Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist and co-founder of Breitbart. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

WASHINGTON — Steve Bannon, the controversial former White House chief strategist and co-founder of Breitbart, rejected the idea that President Donald Trump’s “America first” foreign policy is isolationist during an event on Monday, while also deriding the “geniuses in the foreign policy elite” and taking aim at U.S. “nation building” efforts.

“I think this is ‘America first’ — we’re not looking to transform the world into our values. I think the world has got to come to its own conclusions on how it wants to govern [itself],” Bannon said in an on-stage interview hosted by the Hudson Institute.

The former Trump administration and campaign official was the final guest speaker at an event focused on countering violent extremism. He used his remarks to clarify how Trump “looks at the world in a different way” and represents a “fundamental rejection of the foreign policy establishment.” Bannon also blamed many of the current flash points challenging U.S. foreign policy — North Korea, Afghanistan, and Venezuela — on experts who preceded Trump’s arrival in office.

“President Trump didn’t do this. The deplorables that voted for President Trump didn’t do this,” Bannon said, using a label originally applied critically to some Trump voters by Hillary Clinton, but which many of them have now embraced. “This is the geniuses of both political parties,” he added.

In Bannon’s description of Trump’s foreign policy views, the difference between this administration and past ones is that Trump — and Bannon — do not want to see the United States occupying another seat at the table on a broad range of issues, but instead pressing for specific national security interests alongside partners that share those specific interests.

He also described narrower policy goals, such as devolving decision making power from the White House National Security Council to military and intelligence leaders, and tying the Iran nuclear deal to efforts to curtail Iran’s regional “aggression.”

The former strategist offered a murkier description of how he would combine “a more total approach” to countries that have struggled with violent extremism and civil conflict, while avoiding engaging in nation building in those places.

“In Afghanistan, I believe, we’re trying to impose our values. I believe we’re trying to impose a liberal democratic system on a country that clearly, to me, doesn’t seem to want it,” Bannon said.

Bannon suggested an approach in which countries might see aspects of the American political system that they like and then choose to adopt those features on their own, without having those systems foisted upon them.

“I do agree with General [David] Petraeus that we have to have a more total approach. I disagree with the fact — of particularly General Petraeus and some others — that have looked at this as nation building. We have to build a nation called the United States of America,” Bannon said.

Bannon, who was CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign, admitted that when Trump was running for office and looking for ways to contrast himself with Clinton, the campaign worried about her comparative depth of foreign policy experience.

“One of the strongest things she had going for her when she was running was her foreign policy experience — her time on the Senate Armed Services Committee, her time as secretary of state, her vast knowledge of all the ins and outs and the minutiae of foreign policy,” Bannon said.

Trump, according to Bannon, managed to connect with the American people by delivering a few key messages. One of the clearest ones, Bannon said, was “we’re at war.”

Adding to the drama of the conversation, the lights inside the Ronald Reagan Building ballroom, where the event took place, suddenly went out during the panel prior to Bannon’s scheduled interview. Bannon emerged from backstage into darkness and spoke from within the beam of a spotlight.

“If you belong to the left of the political persuasion, you might say that this is appropriate because the forces of darkness are up here. And if you have a different perspective you would say that there is some source of illumination in the light on this stage in the absence of light,” said Ambassador Husain Haqqani, the Hudson Institute senior fellow who interviewed Bannon.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.