- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
What kind of national security policy would a President Donald Trump conduct?
The electoral math is such that it is possible Trump might end up as the Republican nominee, and whomever wins the Republican nomination will face a remarkably weak Democratic candidate — intrinsically weak and then weakened further by an equally bruising primary contest for the Democratic Party nomination. String together enough black swans and you can produce the absurd outcome of a President Trump.
Then what? What would Commander-in-Chief Trump do?
I took a stab at answering this question back in the fall. At that time Trump’s chief attribute on national security was the near-complete absence of any coherent platform. I noted that he had not:
- Given a serious substantive speech on national security.
- Produced any white paper on national security.
- Produced an issues page on his website covering national security.
- Demonstrated in interviews or debates any coherent knowledge of national security matters.
- Released a list of national security experts with whom he consulted.
Those deficiencies remain true today, though Trump has added an issue page on U.S.-China Trade, proving that his campaign webmaster is willing to post items other than news clippings about polls. Moreover, Trump has promised once again to release his list of foreign policy advisors, meaning he may actually have one. One Republican worthy, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, has admitted that he consulted with Trump on national security.
(Actually, I am told by a reliable source that Trump has in fact consulted with a goodly number of people who would meet some minimum threshold of foreign policy knowledge to qualify as an “expert,” but that they have been asked not to speak about these meetings publicly.)
Trump’s failure to talk responsibly or learnedly about national security, and the concurrent failure of his campaign to articulate coherent positions this late into the primary season thus must be considered in some way deliberate.
Since the fall, there have been some heroic attempts by serious analysts to identify a method to the madness of Trump’s positions. George Mason’s Colin Dueck thinks he is a traditional American nationalist. Walter Russell Mead at Bard claims Trump has recreated a “nihilistic populism.” The National Review‘s Rich Lowry borrows from Mead’s own framework to suggest that Trump is a “Jacksonian” populist. Thomas Wright, writing in Politico, asserts that Trump has had a consistent foreign policy framework, albeit one drawn from the populism and isolationism of the pre-World War II era.
Each of these analyses has some merit to it in the sense that sometimes Trump’s positions coincide with some of the tenets of these worldviews. And while many of his foreign policy positions bounce around erratically — he now claims he always opposed the Iraq war when, in fact, he was an early supporter of it — there are some areas where he does hold a consistent position. For instance, Trump has consistently opposed free trade. And Trump has consistently believed that our security treaty allies are ripping us off — perhaps because he is apparently unaware that our allies actually subsidize the cost of U.S. troops stationed.
Yet, none of this adds up to the kind of coherent foreign policy framework that would allow us to make the plausible predictions that are possible with a normal candidate.
So we have to look elsewhere for our predictions, including the totality of his record. Based on that, here are seven likely expectations:
1. None of Trump’s signature foreign policy promises will come to pass. This is too easy but worth restating as often as he delivers them as applause lines. He will not get Mexico to pay for the building of a wall. He will not get the U.S. military to invade the oil region of Syria, seize the oil, and ship it out for our own profit. He will not get the U.S. military to wantonly kill the families of terrorists. He will not get U.S. operatives to do “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” to detainees. I do not know anyone who has any knowledge of how the U.S. national security apparatus actually works who thinks any of this is plausible — and I look forward to hearing Trump’s foreign policy advisors pretend otherwise.
2. There won’t be any progress on trade deals. This is also too easy a prediction, since Trump regularly rails against every successful trade deal of the past several decades. As his one foreign-policy-related issue page makes clear, Trump has a plan to launch an economic war against China but no viable plan to negotiate a genuinely better trade deal. And since Trump wrongly believes China is already in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, there is not much reason to believe he could improve on the TPP’s terms either.
3. On top of the failures of his campaign promises and the trade deals, Trump will launch many other initiatives that will also fail. Trump has launched a lot of failures. Some very successful real estate deals and a willingness to declare bankruptcy have kept him afloat, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The pattern is pretty clear: Trump has had some success in real estate and reality TV but tends to fail whenever he ventures beyond that. Very little of national security policy is like real estate deals and reality TV, however. From day one, Trump will be out of his depth, and so he will be even more dependent on the quality of advisors, which brings me to…
4. Trump will have the least distinguished national security team in modern memory. To be sure, some people will talk themselves into working for Trump, but I bet very few of the country’s A-team of experts will do so. I am prepared to revisit this prediction in a couple weeks if Trump’s list of advisors surprises on the upside. Today I am willing to bet a bottle of Trump Vodka that the Trump National Security Team will look more like Trump Airlines than Trump Tower. Quality of staff matters more than many realize and that could be a huge problem for a Trump administration.
5. Trump’s administration will have a high turnover with lots of kiss-and-tell memoirs from former staff detailing the behind-the-scenes chaos. Trump’s own penchant for talking and writing about himself sets the tone, as does his wildly hyperbolic language describing his own brilliance. Such behavior tends to provoke disloyalty, as President Barack Obama has himself discovered. One countervailing factor: Trump’s penchant for suing and attacking his partners may intimidate his staff, which will exacerbate prediction #4.
6. Trump will isolate America from its allies and partners. While it is likely that Trump’s most offensive initiatives will fail, he may well try them long enough to do damage to our diplomatic standing. Remember the premise of this hypothetical exercise: Trump is president despite running the most offensive campaign in modern memory. Under those conditions, is it not likely that Trump will think he can get away with offenses? Presidents tend to do and redo the move that “worked for them” in the sense of getting them elected — cf. Obama resisting expert advice to wield American military power in the Middle East — and so expect Trump to do the same, but with disastrous results.
7. When he gets in trouble, he will do something or say something that will embarrass the country. The pattern of the campaign thus far is that when the focus is on substance and serious issues, Trump tends to fade. It is in these moments that he does or says something attention-grabbing that changes the conversation. So far, nothing he says or does hurts his base, which is roughly 35 percent of Republican primary voters, even if it is cringe-worthy for the rest of us. When asked, Trump acknowledged that he knows the country expects better of the president and he has said, somewhat awkwardly, that he will mend his ways a bit once he occupies the Oval Office. But after making that high road detour he got right back into the mud accusing President George W. Bush of lying about Iraqi WMD. It is far more likely that when the going gets tough, as it does for every president, Trump will revert to his signature move, which is the headline-grabbing, cringe-inducing stunt.
If you add it all up, the picture looks rather like a sophomoric high school Model U.N. performance. The delegation that believed you could “win” by saying the most outrageous things rather than doing the hard work of advancing sensible resolutions. The delegation that opted to make up facts rather than to do their homework. The delegation that floated absurd proposals that made the serious participants mad and made the others laugh at the serious participants.
Perhaps the best guess of what Trump’s national security policy would look like is that it would resemble your typical sophomore Model U.N. delegation — only this time the other actors and the stakes would be real and nobody would be playing.
A note: Perhaps I am being too hard on Trump. Perhaps there is more to his national security platform than I noticed. If there is any foreign policy expert who is a Trump supporter and would like to correct me, I invite that person to write a ‘Why Feaver is Wrong About Trump’ column and I will run it on Shadow Government. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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