Presidential Rhetoric vs Reality: Can You Separate Style from Substance in Trump’s Foreign Policy?


By: Stan Sundel, Associate Editor for the Middle East

Photo by: Associated Press

There are few things President Trump is more famous for than his bombast and bluster. Trump’s Twitter feed, his favorite communication tool, is flooded with rash rhetoric. His interviews and speeches are often equally audacious. The president is our era’s preeminent provocateur – an engine endlessly sparking outrage that drives nearly every news cycle.

On foreign policy, Trump has made many incendiary statements. He notoriously kicked off his presidential campaign by bashing Mexicans. “When Mexico sends its people,” Trump said, “they’re not sending the best…they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”[i] Trump boasted that he has a “great relationship” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a brutal authoritarian leader accused of authorizing thousands of extrajudicial killings.[ii] And in an Oval Office discussion on immigration policy, Trump reportedly called Haiti, El Salvador, and nations in Africa “s–thole countries.”[iii]

Some political analysts argue that Trump’s remarks essentially do not matter. Even if his rhetoric is unorthodox, unprecedented, or perhaps even unwise, these commentators claim the president’s statements have minimal effect on American foreign policy. As The Weekly Standard opinions editor Barton Swaim said: “If we judge Trump by his actions rather than his words, he doesn’t come out so badly.”[iv] In short, we should ignore his bark, because it is far worse than his bite.

Leading scholars have noted similarities between facets of Trump’s and Obama’s foreign policy. For instance, Georgetown Professor Bruce Hoffman argues that on counterterrorism strategy, “I don’t see the Obama administration’s policies being completely ignored or overthrown by the Trump administration. I see enormous continuity. There are certainly differences in rhetoric. There are certainly differences in style…but in terms of substances, the differences aren’t that great.”[v]

Indeed, there are some parallels between the two presidents’ foreign policies. Despite bashing the institution on the campaign trail, Trump ultimately reaffirmed the United States’ commitments to NATO. He sustained, and moderately strengthened, the military assault Obama began against ISIS. And like his predecessor, Trump has prioritized domestic nation-building over foreign policy adventurism.[vi]

Still, it would be a major miscalculation to completely dismiss the impact of Trump’s rhetoric on American foreign policy. The United States has long thought of itself as a shining city upon a hill, setting a powerful example for other nations to follow. Yet when Trump praises ruthless autocrats and goes on racist rants about immigrants and foreign nations, he hurts America’s hard-earned global reputation – reducing the world’s superpower to the level of a schoolyard bully. A Pew Research Center study revealed that of 37 nations surveyed, only 22% trust Trump “to do the right thing” conducting international affairs; that’s a dramatic decline from the final years of his predecessor’s presidency, when 64% of these countries had confidence in Obama’s handling of foreign policy.[vii] In foreign affairs, reputation is critical – and under Trump’s leadership, American credibility is under question like never before.

Trump’s rhetoric doesn’t always translate into concrete shifts in American foreign policy. But it certainly affects the actions of other nations. Allies feel they can no longer count on us. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that European nations cannot “completely rely” on the United States and “must really take our fate into our own hands.”[viii] Adversaries sense an opportunity to take advantage of us. Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin only emboldens Moscow to continue meddling in the United States’, and other nations’, domestic affairs. Trump’s comments have unraveled the postwar liberal order, and put America’s global standing in peril.

There is an old adage: actions speak louder than words. Often, that may be so. Yet it is foolish to believe that one can neatly separate style from substance when formulating, or analyzing, foreign policy. Ultimately, words matter – and nobody’s words matter more than those from the mouth (or the Twitter feed) of the President of the United States. Reckless rhetoric can dangerously reshape geopolitical realities. And imprudent words, uttered by the world’s most powerful person, have the potential to cause America unimaginable harm.






[i] Ian Schwartz, “Trump: Mexico Not Sending Us their Best; Criminals, Drug Dealers and Rapists are Crossing Border,” RealClearPolitics, June 16, 2015,

[ii] Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Trump Lauds ‘Great Relationship’ with Duterte in Manila,” The New York Times, November 13, 2017,

[iii] Josh Dawsey, “Trump Derides Protections for Immigrants from ‘Shithole’ Countries,” The Washington Post, January 12, 2018,

[iv] Barton Swaim, “Judge Trump by His Actions. You might be Surprised,” Washington Post, April 25, 2017,

[v] Bruce Hoffman, “Bruce Hoffman on ISIS in 2017 and Beyond.” Interview by Jeffrey Palmer. Security Studies Podcast, Center for Security Studies, December 10, 2017. Audio, 38:10.

[vi] David French, “A Donald Trump Speech, a Barack Obama Foreign Policy,” National Review, September 19, 2017,; Thomas Donnelly and William Kristol, “The Obama-Trump Foreign Policy,” The Weekly Standard, February 9, 2018,

[vii] Richard Wike et al., “U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership,” Pew Research Center, June 26, 2017.

[viii] Eli Watkins, “While Campaigning, Merkel Says Europeans can’t ‘Completely’ Rely on US, Others,” CNN, May 29, 2017,

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