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Former Defense Sec. William Cohen On Trump's 'Tough' Foreign Policy Rhetoric


Let's try to make sense of the way President Trump talks about other countries.


Russia is seen as undermining U.S. interests around the world, but the president speaks of a new and better relationship.

INSKEEP: Australia is among the most vital U.S. allies, and the president harangued the prime minister by phone.

MARTIN: Then there's Iran, China and North Korea. The president talks of getting tougher on all of them.

INSKEEP: And when North Korea talked of testing ballistic missiles that could reach the United States, Trump tweeted, it won't happen. That got former Clinton-era Defense Secretary William Cohen wondering what step is next.

WILLIAM COHEN: Well, it's one thing to talk tough about North Korea. The question is does the president have a policy in mind in terms of how he's going to alter the conduct that is currently being carried on because you can't tell what the North Korean leader might do in response to either verbal or rhetorical threats coming from the administration. So you have to take care.

INSKEEP: Cohen is Republican, once a senator from Maine, and he worries about possible Russian influence on the president. He says President Trump's hints at dropping sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine could undermine longtime alliances.

COHEN: It may be that President Trump is fulfilling his negotiating strategy by setting out an extreme position and then having it walk back to something that's more responsible. If it is and it works, OK, he'll get credit for that. But to the extent that he unsettles our allies and encourages others to take action thinking that he is serious, then it could pull down the pillars that have been established over the past 50 or 60 years.

INSKEEP: You're saying that he could inadvertently encourage Russian aggression, inadvertently encourage North Korean aggression because those countries might get the idea that the United States is not really truly standing behind its allies.

COHEN: Or they may fear that he's about to take preemptive action, in which case they might try to preempt that. What I'm saying is that the president of the United States needs to take more care about what is said and how it's said.

INSKEEP: I think we could recite the White House defense ourselves now. Why are you so bothered by this? It's refreshing the way that he talks. He's speaking his mind. People like that. What's wrong with that line of thinking?

COHEN: Well, it takes a long time to build an alliance. It can be destroyed very quickly. And it seems to me there are some, including the president, but some in his administration that want him to act, what I would call, like a blind Samson, pulling down the pillars that have been established since the end of World War II. Those pillars have been responsible for creating and sustaining peace, for the most part, globally, which has allowed a globalized economy to take place, which means many millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, and that people who are not in desperate poverty are less likely to be trying to immigrate to other countries, overloading their borders, et cetera. If you take down the pillars, what replaces it?

INSKEEP: Is the danger of war involving the United States greater than it was?

COHEN: Well, you have people like former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry now writing that his biggest fear is we're going to have a nuclear explosion in his lifetime. That's worrisome.

INSKEEP: Why would that be more likely?

COHEN: Well, because the notion of nuclear weapons has been what we call normalized - this is just another weapon.

INSKEEP: Remarks that the president made while campaigning.

COHEN: Yeah. The notion that proliferation of nuclear weaponry may be in the overall interests of the world I think contravenes every notion that we've had since the bomb was created.

INSKEEP: I want to be as clear as we can that the president, I think, if you talk about inviting Japan to get nuclear weapons, he said different things. I think he may have even denied that he ever said the thing that he had in fact previously said. So he seems to have backed off. But it sounds like you're just arguing that that uncertainty about what the president means is the problem.

COHEN: The uncertainty and the notion that is so cavalierly discussed. With the amount of nuclear weaponry in existence today, the life of this planet is at stake. So it's really incumbent on all of us to find ways to prevent something accidental from taking place because the consequences are existential for us.

INSKEEP: Is the president's tough talk to adversaries or potential enemies really that much different than other presidents? I'm thinking about the way that President Obama, before the Iran nuclear deal, made a blanket statement - Iran's not going to get a nuclear weapon. It would have been hard to mistake that as anything but a threat.

COHEN: Well, you have to put it in the context of President Obama and how he conducted himself throughout his eight years of the presidency. Every instinct on his part was to find ways not to talk belligerently or to take action. In fact, Ronald Reagan talked tough as well, but people had a sense of how Ronald Reagan was going to govern. President Trump comes in with no government experience in a - and accustomed to communicating in a manner which doesn't lend itself to accountability. So is this a way to conduct policy? I don't think so. But, you know, he's president and we're not.

INSKEEP: William Cohen was a Republican senator and defense secretary under President Bill Clinton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.