Oh, Donald, bless your heart! You keep on saying those wild and crazy things, the media keeps on snickering, and you just keep on blustering. A grateful nation thanks you. If you weren’t around, we’d probably have to talk about Ted Cruz instead, and that would be no fun at all.
But my editors here at Foreign Policy have asked me to get serious and write about what U.S. foreign policy would look like if the White House should ever sprout an enormous gold sign reading, “TRUMP.” This has not been a simple assignment, because there is a Trump for every possible policy position.
Where to start?
Well, if Donald Trump becomes president, we might have a nuclear war — or, then again, we might not. On the one hand, Trump tells us, “It’s a very scary nuclear world. Biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation.” On the other hand, if Japan and South Korea decide to develop their own nuclear weapons, that’s probably fine, and we “may very well be better off.” On the third hand, “nuclear should be off the table,” when it comes to a potential U.S. first use of nuclear weapons. On the fourth hand, you never know: We might need to use nukes inside Europe, which would not be so sad because “Europe is a big place” and can easily afford to lose a few small nations to radioactive fallout.
Anyhoo. Let’s discuss NATO, which, admittedly, is not a very interesting subject. Trump “would support NATO,” but because he too feels that it is not interesting, he “would not care that much” whether or not Ukraine joins the alliance. “I don’t mind NATO per se,” he explains; it’s just “obsolete” and full of free-riders “ripping off the United State.” But que sera, sera! If getting rid of freeloaders “breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO.” Still, perhaps the treaty organization can be “reconstituted” and “modernized.” He adds, “We need to either transition into terror, or we need something else, because we have to get countries together.” I don’t think Trump meant that NATO should transition into a terrorist organization — on the “fight fire with fire” principle — but who can say?
Moving right along: Under President Trump, the United States would show the terrorists who’s boss by bringing back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse.” He would also “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” and if that doesn’t do the trick, he would go after the wives and children of Islamic State fighters, because “with the terrorists, you have to take out their families.” Ordering the U.S. military to use torture or deliberately target civilians would, of course, be illegal, but the military would gladly obey any order coming from President Trump: “I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader.… If I say do it, they’re going to do it.” On the fifth or sixth hand, maybe not: Trump swears that he’ll be “bound by laws, just like all Americans.”
Regardless, under President Trump, the U.S. military would be very strong, but it would never be used, unless we do use it. Right now, Trump confides, the U.S. military is “a disaster,” decimated and weak. When the White House is rebranded as the smallest of the world’s many Trump Towers, this will no longer be true; after a few waves of the Trumpian magic wand, which can cut budgets and expand programs at the same time, the military will be “so big, so powerful, so strong” that no one will dare mess with it. But the military will have to be satisfied with being big, powerful, and strong right here in the United States, because unless host states such as Japan and South Korea cough up a lot more cash, President Trump will be withdrawing U.S. troops from their overseas bases.
Besides, who cares? According to Trump, more or less every U.S. military intervention from Vietnam on has been a flop. Vietnam? A “disaster,” says his campaign. Iraq War? “Big, fat mistake.” Libya? “Total mess.” As for the Islamic State, Trump says “the generals” tell him it might take “20,000 to 30,000 troops” to “knock the hell out of ISIS,” but they ain’t gonna be American troops: instead, “People from that part of the world” will have to “put up the troops.… I wouldn’t ever put up 20,000 or 30,000.”
All right, enough. I could go on: Trump offers nearly endless fodder for media mockery. But I don’t want to keep poking fun at the Republican front-runner.
For one thing, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s like making fun of George W. Bush’s weird malapropisms: “They have miscalculated me as a leader.” It’s just too damn easy.
For another thing, there’s hardly a global shortage of anti-Trump tirades coming from the Fourth Estate. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell declares Trump is “completely uneducated about any part of the world.” The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson calls Trump’s “ignorance of government policy … breathtaking.” Tara Setmayer of CNN says Trump is “wholly unqualified” to be president, while the New York Times editorial board finds Trump “disturbing” and “shockingly ignorant.”
None of this does Trump any harm. On the contrary: Every time someone in the Media Elite pokes fun at Donald Trump, it inspires six bad-tempered middle Americans to vote for him. And every time someone in the Media Elite utters a pompous condemnation of Trump’s ignorance and folly, 17 more angry Trump voters are created. If Trump becomes president, guys, it’s gonna be your fault.
