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Guest Post: A Defense of Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Chops

Guest Post: A Defense of Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Chops

Earlier this week, Peter Feaver wrote a column comparing Donald Trump’s national security policy to a high school model U.N. The same day, Trump added a win in the Nevada Caucuses to his streak coming out of South Carolina and New Hampshire and just secured the endorsement of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former candidate known for his strong stances on national security and foreign policy. As someone who coached high school and college teams through some of their best years, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Trump would have made an excellent crisis delegate. He has consistently shown himself to be highly creative in the curveballs he throws at his opponents and dealing with the curveballs thrown at him. His superior understanding of how to control the narrative is something America desperately needs.

Near the beginning of the race, Trump revealed the real-life phone number of one of the supposedly serious foreign policy candidates for the GOP, Lindsey Graham, Senator for South Carolina. Graham, a neocon hawk, didn’t punch back, but tried to laugh it off, releasing a video of himself destroying his phone by baking it, blending it, and otherwise abusing the comically outdated flip-phone. When Gawker attempted to avenge Graham by releasing Trump’s phone number, he changed his voicemail answering machine to spout his stump speech about Making America Great Again, promote his website and invited callers to follow him on Twitter. Reactions like these have earned him the moniker “teflon don” — no bad story sticks. Even when he loses the high ground, he can turn a weak position to his advantage. These stories don’t stick because he doesn’t let them — he bats a home run with every curveball.

As for Feaver’s apparent opposition to the principle that all press is good press, he’s afraid that Trump might embarrass the country by saying or doing something too outrageous to recover from. Trump’s current model — being so media-hyperactive that new stories crowd out whatever he did — has served him well so far. In the foreign policy world that might mean paying attention to issues presidents have ignored for decades, if only to distract from an unfavorable misstep somewhere else. This will likely work more often than not. That being said, one has to remember that there are more ways to embarrass the country than saying outrageous things, and it really is up for debate which way is the worst — making America look weak certainly is a much greater sin.

Trump is a disruptor, and international relations are certainly a sector in need of disruption (I think even Feaver can agree with me on that). The current status quo in many areas of international affairs — from the World Trade Organization to the situation in the Middle East — are ripe for fresh approaches. The main reason the Doha round of the WTO has achieved nothing in a decade — to take just one archetypal example — is because the agribusiness lobby that funds both sides of the aisle has held up negotiations. These practices are anathema to the Trump campaign’s funding model. Not being beholden to these interests, progress will be made. Liberalizing trade in agriculture will not only unleash a bounty for third world farmers, it would be the first trade deal that would directly benefit middle America since the Reagan years — ending the status quo whereby the American consumer market is kept captive for expensive American agribusiness. Trump’s refusal to stake a position on the Israel/Palestine issue (and refusal to take AIPAC money) is a similarly unique position among the field of candidates. Only the blindest opponents of Donald Trump would disagree that his presidency would be the first to stand a chance to resolve that particular issue.

To be clear, Feaver’s not wrong about Trump’s thin grasp of foreign policy. Trump’s epic flub on the nuclear triad was the source of much frustration among fellow IR wonks, though not because Trump had no idea that he was supposed to mention the submarine/plane/silo combo that underwrites mutually assured destruction. Rather, it was because the public was even less clued up than him on the subject. Despite being light on the details, it isn’t right to say that he doesn’t have a framework for his foreign policy. Trump takes a stand for an “America First” philosophy, as Alex Ward wrote in the FP. It can easily be summarized into one question: How does this benefit America? A comprehensive record of Trump’s fleshed out stances so far can be found here.

Of course the reality of state-centric, foreign-ministry run foreign policy is always much more mundane than IR scholars (or indeed MUNs) would have you believe — state department bureaucrats will continue pushing paper, be it on trade negotiations, climate change negotiations, or international aid. The only parts of that machine likely to see any attention from Trump is consular services — the part that grants green cards and visas to foreigners wanting to immigrate to the United States — and asylum policy, where Trump has staked out a security-centric position that was much maligned as anti-Muslim. Ironically, that speech was the closest Trump came to staking a position on national security — quoting doubts within the services that the Federal Government could screen refugees properly before admitting them into the country.

