An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Certain Trumpet

Donald Trump’s uninformed, reckless pronouncements to the New York Times on foreign policy would expose the United States to grave danger.


In a remarkable and wide-ranging interview in the New York Times, we were recently treated to a view of Donald Trump’s world. If implemented, his approach would fare about as well as Trump University — but it is certainly not lacking in confidence and brio. Unfortunately, his reckless proposals would deeply damage the underpinnings of the global system and work to America’s profound disadvantage.

Let’s begin with the idea that before the United States responds to an attack on a NATO ally in Europe — say, the Baltic states — the Trump administration would first have to see if “they had met their obligations to us.” I can picture the scene: National Security Advisor Tiffany Trump walks into the Oval Office with a load of charts on trade policy, basing agreements, cost-sharing, and balance of payments — all while Russian troops are pouring into Estonia.

The NATO treaty is crystal clear on this one: An attack on one nation shall be regarded as an attack on all of them, according to Article 5. This article is the absolute bedrock of NATO and the linchpin of the postwar security infrastructure that has bound Western democracies to one another — to great mutual benefit. In the event of an attack, the idea that Trump would begin by carefully scrutinizing the balance sheet before responding would undermine every principle of the alliance, creating deep uncertainty in the hearts of our allies and giving immense good cheer to Vladimir Putin.

Such pronouncements are also deeply destabilizing, because they encourage Putin to ignore the deterrent value of the alliance. They also simply ignore all that Europe offers us, including political support across the globe and military deployments alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Balkans, Libya, and on counterpiracy missions. One can argue with the outcomes or even the rationale for each of those operations individually, but to ignore the significant contributions of our European allies is not only insulting but bad business.

Perhaps it is unfashionable these days to raise the idea of values-based alliances, but our nation is built on the values that we share with our European colleagues, and it is worth remembering those ideals. And, by the way, virtually all of them came from Europe’s Age of Enlightenment: democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and on and on. Do we really want to replace them with a balance sheet and a “what have you done for me lately” attitude?

Is that what America has become?

Donald Trump might also want to remember (since his memory of 9/11 is so crystal clear) that Article 5 has been invoked only once in the long history of the treaty: in defense of the United States just hours after the attack on New York and Washington, D.C. Our allies not only provided direct military assistance within our borders, but they marched in solidarity with us to Iraq (where NATO had a training mission) and Afghanistan (where NATO remains the central structure in America’s longest war). They have stood by the United States, and we must stand by them if they are attacked — not only because of the treaty, not only because it is the ethical and moral thing to do, but because it is in our geopolitical and economic interest.

Finally, Trump might want to read up a bit on why NATO exists in the first place: The United States was twice drawn into European wars in the 20th century that caused perhaps 60 million deaths worldwide. NATO’s mission, according to an early secretary-general of that body, was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Indeed, NATO’s two greatest successes are that no outside nation has ever dared attack a NATO nation and that no NATO nation has ever attacked another NATO nation. For the United States, keeping peace on the European continent is good for our economy, because Europe is our largest trading partner by far.

The Trump interview goes on to lay out a number of other highly controversial foreign-policy positions, nearly all of which are fundamentally flawed and could be dismantled by the greenest graduate student studying international relations.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about the interview — which, by all accounts, is an entirely accurate portrayal of Trump’s views — is the tone. He evinces a kind of breezy certainty that the United States can ignore our treaty obligations; charge fees for defending our allies and friends; encourage East Asia to go nuclear; simply drop out of trade agreements like NAFTA or renegotiate them completely; build massive walls on the southern border and get Mexico to pay for them; give up our global system of forward bases; and blithely slap tariffs on China. And yet he entirely ignores the consequences of these actions or is too uninformed to even see them. It’s simply ludicrous. Like elections, actions have consequences.

In 1960, Maxwell Taylor, an American general, wrote a book called The Uncertain Trumpet. It argued that an absence of U.S. leadership would make the world a more dangerous place. Leaving aside the cheap pun on The Donald’s name, the one thing we know for certain about the post-Cold War international order is that it is highly complex, utterly interwoven, and not receptive to a theory of the world that bounds along like a floppy-haired golden retriever carelessly knocking over everything in its path. That kind of Marley & Me approach — shot through with dangerous hubris and overweening confidence — might be called “The Certain Trumpet.”

The sad irony is the policies that Donald Trump makes plain he intends to pursue will create enormous uncertainty in the world, and the attendant ills will create enormous difficulties for our nation.

Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is The Leader's Bookshelf. Twitter: @stavridisj