President Trump’s Inaugural Address
What and How
Charles Crawford CMG, a communication and public speaking expert and a founding partner of The Ambassador Partnership LLP, analyses in this AP Insights the extent to which President Trump’s Inaugural Address on 20 January 2017 did so.
Charles Crawford served as UK Ambassador to Poland (2003-2007); Serbia and Montenegro (2001-2003); and Bosnia and Herzegovina (1996-1998). In 1987 he wrote the UK FCO’s first Guide to Speechwriting and he has supported speeches by the British Royal Family and UK Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers. His book on leadership communication Speeches for Leaders was published last year when he also won a Cicero Award for his speech Technology, Security, Freedom delivered by Sir John Sawers (former Chief of MI6).
The inaugural address of a new US President typically answers two questions: What and How.
First, to set down unambiguous policy markers: to spell out in broad but more or less specific terms what the new President aims to achieve. And second, to set the ‘tone’ of the new Administration: to point up the style and energy defining how the new President and his team set about the challenges ahead.
President Trump’s speech on 20 January weighed in at a brisk 1400 words – a full 1000 words shorter than President Obama’s 2009 address. He had scarcely finished speaking before the Twitterati were denouncing the speech as ‘dark’ if not dangerous.
What’s happening here?
This Trump speech did not sound like something pored over by wily speechwriters and policy wonks. It had all the strengths and weaknesses of the Trump campaign itself, above all reckless energy and brutish directness in attacking the USA’s ‘establishment’ by appealing over their heads to the ‘little guy’:
He then swung into his key message:
What should the rest of us around the world make of this?
Modern global order is based on multitudinous rules and principles and a rich alphabet soup of international organisations developed since the Second World War: United Nations, NATO, ASEAN, EU, WTO, IAEA, ITU, OECD and so on.
The central underlying idea is that for all the often annoying and laborious features of this way of doing things, it’s far better for all countries to work within this shared global framework than ‘go it alone’. The USA has played a predominant role in setting up this system, from the Marshall Plan onwards. American leadership under successive Administrations has been expressed within it.
President Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric sounds like a sharp break from that long tradition, in both What and How. It conveys frustrated impatience with key outcomes at home and abroad that the USA has achieved by the patient give-and-take of global diplomacy. Be it in national security, trade or migration, others have been prospering at the USA’s expense:
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The risk in all this is obvious. That America First surges off with the UK First of Brexit and encourages Russia First, China First, Turkey First, Iran First, Germany First and most other countries to see the planet as fixed cake of options and opportunities, with each country grabbing slices for itself. Without American steadiness in support of multilateralism as an end in itself, the political and moral logic of self-restraint for shared prosperity/security frays in favour of greedy ad hoc deals cut for fleeting advantage.
The new Administration’s moves on Russia and the international sanctions against Moscow’s Ukraine policies will be one key test. So will policy towards China, the Middle East, climate change and plenty of other key areas where the world has become used to Washington operating within reasonably predictable policy parameters.
Maybe it will not be like that. At least in foreign policy America First in practice turns out to be more about Tone than Substance. After some initial startling moves it settles down again as weary global realities make themselves felt. Trump officials are just more bloody-minded and cynical in pushing US positions in international fora than US officials usually are.
No-one knows, including (one suspects) President Trump himself. His march to the White House has been all about defying categories. His inaugural address projected angry energy in favour of a totally new course at home and abroad, but on both What and How he left himself plenty of room for manoeuvre.
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