Feaver is wrong on the specifics as well — forgetting that “Securing the border” has been the bipartisan consensus for the last 30 years, and that under both Democrat and Republican presidents and congresses, 1,400 miles of border fence has been erected and presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush returned 11 million and 8 million undocumented immigrants. In other words, Trump is defending the status quo. The wall is two thirds of the way done! The substance of “Build a wall!” is really more like “finish the wall”. Of course, the former makes for much better campaign statements. Many of Trump’s campaign statements do really need to be taken with a grain of salt, or at least poetic license. Making Mexico “pay for the wall” and balancing trade with China will likely involve aggressive lawsuits at the WTO over currency manipulation and take years to reach a climax. He won’t actually bring back torture, nor would our security services follow orders that violated international conventions — although waterboarding might make a comeback (since it isn’t torture by the international definitions). It may be hard to realize with a blinkered literalist interpretation. It helps if one takes a step back and remembers that this is still just a primary election (albeit one that has received a disproportionately large amount of attention compared to others). One need only remember all the campaign promises President Obama didn’t keep to realize that seriously expecting Trump to deliver on 100 percent of them is ludicrous. Take it from me — I voted for Obama in 2008.

In The Art of the Deal, Trump’s NYT New York Times bestseller, he outlines negotiation tactics, including managing expectations. If Trump got elected, the ensuing freak out in every foreign ministry the world over would color ongoing negotiations. By Trump’s negotiating doctrine, America’s hand would be strengthened immensely — that goes for Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Tran-Pacific Partnership, and any other deal that matters, from the Iran Nuclear deal to the Syrian peace talks.

Whomever he picked as secretary of state (Marco Rubio? Chris Christie?) would probably be required to understand how Trump negotiates. Like Trump often says, you’ve never heard of the people he would hire for these (political) positions, like US Trade Representative. It’s That’s likely true. – We haven’t, because these people don’t live in the Beltway and write papers, they work for the Trump organization (or they used to). One thing I can tell you for sure is that an alumnus from the Trump Organization isn’t going to get their opinion about Trump from the Huffington post nor are they going to be any more fame-seeking than any other employee of the Trump Organization, to counter Feaver’s argument that a Trump administration will be plagued by constant resignations and tell-all memoirs. They are likely to be highly competent, highly accomplished individuals for whom public service will feel like a cakewalk — the same way Trump has made running for president look like a walk in the park.

Peter Feaver may think IR has little to do with Reality TV, but the (possibly sad) truth is that the episodic nature and public opinion management parts of the job really are quite the same: one need only look at the image of success Russian President Vladimir Putin has been able to project, “Playing a bad hand well” in places like Syria. The carefully cultivated tough-guy factor in Putin’s foreign policy has been well documented, and everyone knows the best way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them — a job Trump would undoubtedly do better than anyone else. Would Putin really have the guts to challenge a Trump no-fly zone over Syria? I doubt the Russian airmen would even follow their orders from the certainty that they’d get blasted out of the sky. One thing I can say for sure is that the reaction would be very different if President Obama tried to do the same thing.

And when Putin ripped up a letter from the Ukrainians during the Crimean crisis, on live TV? Reality TV only wishes it was this good.

Alienating our allies is another point where Feaver is wrong. He forgets that our allies need us a lot more than we need them — a line that could have been lifted directly from the Art of the Deal. Our Asian allies will be glad to have someone speaking (not-so) softly and carrying a big stick, and our European allies will endure, just as they have endured weak, strong, jingoistic and pacifistic presidents in the past. Our Middle Eastern allies might even start listening to us again. The opinion of our allies (good or bad) should be a minor factor at best when choosing our heads of government, if not completely inadmissible.

Finally, one point Feaver forgets about MUNs (and perhaps politics in general) is that they are not all about advancing the resolution. Outrageous statements and absurd proposals are very much in line with the elaborate pre-drafting dance that determines what the resolution will be about in the end, without forgetting that foregoing a resolution is a perfectly valid strategy if that is what accomplishes what you need. Great delegates know how to play both sides of that game, and Trump has shown himself to be a virtuoso of that dance, from setting the agenda to dominating the debate.

Would Trump make for a good national security policy? I can’t say for sure, but he would be the first president in perhaps a century to be independent of corporate interests in the modern sense. He would bring a litany of useful skills, from his agile handling of modern mass media and social media, to his unparalleled negotiating skills. We may never find out, but I think President Trump would make American foreign policy great again — maybe even greater than ever before.

Felipe Cuello is a Dominican-American policy analyst for the European Commission, where he is a specialist in migration, development, and international development aid. He is also an alumnus of the United Nations University. Follow him @CuelloFJ

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