And finally: Though it pains me to say it, Donald Trump is crazy like a fox. Despite the braggadocio, the bullying, and the bluster — despite the contradictions, misstatements, and near-total absence of actual facts — Trump is, to a great extent, nonetheless articulating a coherent vision of international relations and America’s role in the world.
David Sanger and Maggie Haberman capture it well in a summary of their lengthy New York Times interview with Trump: “In Mr. Trump’s worldview, the United States has become a diluted power, and the main mechanism by which he would re-establish its central role in the world is economic bargaining. He approached almost every current international conflict through the prism of a negotiation, even when he was imprecise about the strategic goals he sought.” The United States, Trump believes, has been “disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many, many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher. We were the big bully, but we were not smartly led. And we were … the big stupid bully, and we were systematically ripped off by everybody.”
Trump hasn’t the slightest objection to being perceived as a bully, but he doesn’t want to be ripped off. Thus, he says, he’d be willing to stop buying oil from the Saudis if they don’t get serious about fighting the Islamic State; limit China’s access to U.S. markets if Beijing continues its expansionist policies in the South China Sea; and discard America’s traditional alliance — from NATO to the Pacific — partners if they won’t pull their own weight.
To those who criticize his apparent contradictions, his vagueness about his ultimate strategic objectives, or his willingness to make public threats, he offers a simple and Machiavellian response: “We need unpredictability.” To Trump, an effective negotiator plays his cards close to his chest: He doesn’t let anyone know his true bottom line, and he always preserves his ability to make a credible bluff. (Here it is, from the transcript of his conversation with the New York Times: “You know, if I win, I don’t want to be in a position where I’ve said I would or I wouldn’t [use force to resolve a particular dispute].… I wouldn’t want to say. I wouldn’t want them to know what my real thinking is.”)
Trump has little time for either neoconservatives or liberal interventionists; he thinks they allow their belief in American virtue to blind them to both America’s core interests and the limits of American power. He has even less time for multilateralist diplomats: They’re too willing to compromise, trading away American interests in exchange for platitudes about friendship and cooperation. And he has no time at all for those who consider long-standing U.S. alliances sacrosanct. To Trump, U.S. alliances, like potential business partners in a real-estate transaction, should always be asked: “What have you done for me lately?”
In his inimitable way, Trump is offering a powerful challenge to many of the core assumptions of Washington’s bipartisan foreign-policy elite. And if mainstream Democrats and Republicans want to counter Trump’s appeal, they need to get serious about explaining why his vision of the world isn’t appropriate — and they need to do so without merely falling back on tired clichés.
The clichés roll easily off the tongue: U.S. alliances and partnerships are vital. NATO is a critical component of U.S. security. Forward-deployed troops in Japan and South Korea are vital to assurance and deterrence. We need to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. And so on. How do we know these things? Because in Washington, everyone who’s anyone knows these things.
But this is pure intellectual and ideological laziness. Without more specificity, these truisms of the Washington foreign-policy elite are just pablum. Why, exactly, does the United States need to keep troops in Japan, or Germany, or Kuwait? Would the sky really fall if the United States had fewer forward-deployed troops? What contingencies are we preparing for? Who and what are we deterring, and how do we know if it’s working? Who are we trying to reassure? What are the financial and opportunity costs? Do the defense treaties and overseas bases that emerged after World War II still serve U.S. interests? Which interests? How? Does a U.S. alliance with the Saudis truly offer more benefits than costs? What bad things would happen if we shifted course, taking a less compromising stance toward “allies” who don’t offer much in return?
Questions like these are legitimate and important, and it’s reasonable for ordinary Americans to be dissatisfied by politicians and pundits who make no real effort to offer answers.
Trump’s vision of the world — and his conception of statecraft — isn’t one I much like, but it reflects a fairly coherent theory of international relations. It’s realist, transactional, and Machiavellian — and it demands a serious, thoughtful, and nondefensive response.
If those of us in the foreign-policy community can’t be bothered to offer one, a “TRUMP” sign on the White House may, in the end, be no better than we deserve.
Photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/Getty Images
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