Shadow Government

Trump’s Foreign-Policy Legacy: Not Having a Foreign Policy

The Republican presidential front-runner is showing us just how far you can go without eating your foreign policy broccoli.

<> on October 21, 2015 in Burlington, Iowa.
<> on October 21, 2015 in Burlington, Iowa.

When Trump ends his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, what will experts say about his foreign policy legacy?

That question comes with a contestable premise. Trump is currently deemed the front-runner, and polls of Republican insiders suggest that many are beginning to wonder whether he might win the nomination. But count me skeptical. Every four years, someone makes the case that “this time its different” — this time, a major party could nominate an outsider far from the mainstream of the party. To be sure, this time has been different so far, and Trump has stayed aloft much longer than most experts thought possible. But I still think that a majority of GOP voters will refuse to nominate a candidate so outside mainstream Republican thinking on most major policy issues.

So for now, let’s consider the more likely scenario — one made even more likely now that Trump is slipping in key polls and starting to sound desperate — that his support collapses and he bows out.

When that happens, will we be able to say that Trump has had any impact on the foreign policy debate? Probably less than one would expect, especially for someone who has dominated election coverage as long as he has.

Trump can certainly claim to have elevated (not quite the right word, but ignore that for the moment) the debate on immigration. Of course, immigration has been a contentious issue within GOP circles for decades. Yet Trump has certainly drawn a lot of attention to the issue. He could also claim to have touched the supposed Republican third rail of proposing to raise taxes without (yet) getting killed for doing so.

But what of foreign policy and national security? He does, of course, answer questions on such topics when asked. But by my count, he has delivered only one major address devoted to foreign policy and national security — over a month ago, aboard a battleship. As the contemporaneous coverage reflected, this wasn’t really a foreign policy address, so much as another iteration of his stump speech focusing on immigration with some improvised foreign policy riffs sprinkled in.

When I visited his campaign website to find a transcript of the speech, there was none to be found. Nor could I find any coverage of the address in the news archive section (I did find a link to a Tonight Show sketch in which Trump interviewed his impersonator in the mirror). Evidently, the Trump campaign did not deem his only major foreign policy address newsworthy enough to write about (when I tried to get the video link, I instead found a 404 missing link error. So maybe it is coming, or there is just a web glitch). More tellingly, there is no foreign policy section in the “positions” tab on Trump’s campaign website.

A wag might argue that the Trump campaign has quickly adjusted to the over-classification of the national security state, and is keeping his foreign policy and national security positions secret. Indeed, Trump himself claimed that he had a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State that he wouldn’t share, for fear of alerting the enemy.

Perhaps there are more such secret policies that Trump is developing and just hasn’t shared yet. But, just as with the “foreign policy advisory team” that Trump claims to be assembling and promised to unveil over a month ago, it is also possible that they just don’t exist.

In this respect, it is curious that I have yet to meet a foreign policy or national security expert who claims to have briefed the Trump campaign. Of course, I cannot prove the opposite, but by now I know someone who has talked with almost every other top-ten campaign — and this is the front-runner, so surely the numbers of advisers seeking to hop on the bandwagon should be much greater.

Moreover, as Trump’s numerous foreign policy gaffes demonstrate, he is precisely the sort of candidate who would benefit from either a serious study of foreign policy and national security or, at the very least, from a tutorial from those who have had done such a study.

In fact, if Trump leaves the campaign, that might be his foreign policy legacy: he managed to remain the front-runner and command the election coverage for an astonishingly long period of time without making any visible effort to learn the complex foreign policy and national security issues that would constitute his major responsibility were he to win. If the 2012 campaign showed the also-rans the dangers of not preparing adequately, is the 2016 campaign showing how far you can go without bothering to do that homework?

[Disclosure: I support Jeb Bush’s candidacy and have given money to his campaign.]

Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images News

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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