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Deciphering Trump's Foreign Policy


President Trump laid out his foreign-policy vision at the United Nations yesterday. This morning let's work through the implications. Michele Flournoy was undersecretary of defense under President Obama. She was considered at one point for a Pentagon post in the Trump administration. She joins us on the line via Skype. Michele, welcome back.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So this was Trump's debut at the U.N. Do you feel like the world has a better understanding now of his plans?

FLOURNOY: Well, I actually think the president really squandered an opportunity yesterday. He had the opportunity as a new U.S. president, frankly, as leader of the free world, to lay out a coherent and compelling vision of U.S. strategy but also, you know, to inspire others, to rally others for collective action, you know, against shared threats. And he really didn't do that. Instead he took a very kind of tone-deaf approach, a very bombastic, name-calling in some cases, you know, making unilateral threats. But it really was a missed opportunity.

GREENE: Well, I want to play a little bit of the speech and drill down a bit with you. Here's - here's one clip of him sort of laying out a big theme.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you as the leaders of your countries will always and should always put your countries first.

GREENE: Why do you call this speech tone-deaf? I mean, why is that not a message that a lot of leaders would agree with, that they should always put the interests of their nations first?

FLOURNOY: Well, I mean, I - I think that we should all take that at face value. Of course every nation starts with the premise of, what's in my national interest? But the U.S. is not just every nation. The U.S. is a unique leader in the world, and we have a responsibility to go beyond what's just in our national interests and how do we inspire nations to band together to pursue shared interests. Because absent that U.S. leadership, we can't expect the coalitions of like-minded states to come together to actually deal with problems of proliferation, or terrorism, or climate change or what have you.

GREENE: Michael Anton, the president's national security spokesperson, was on our program yesterday, and he made an argument that - that sounded very concrete. And I want to ask you about it. I mean, he said that the president has offered some very strong criticism of NATO. And it's been in this theme of America First suggesting that all countries should be paying their dues, the financial burden, it should just not be falling on the shoulders of the United States. And he said that past U.S. presidents were not taken seriously but President Trump has been taken seriously, that - that other countries are, you know, ponying-up more money and that that's that's leadership.

FLOURNOY: Well, the increases that we've seen in NATO defense spending actually have been happening over the last several years. Bob Gates, my former boss, secretary of defense, delivered a stinging speech to NATO right before he left arguing that NATO needed to do more. But I think what this focus on burden-sharing and who's paying what misses is that, you know, this is not - we're not doing a favor to our allies. Our alliances, not only in Europe, but around the world, are a tremendous source of strategic advantage for the United States and it's in our interest to ensure that they're strong. You know, you can - you can offer tough love, but you can't just be tough without the love. You've actually got to be committed to those allies if you're expecting them to be committed to the alliance and step up.

GREENE: The president also was very tough on North Korea, saying that the U.S. will show strength, patience, but if it has to, totally destroy North Korea, calling Kim Jong-un Rocket Man. Is - is there an argument that that kind of strategy could work to really tighten the screws on that regime?

FLOURNOY: Look, I think President Trump's rhetoric has been increasingly escalatory on North Korea, but what we're missing is a clear strategy for how we're going to deal with this problem short of military means, if possible. I mean, almost any military action we could take in North Korea risks a North Korean attack on Seoul, putting millions of South Korean civilians at risk. And so what I want - I keep looking for is where is that high-level diplomatic strategy engaging China to put more pressure on North Korea, engaging others to come along with us beyond the U.N. sanctions but to put more pressure on? I'm - you know, you - I would like to see a really serious diplomatic effort at this point to try to get North Korea to the table to stop its nuclear testing, stop its missile tests and then pursue the longer-term goal of denuclearization.

GREENE: Before I let you go, I know you are close to Defense Secretary James Mattis. There were efforts actually at one point to get you to work in President Trump's Pentagon. If given the opportunity to do that and work on the inside on some of these issues, why didn't you - why didn't you seriously take it?

FLOURNOY: I think the - the main - you know, I have the utmost respect and admiration for Jim Mattis, and the - the - my challenge was I worried that I would not be in sync with this administration's policies or values, and I didn't want to be having a resignation crisis every other day. So I felt that I - it was not the right time for me to serve.

GREENE: Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense under President Obama. She is now CEO of the Center for a New American Security. We always appreciate your time. Thanks so much.

FLOURNOY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.