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Experts Will Parse Trump's Speech For Foreign Policy Positions


Tonight, President Trump has a chance to follow up on a declaration made in his inaugural address. He spoke then of a new decree, which he wanted to be heard in every foreign capital.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first.


Now, for days after that speech, the president argued about the size of the crowd. But there is no doubt that people were watching in foreign capitals. They'll be watching again tonight when the president speaks to Congress, as will foreign policy specialists here in the United States. Among them Richard Haass, who leads the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Mr. Haass, welcome back to the program.

RICHARD HAASS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So much difference in tone with this president compared to past presidents, but is President Trump really approaching the world that much differently now that he's in office?

HAASS: Well, after, you know, five, six weeks, it's hard to give a definitive answer, but the indications are considerably yes. The formulation you just had of America first represents a real departure. It used to be the world first, not as an act of philanthropy, but as an act of self-interest, American presidents understanding that what happened in the world was pivotal to what would happen here in the United States. This suggests a narrower calculation of self-interest.

INSKEEP: Although there are a lot of Americans who are on that page, who don't understand why we spend money on foreign aid, for example.

HAASS: True. But it's actually an amazingly good return on investment. If you look at the last 70 years, what the United States has spent has brought unprecedented stability in Europe and Asia and has brought unprecedented prosperity to the United States. So people like me would say this is exactly what was intended. Indeed, it's turned out better than intended.

INSKEEP: Now, let's just figure out if he's doing very many things that much differently. I'm thinking about Israel, where the president once said that immediately he was going to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. They've decided to put that off. He had a rather unconventional national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who's now been replaced by H.R. McMaster, who seems to have a little more conventional view of the world. Is there any sign the president is learning on the job?

HAASS: Well, there's been a lot of those. The Iran agreement wasn't torn up as some had thought. The two-China policy which was flirted with for a few days is now back to being a one-China policy. So an awful lot of departures seem to have been walked back.

On the other hand, one of the principal foundations of American foreign policy since World War II has been an open world trading system. And the president has clearly walked that back. He pulled the plug on the Transpacific Partnership trade deal. And he's threatening to undo an awful lot of the NAFTA agreement. So that's one area where the rhetoric, if you will, has been matched by reality.

INSKEEP: How significant is it, Richard Haass, that after the president tore up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there is now news of U.S. allies like Japan talking with China, and China now wants to lead a trade agreement that would exclude the United States?

HAASS: Well, it is significant 'cause it would probably mean a much lower quality trade agreement in Asia. It would play to the advantage of China. But I think, Steve, it makes a larger point. When the United States doesn't lead, American allies will have only a couple of options.

One will be to defer to powerful local states, a China in Asia, a Russia in Europe, an Iran in the Middle East. Or they'll take matters more into their own hands. And we'll basically have a world of diminished American influence where countries essentially look to themselves. In the military area, for example, it could mean that they might decide to increase their weaponry, even one day think about having nuclear weapons of their own, rather than relying on the United States.

INSKEEP: So, Richard Haass, I want people to know you've got this book called "A World In Disarray." And one reason I want people to know that is that obviously it just came out. You were writing it well before the election. Was the world order already falling apart?

HAASS: The world order was already getting much weaker. This was a book I wrote without knowing whether it was going to be Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or somebody else. The only thing I knew for sure was the inbox that would greet the 41st (ph) president would be rough.

You have a Middle East that's unraveled. You have a Europe that's less stable than in any time since World War II. You've got the rise of a North Korea with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in Asia. You've got new technologies like cyber that people haven't figured out how to manage. So that would have been the case regardless.

I think what Donald Trump has done is added now a new layer of uncertainty about whether the United States is going to be something like the United States people have come to know and expect and rely on, or whether the United States is now going to be something qualitatively different.

INSKEEP: Now, as he tries to figure that out, it's been very interesting to watch the president's personnel appointments. He clearly likes generals. He likes outsiders. He likes disruptors. It seems like he hasn't had much use for professional foreign policy specialists. What do you make of that as a professional foreign policy specialist?

HAASS: (Laughter) It's bad for the union. I hear what you're saying.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

HAASS: No, it's true. But it's totally consistent with the word you use, which is the foreign policy or national security of disruption. So rather than turning to people who have been something of the architects of American foreign policy for a generation or two, he's turning to the military, which tends to be less of a foreign policy agenda, very good managers, while talking - turning to other outsiders such as businessmen, which is something he obviously identifies with. But again, I actually think we need more preservation, rather than disruption. So for people like me, it raises some concerns.

INSKEEP: Richard Haass, thanks very much. Always a pleasure talking with you.

HAASS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of "A World In Disarray." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.