Cultural Diplomacy, Global Communication, public diplomacy

Four things President Trump should remember for his first speech abroad

From his decision to host Chinese president Xi Jinping at his home in Mar-a-Lago Florida to his apparent refusal to shake Angela Merkel’s hand during her recent visit to the White House, President Trump has been forging his own path when it comes to US foreign relations, bucking tradition and instead providing his own personal brand of public diplomacy. The same says-what-he-thinks, does-what-he-likes mannerisms that propelled him to victory in the 2016 elections are now being used in the White House to greet foreign dignitaries and leaders alike.

While such unpredictability may have connected with American voters, President Trump may not always have the luxury of an American audience. As he gets further into his administration, the time may come when President Trump is expected to deliver a set of remarks in front of a foreign audience. Whether he gives just three speeches abroad, like President Bush, or a dozen, like President Obama, there are a few lessons that President Trump can learn from previous administrations experiences abroad. Here are the four things President Trump should remember for his first speech abroad.

1. Choose a good location

First things first — choose an appropriate location for your speech. Visuals matter. Ronald Reagan’s speech in West Berlin, for example, was amplified by the choice of his location. His challenge to Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” was made more powerful because the chosen location for the speech.


President Reagan speaking in front of the Berlin Wall. Photo courtesy of the White House Press Office.

He allowed audiences viewing the speech live, as well as those watching from around the world, to see the very wall to which he was referring; to view the physical boundary that separated the East and West. By remembering that speeches are not only heard, but also watched, a speech can become more powerful and more poignant.

2. Speech should be connected to policy

In Matthew Wallins’ blog post for the American Security Project (ASP), he states that matching action to words is a critical factor in maintaining the credibility for public diplomacy officials. When the president goes abroad, he is, in effect, acting as the US’s most powerful public diplomacy official; thus, his words must be connected to US policy action in order to maintain credibility.

During his historic trip to China, President Richard Nixon’s primary policy goal was to normalize relations and communications between the two nations.


President Nixon toasting with Premier Enlai. Photo courtesy of the White House Press Office.

The toast, which he gave at a banquet in Peking, emphasized Nixon’s desire to exist in peace with China, while more subliminally promising to the Chinese people that the US would not try to influence their system of government.

Chairman Mao reportedly appreciated his honesty, and as a result, state media reported on their meeting favorably.

3. Don’t be afraid to take on the real issues.

Speeches provide a unique opportunity for presidents to address a captive international audience, as well as communities that they may not otherwise have access to. Though it may be uncomfortable at times, the best way to capitalize on the audience’s’ attention is to be forthright about the issues you want them to pay attention to. Wallin also makes this point in his ASP blog; transparency is key.

For example, when President Obama gave one of his first international speeches at a university in Cairo, he did not attempt to shift away from the significant policy issues that divided the Muslim world and the US. While the purpose of President Obama’s strategy in the speech was to open a new dialogue with Muslim communities, he went about this effort in two ways: the first method was to admit and apologize for what he perceived to be the previous administration’s mistakes; the second, was using his platform to address the contentious issues between the US and the Muslim communities. He openly condemned attempts by Muslim leaders to deny the Holocaust and 9/11. He rejected the use of violence by Palestinians.


President Obama addressing the crowd in Cairo. Photo courtesy of the White House Flickr.

By seizing upon his position and his audience to address the actual issues facing the two sides, President Obama was able to turn the page on one chapter of Islamic/ American relations, and have the new beginning he sought.

4. But make sure your message doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

Like any public diplomacy officer, presidents must first understand the cultural context of the country they are walking into, before they can expect to be listened to by the general public. At the end of the day, if no one in the audience is listening, the speech will have no impact. It is therefore important that President Trump connects with his audience, and shows some understanding and appreciation for the history and culture he’s addressing.
Each speech requires a different method of connection. In his Cairo speech, for example, President Obama used personal testimony to engage with the Muslim audience he was attempting to reach by describing the deep ties to Islam that his Kenyan family has, as well as his own experiences living in Indonesia as a young boy. In the first President Bush’s address to the people of Leiden, he connected the history of the early Pilgrim settlers to the proud history of the Dutch people. President Kennedy, meanwhile, in his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, used the German language to demonstrate his efforts to understand the position of the people of Berlin and of Germany more broadly. Even these small acts can have profound effects on the reception of the speech.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.



12 thoughts on “Four things President Trump should remember for his first speech abroad

  1. This blog is incredibly relevant and shed light on some of President Obama’s speech tactics that I was not aware of. The example of the Obama’s Cairo speech was well-employed. President Trump is attempting to use some of these tactics now, such as his granddaughter, Arabella singing in Mandarin for President Xi Jinping. What advice would you give him moving forward for nations that used to be friendly with the U.S. and now are being increasingly averse?

