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A vision, or venting?

US President Donald Trump used his first address in office to offer an 'America first' vision of world politics -- and in doing so, may have delivered his first official blow to the nation's 'brand', writes US trial lawyer Reuben Guttman.

Paul Hakimata

Exactly fifty-six yeas ago -- at the height of the Cold War, and among a generation 'tempered by war' and 'disciplined by a bitter peace,' President John F. Kennedy stood on the steps of the United States Capitol and spoke these words in his inaugural address: '[To] those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of a faithful friend. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do - for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.' And the new President continued: 'To those people in huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required - not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.'

President Kennedy, of course, like his predecessors, understood the strategic value of alliances leading to American intervention and aid including, for example, the Berlin airlift. And, placed in corporate marketing 'speak,' President Kennedy was also 'branding,' or at least re-affirming, the brand and reputation of the United States. It is a brand that symbolizes a compassionate nation, loyal to allies and willing to engage in 'cooperative ventures' to address the misery that afflicts the less fortunate.               

Fast forward to January 20, 2017. Amidst an erie calm harkening back to the days of the Cold War -- with modern threats coming from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups that seem to emerge with regulatory --  the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump,  delivered an inaugural message that could not be more different than the one delivered by a young President over half a century ago. Possibly setting the tone for his Administration,  President Trump spoke these words: 'For many decades, we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; we've defended other nations' borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.' And President Trump continued with these words that have been reverberating across the airwaves and Twitter accounts across the globe: 'From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment, its going to be America first.' And to the extent that these remarks even touched on foreign policy, that is all the new President had to say about America's prospective place in the world.   

Those who hail from the corporate world are supposed to understand the value of 'brand and reputation.'  Indeed, Donald J. Trump campaigned on his prowess as a businessman, delivering the campaign message that his pragmatism would lead to efficiencies, break the gridlock on Capitol Hill, and protect the working American whose source of income had been exported to Mexico and China. Yet, in the first twenty minutes of his Presidency, he sent a message that he would protect the American middle class by cashing in on all that makes us proud to be Americans. His message was premised on the notion that protection of, and alliances with, our allies is inconsistent with a strong domestic economy. Really?    

The pundits say that the President delivered a campaign speech and not an inaugural address. Yet, such conclusory analysis is tantamount to no analysis at all. While much has been said -- over the past few weeks --about the transition of power,  few if any commentators have talked about the importance of the inaugural address as a component of that transition. The United States is not an isolated nation; its military, commercial and financial relations span the globe. And so with his 'America first' official message, what signal was the President communicating to our counterparts across the oceans who are our military, commercial, and financial partners?                

Within 24 hours of his address, the focus on the new administration shifted to the White House Press Room where the new White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, was taking the media to task for underreporting the size of the inaugural crowd. 'This was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period,' said Spicer. Undoubtedly, these words were delivered with the approval of the new President or were his words. Aerial photographs, of course, painted a different picture, and for those of us who attended the 2009 inauguration of President Obama, it is clear that the inauguration of this country's first black President drew a larger crowd. But who really cares? Certainly not those across the globe -- whom President Kennedy spoke of that are 'trying to break the bonds of misery.' The important question is a simple one; can this new President be trusted to tell the truth and does he really mean what he says? 

Historians, of course, place some significance on inaugural speeches as outlining the vision of a Presidential term of office. Etched in the walls of the Lincoln Memorial are two speeches, the Gettysburg Address and President Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. They are remembered both their vision and eloquence. Of course, both Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy -- in their inaugural addresses -- were outlining visions that they actually intended to pursue. One wonders whether the same is true of the new President.                

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23 January 2017

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