A Toned-Down Trump Promises 'America First' Foreign Policy

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Donald Trump delivers a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., on April 27. Trump struck a more serious tone in his remarks, but he still stuck to mostly broad policy generalities. Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

With a Wednesday afternoon foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel, the Washington political class got a glimpse of the "new" Donald Trump, the self-declared presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and he didn't sound anything like the braggadocious billionaire who has upended the GOP this primary season.

During the approximately 30-minute speech, Trump seemed supremely uncomfortable attempting to play the somber policy wonk, giving halting, scripted remarks explaining the anti-interventionist "America first" agenda he would pursue as president. Like his other forays into policy, the real estate mogul stuck with broad strokes on foreign affairs, identifying problems and promising they would be resolved but giving little indication of exactly how.

"ISIS will be gone if I am elected president, and they will be gone quickly, they will be gone very, very quickly," the GOP front-runner said, referring to the Islamic State militant group. He did not elaborate. He also asserted that "our military dominance must be unquestioned" while also pledging to cut costs and spend Pentagon funds more wisely. Yet there was no explanation of what he would do to strike that balance—something defense cost-cutters have been struggling with for decades.

Where his speech did attempt to delve into specifics, Trump betrayed just how unfamiliar he is with the subject matter he was speaking on. Garbling the word totalitarianism and pronouncing Tanzania, a country in sub-Saharan Africa on the Indian Ocean, as if it rhymes with Tasmania (it's actually pronounced Tan-ZA-knee-a), he also criticized the folly of the Iraq War, lamenting that "thousands of Americans and just killed, lives, lives, lives wasted."

The details, however, aren't what's important, Trump effectively argued. In a line that echoed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders's campaign in the Democratic primary, the real estate tycoon suggested his good judgment is more valuable than foreign policy expertise. He went on to mock Washington technocrats who "don't know what they're doing, even if they look awfully good writing in The New York Times or being watched on television."

Most of the principles Trump laid out Wednesday echo what he's already suggested in interviews with newspaper editorial boards and in town halls: an end to America's foreign adventurism, a reassessment of U.S. alliances and a diplomatic strategy based on a projection of strength and general unpredictability.

"We're getting out of the nation-building business," Trump promised, a rebuke of the neoconservative policies embraced by the last Republican president, George W. Bush. But mostly he blamed the current Democratic administration. "The legacy of the Obama-Clinton interventions will be weakness, confusion and disarray. We've made the Middle East more unstable and chaotic than ever before," he said.

Trump also called for "a rebalancing of financial commitments" to American partners overseas. "The U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves, we have no choice," he insisted. He didn't mention the prospect of letting U.S. allies obtain nuclear weapons—a suggestion that raised a hubbub in the foreign policy community when he broached it earlier this spring. But he did say that "a Trump administration will lead a free world that is properly armed and funded, and funded beautifully."

Trump also reiterated his promise to strengthen relationships with foreign strongmen. "Some say the Russians won't be reasonable—I intend to find out," he said. He has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite his anti-democratic tendencies. He also condemned the Obama White House for supporting the ouster of U.S.-friendly dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt at the start of the Arab Spring.

And though he's called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants to the United States, Trump said Wednesday that under his leadership "we are going to be working very closely with our allies in the Muslim world."

If the muted tone of his speech and his reliance on a teleprompter weren't particularly Trump-ian, his foreign policy bottom line was very much in keeping with what his whole groundbreaking presidential campaign has been all about: making America great again.

Concluding his remarks, Trump said, "If we do that, perhaps this century can be the most peaceful and prosperous the world has ever, ever known!"