In International Diplomacy, Words Matter

President Trump speaks during a news conference following his summit with Russian President Putin in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)

There’s a meme circulating through Trumpist Twitter today, and it echoes a consistent theme in Trump apologetics — that what Trump says is less important than what Trump does, and there is a clear distinction between those two things:

There’s a kernel of truth in the defense. While Trump’s rhetoric has been abysmal throughout the campaign and throughout his presidency, he has provided lethal aide to Ukraine, American forces fought a battle with Russian mercenaries in Syria, and our military bombed Syria, Russia’s ally. Moreover, Trump has pushed NATO to increase defense spending, a move decidedly not in Russia’s interests. So, today’s press conference was no big deal, correct? Everyone should just chill out, right?

Wrong. Today’s press conference was a problem. Trump’s rhetoric is a problem.

For a very long time, conservatives and liberals have agreed on a fundamental point of foreign policy and international diplomacy. Words matter. A great deal. The messages we sent to friends and enemies impact the real world in significant ways.

In fact, throughout the Obama administration, Republicans and Democrats knew so well that words matter that they fought a series of ferocious political battles about the correct words to use at home and abroad.

Should Obama say that American rivals and enemies have “legitimate grievances” with America?

Should Obama use the word “Islamic” when describing our terrorist enemies? After all, as we were endlessly told, “If you can’t name the enemy, you can’t defeat the enemy.”

Was it accurate to characterize Obama’s early foreign trips, including his famous Cairo speech, as an “apology tour”?

It was right to fight over these words. After all, a nation that wrongly believes its own missteps are a prime cause of our enemies’ actions is more likely to display weaknesses that enemies can exploit. A nation that believes its enemies are motivated more by, say, economics than religion is a nation that will make specific adjustments in its strategies and tactics overseas. And, critically, foreign powers listen to that rhetoric as a barometer of American intentions and American will. They take actions based on our words.

But now we’re supposed to believe that words don’t matter?

Putin is almost certainly happy to exchange a few anti-tank missiles in Ukraine and few dead mercenaries in Syria if he gets to bask in Trump’s public obsequiousness while reveling in Trump’s rhetorical aggression against American allies. Alliances depend on tanks and planes, yes, but they also depend on common purpose and common strategy. American strength depends on its economy and its military, but it also depends on its national will. Consider what Trump did today. When he had an opportunity to rebuke a foe for its clear and unequivocal hostile acts, he said this:

He didn’t rally Americans against Russia, he rallied Americans against each other — in part by publicly trafficking in rank speculation and feeding conspiracy theories. Moreover, when given the opportunity to publicly hold Russia accountable for “anything in particular,” he says he holds “both countries responsible,” says “the United States has been foolish,” and that “we’re all to blame.” Watch:

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So now Trump apologists are promoting idiocy like the idea that this is an example of keeping your friends close but your enemies closer. No, he’s been alienating America’s friends and flattering America’s enemies. Trump’s words are the product of an ego so fragile that he simply can’t handle any insinuation that his electoral triumph is tainted in any way Russian actions — so he has defend his victory at every opportunity, no matter how inappropriate the setting. In other words, Trump’s press conference wasn’t about advancing America’s interests, it was about defending Trump’s accomplishments.

We are very fortunate that there remains a difference between Trump and his administration. We can be grateful that there are serious people like James Mattis and Nikki Haley in key positions. There is an underlying strength to American alliances (and sufficient common interests) that it takes more than just one bull to break the china shop. But the fact that we’re not on the edge of disaster doesn’t excuse Trump’s conduct, nor does it minimize his words. He blundered, badly, and he did so for the worst reasons. Words matter, and Trump’s words hurt the nation he serves.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.