do is listen to the speech, it was Trump. That was him,” Sessions said.