Why Donald Trump Should Be Taken Seriously on Foreign Policy

Believe it or not, The Donald’s "America first" message is just what Washington needs to hear.

Real estate tycoon Donald Trump flashes the thumbs-up as he arrives on stage for the start of the prime time Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Real estate tycoon Donald Trump flashes the thumbs-up as he arrives on stage for the start of the prime time Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

For no reason should Donald Trump become the next president of the United States. His stances on immigration and taxes, not to mention his attitude toward women, are only a few of the host of reasons he is not fit for the country’s highest office. (We can be thankful that it appears he will not get his party’s nomination.) Despite all that, he still has something to offer Washington. For the rest of the campaign, and especially at the debate Wednesday, listen closely to The Donald’s foreign policy.

You heard me right. After years of American adventurism underwritten by neoconservative and liberal interventionist administrations, Donald Trump — knowingly or unknowingly — has consistently outlined a more restrained vision for America’s relations with the world than many in both parties, including most of the other presidential candidates, have offered. Yes, he should be silenced on most issues. And it’s probably good news that he’s slipping in the polls. But for now, when it comes to foreign policy, the inside-the-beltway community should not stand between Trump and the microphone.

Since the days of Woodrow Wilson, America has toggled between liberal interventionists and neoconservatives. Their main drives are to spread American influence by democratization, the liberals with institutions and “soft power” and neoconservatives, usually, with force. No American foreign-policy debate, especially since World War II, has proceeded without one of these camps animating the ultimate course of action. It has led to some successes, like ending a war in Bosnia, but it has led to many failures, like the current crises in Iraq and Libya. But now an unlikely outsider is offering a different way of thinking about foreign policy. It’s not all pretty, but it is different. And it deserves some serious consideration.

So what is Trump’s foreign policy? The candidate has taken flack for his lack of advisors on international matters. And Peter Feaver wrote this week for FP that Trump doesn’t even have a foreign policy. But the truth is, The Donald has a grand (you might even call it yooge) vision. In its simplest terms, he seems to believe that the United States should not expend its foreign-policy energy and power unless its allies, partners, or other stakeholders have a similar commitment to solving the issue at hand. That’s basically the opposite of the current consensus among Washington’s foreign-policy and national security leaders.

Take Trump’s stance on Europe, the continent with the staunchest American allies for over half a century. In 2000, he wrote: “Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous. And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.” When confronted about this by NBC’s Chuck Todd, Trump had a chance to backtrack. After all, he could make the case that since he offered that opinion, Europe got tested by an aggressive Russia, witnessed large-scale terrorist attacks, and showed it could not take down a weak adversary even with U.S. help. There was no need to double down on a belief he held 15 years ago. And, yet, he did just that.

“Where’s Germany?” the then-GOP front-runner exclaimed to Todd. “Where are the countries of Europe leading? I don’t mind helping them. I don’t mind being right behind them. I’ll be right behind them,” which sounds just like one of the most excoriated foreign-policy positions held by the Obama administration.

Trump stayed consistent when discussing Ukraine, perhaps Europe’s most pressing security challenge. “I don’t like what’s happening with Ukraine,” Trump said in that same interview. “But that’s really a problem that affects Europe a lot more than it affects us. And they should be leading some of this charge.” In addition, Trump “wouldn’t care” if Ukraine joined NATO, overturning the expansion policy that has existed since the alliance’s founding to the start of the Obama administration. (Granted, Trump’s stance puts him in line with Ukraine’s current wishes since it stopped seeking NATO membership in 2010, though that policy may soon change.)

Trump’s dislike of free-riding on America’s security guarantees also extends to Asia. Back in 2013, Trump set his sights on South Korea, a country that has received protection from the United States against North Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953. “How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment? … When will they start to pay us?” asked Trump, sounding like a business man worried that a sent invoice received no remuneration. He has a point, after all, since South Korea foots less than half the total cost of maintaining America’s troops in the country at around $861 million. He recently repeated these beliefs at a campaign stop this month, making the same case — that South Korea is taking advantage of the United States.

China also receives Trump’s ire, of course, and much of his speech time. Despite the importance of the U.S.-China relationship over the remainder of this century, Trump does not see much use for it. He decries China for taking American jobs, not following the rules of the liberal international order, spying, and manipulating its currency for economic gain. In response, he says his administration “will tax China for each bad act, and if they continue, then we will tax them at an even higher level.” Instead of choosing to democratize China, further integrate it into the liberal international order (the current president’s policy), or use force to change its behavior, Trump chooses a primarily economic approach. Clearly, he sees China as not much more than an economic competitor, one the United States must constantly be better than. His proposals for maintaining economic superiority are wrong, but his focus is different from the usual liberal or neoconservative prescriptions.

Trump’s grand foreign-policy belief appears to be the reason for his outspoken stance on the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He called Afghanistan a “mistake” and said that the lesson of the war in Iraq was that “you have to know when to use the military.” He even claimed he has been against the Iraq War since 2004. (Evidence of that is scant.) And while he is surely sounding the alarm on Iraq with an express purpose to harm the candidacy of Jeb Bush, there is also no reason to doubt his sincerity. In a Twitter attack on Jeb (because this is how presidential candidates behave now), Trump asked a question in service of outlining his biting critique: “Jeb, why did your brother attack and destabalize [sic] the Middle East by attacking Iraq when there were no weapons of mass destruction?” Not only is Trump right on this issue, but his view also fits into his grander narrative: There was no evidence of a chance to win because the United States overextended and did not properly use the resources at its disposal.

Trump’s stances on the foreign-policy issues of the day show his years-long, zen-like focus on his core foreign-policy belief: The United States should only get into a situation where it can win, preferably in conjunction with another willing party. From Europe to Asia to the Middle East to trade, he worries about others taking advantage of America’s overextended foreign policy.

This directly contradicts many of the more hawkish stances of his fellow candidates, allowing him to stand out in an election cycle where foreign policy is the top issue among Republican voters. Trump also offers a counter to the conventional wisdom in Washington, which states that the United States must have a more activist and forceful approach to world affairs, either by being the out-front security guarantor, the “world’s policeman,” or the globe’s lead networker. Trump emphatically believes in assessing each situation anew, at minimum causing a rethink and at most leading a reversal of years of American foreign policy.

But Trump’s proposals are no panacea. In fact, they may not even be good foreign policy. After all, Trump does not seem to consider the consequences of many of his apparent suggestions. Should the United States not fund NATO at its current levels, Europe may continue down a more unstable path. American disengagement on the Korean peninsula could lower North Korea’s incentive to not attack South Korea. Inattention to the Middle East could exacerbate many of the big problems in the region. And angering China, instead of trying to find a way to coexist with it, may only make a tense situation worse.

In the end, Trump is a terrible candidate for his party and his country. A victory for Trump would be a loss for America. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. And Trump is — somewhat — right on foreign policy. Mainly, that the United States should rethink its Pavlovian responses to foreign-policy issues — internationalism and interventionism — to ensure that it can use its resources and pursue its interests wisely. How Trump wants to achieve this newfound restraint is not the right method, but it is different from the normal impulses of Washington foreign-policy making.

That’s worth serious consideration, even if his candidacy is not.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Alex Ward is an associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He tweets at @AlexWardB.