Posted by Ryan Suto on July 12, 2017 in Blog

Last week President Trump visited Poland to deliver his second international speech, with the first in Saudi Arabia back in May. The speeches he delivered in Riyadh and Warsaw have clarified the Trump administration’s attitude and general approach to foreign policy: that of insisting there is a civilizational divide in the world, placing the U.S. and Europe on one side and the Middle East on the other. 

The Obama Administration, as with preceding presidential administrations, has been rightly criticized for speaking about values and human rights to the world but not reflecting such words in actions or alliances, including expanded drone strikes and a tepid response to the Arab Spring. This led to a sense of two American foreign policies: one of words and another of actions. Trump’s first two speeches abroad create a different dichotomy: the West and the Rest.

The president made at least token nods to political rights in Poland, part of Trump’s West, stating that America and the “nations of Europe” together “treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.” The president ignored such formalities in Saudi Arabia, part of the Rest, stating that Americans “are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship.”  

In the West he sees the ideal, stating “I am here today not just to visit an old ally, but to hold it up as an example for others who seek freedom and who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization.” In the Rest he sees the barely acceptable, stating “We must seek partners, not perfection—and to make allies of all who share our goals.” 

Even America’s central purpose changes based on where Trump speaks. In Saudi Arabia, it is fighting terrorism: “But above all we must be united in pursuing the one goal that transcends every other consideration. That goal is to meet history’s great test—to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism.” In Poland, it is protecting freedom: “And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. That is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.” Tellingly, in the Rest Trump speaks of goals. In the West he speaks of values.

For Trump, the Middle East is not a land to discuss freedom, and not populated with people to include in “our civilization.” Indeed, in Riyadh, there was no substantial discussion of “freedom,” “value” or “civilization;” these words received only a combined 5 mentions in the speech. In Warsaw those words were mentioned 32 times. When in the Middle East the president did not use allegedly important phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” but when in the West and talking about the Middle East, he did so, showing further inconsistency in his messaging abroad.

At home, Trump’s inclusion of the West to the exclusion of the Rest fails to accurately represent millions of Americans. Despite his attempts to halt Arab refugees, ban travel to the U.S. from five Arab and Muslim-majority countries, and Iran, and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Americans do not reflect the dichotomy of Trump’s worldview. Nearly 30% of Americans are not Christian and at least 28% identify with no ancestral connection to Europe. The country’s diversity has led many to see an increasingly interconnected world, with borders continually blurred by cultural diffusion, trade, and cooperation. Their America is one in which 70% of Silicon Valley CEOs are immigrants, and interracial and interfaith unions are increasingly common. 

Abroad, Trump’s West v. Rest civilizational dichotomy fails America’s interests, as well. Just as foreign leaders and publics can read all the president's tweets, they can read his speeches, too. Potentially strategic Iraqis and Syrians have been slighted by their exclusion at the Riyadh summit, and at the most recent G-20 meeting European officials already see opposition to Trump as needed to support European values, such as combating climate change. Trump’s shifting rhetoric on whether his administration prioritizes security over freedom, as stated in Saudi Arabia, or seeks to protect religious and political liberties at all costs, as stated in Poland, does not give our allies a consistent and dependable partner, as these two approaches are often at odds with each other.

The civilizational divide between the West and the Rest which forms the worldview of the Trump administration is both inaccurate and bad policy at home and abroad. The United States must engage in all regions of the world, consistently supporting the timeless values of our founding documents with a full appreciation to the cross-border ties which technology has nurtured. And our President must include all Americans in the process of perfecting the country, irrespective of demographics, in words and actions.