    Posted by lolaflomen | April 30, 2017, 2:39 pm
  2. To back away from your point about Trump going abroad, I think it is important to also consider who Trump has invited to the U.S. and how that impacts his credibility abroad. For instance, just yesterday the White House invited the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, for an official visit. ( He is an admitted murderer who is under investigation by The Hague for human rights violations. How can Trump hope to have credibility when he goes abroad while inviting criminals like Duterte to the United States? I think his hypocrisy will blunt his message, no matter how tailored and well scripted it may be.

    Posted by reedelman | April 30, 2017, 1:59 pm
  3. I really like your suggestions – especially the fourth recommendation, which focuses on connecting with the audience. It will be really interesting to see how Trump tries to find common ground with foreign audiences.

    One thing I’ll be watching out for when Trump does travel abroad is whether he brings the same focus on crowd size that he has for domestic audiences. We’ve seen Trump thrive in big, enthusiastic rallies – will he be able to build a crowd like that in another country, given his approval rating overseas? Will he even try? Will he attempt to spin crowd size the way he did for his inauguration?

    Posted by Molly Ingalls | April 30, 2017, 1:36 pm
  4. These are important points, especially coming the standpoint of Public Diplomacy. One thing I would think is a good addition to this is that President Trump has to keep multiple audiences in mind and balance the effects as best as possible, which can sometimes be hard to do. One thing that I am particularly keen on is US relations with Russia. On a similar topic, my own blog post is about how the US can win back the support of the Greek people, which has been under Russia’s influence, through public diplomacy. I think it can really drive home the kinds of things President Trump should be thinking about for his first speech abroad:

    Posted by pervoideleo | April 30, 2017, 12:22 pm
  5. I don’t think it was Trump’s unpredictability that connected with voters so much as it was his brash and unconventional nature; the people were sick of politicians, not predictability. However, I thinking bringing this point up was crucial to your piece. Trump supporters must realize that Trump’s brashness will easily be taken as insolence by foreign dignitaries and leaders. Moreover, since we can’t control what Trump will say I thought it was brilliant that you identified areas which his team can control – namely setting!

    Posted by Vanessa Bajko | April 30, 2017, 11:10 am
  6. I especially like your section on not turning away from the difficult issues and I think it will be interesting to see whether President Trump does this or not. Thus far, he has tended to shy away from issues that he himself doesn’t deem important like his tax returns, or he allows someone else from his administration serve as the public representative when a new major topic arises. Hopefully, as you said, he will recognize the difference between a foreign and domestic audience and adjust his behavior accordingly.

    Posted by Logan Botts | April 30, 2017, 10:47 am
  7. These are great recommendations Brett. As Melissa mentioned, we are past the 100 days mark of the Trump presidency and we still have not seen an international speech. If one ever happens, I think your visuals point is key. Not only does the background provide a way to captivate audiences, but if the speech is done outside cameras are able to fly around the crowd. If there are a large amount of people in attendance, the administration could spin this as the foreign public viewing him as legitimate.

    Posted by Anthony Abron | April 30, 2017, 1:53 am
  8. This article provides insightful pointers not only for President Trump, but for any PD officer. These points must be implemented if the speaker wants the speech to be impressive, informative, and successful. But I believe the main problem the President faces is the way foreign audiences perceive him. Here’s an article that provides an insight on Trump’s image abroad:

    Posted by egorpelevkin | April 30, 2017, 1:35 am
  9. I think this piece it very relevant, and will remain relevant under President Trump goes abroad for the first time, so great job on topicality. I really think the first piece is what remains very important because that will really influence the rest of the piece. I have attached a piece with an animation with the travel of past presidents, comparing it to Trumps 0 countries, calling into question who will be first.

    Posted by Anna Pokrovsky | April 29, 2017, 7:14 pm
  10. The ways in which you connected Matthew Walin’s ASP blog to the value and importance of speech making abroad was incredibly perceptive and unique. I also found your argument to be strengthened by examples of the way former President Obama was able to effectively convey the U.S. message to international audiences. As you noted, visuals and locations of speeches can dramatically impact a speech’s power. In 2013, the Guardian similarly noted the ways historical settings can conjure feelings of shared values amongst audiences:

    Posted by Allison Crowe | April 29, 2017, 3:55 pm
  11. I appreciate the tips given to Trump when he does choose to make such a speech. However, I think it’s important to note that now that we are past the “100 days” marker and Trump has still not made a speech abroad, we need to wonder why he hasn’t and why he should. Until he sees the purpose in such a speech, we won’t get to see these recommendations in action.

    Posted by melissaholzberg | April 28, 2017, 4:57 pm
  12. This article provided great information and tips for a successful speech that will be delivered to a global audience. I also think that it is important to keep in mind non-verbal behaviors as well because movements and actions may sometimes speak louder than words.

    Posted by sarinakaplan | April 26, 2017, 9:10 pm

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