For all that Donald Trump is often described as “erratic” or “unpredictable,” the basic worldview underlying his foreign policy is pretty consistent and easy to understand: He doesn’t think the U.S. should be expending resources on any initiative that he believes “helps other countries a hell of a lot more than it helps us,” as he once said in reference to U.S. troop deployments in the Middle East. Don’t talk to him about international stability or global order. Other countries’ conflicts are not our problem, and there’s little we can do to solve them anyway.
It’s this thinking that guides his opposition to maintaining U.S. troops and military exercises in South Korea and continuing combat operations in Syria and Afghanistan. To this end, the president has spent the week so far hammering other members of NATO for spending too little on defense and free-riding on U.S. security guarantees. Trump probably doesn’t actually care that much about the specific 2 percent spending target that’s become such a flashpoint, but it’s a useful cudgel to bash an alliance that, in Trump’s view, “helps them a lot more than it helps us.”
So it was a little mind-blowing to hear Trump end his press conference in Brussels this morning by contradicting all of that. The answer came in response to what was, in fairness, a somewhat difficult-to-understand question from a Tunisian journalist about what the U.S. could do to help resolve conflicts in North Africa. Trump seemed to take it as a question about “Africa” as a whole (my emphasis):
We are looking for peace. Africa, as you know, is on our very strong list. But we are looking for peace. We want peace all over. We want to solve problems. We’re looking for peace. Africa right now has got problems that few people would understand. They have things going on there that nobody could believe in this room. If you see, some of the things I see through intelligence, what’s going on in Africa, it is so sad and so vicious and violent. And we want peace. We want peace for Africa. We want peace all over the world. That’s my number one goal, peace all over the world. And we’re building up a tremendous military because I really believe through strength you get peace. But, we’re going to have a military like we have never had before. We have given out orders for, you know, the best fighter jets in the world. The best ships, the best everything. But, hopefully we will never have to use them. That would be a dream. To buy the best stuff, to have the best stuff, to have the best equipment in the world, and to never have to use it would be a really great part of my dream.
Put aside for the moment that the president, who described some African nations as “shithole countries” in January, has reduced an entire highly diverse and varied continent to a monolith of violence and despair. (And what “very strong list” is he talking about?) What jumps out here is that Trump has spent the entire past week repeatedly arguing that the U.S.
is spending too much on countries that should be helping themselves, and is now saying that the purpose of having a strong U.S. military is to “solve problems” and bring peace to the “vicious and violent” conflicts of Africa. Sending the military overseas to solve conflicts is precisely what he has repeatedly argued the U.S. should not be doing anymore.
Perhaps Trump was just ad-libbing at the end of a long press conference following a long meeting. Regardless, if this becomes a regular feature of his rhetoric, nothing coming from him will make any sense anymore.