Donald Trump: Keep Your Hands Off the Foreign-Policy Ideas I Believe In

The GOP candidate is talking up three important and sensible ideas about America’s role in the world. And he’s going to ruin them.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 05:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the CFE Arena during a campaign stop on the campus of the University of Central Florida  on March 5, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.  Primary voters head to the polls on March 15th in Florida.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 05: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the CFE Arena during a campaign stop on the campus of the University of Central Florida on March 5, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. Primary voters head to the polls on March 15th in Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Apart from his other shortcomings, Donald Trump is giving a sensible approach to U.S. foreign policy a bad name. In recent years, a number of scholars and policy analysts have labored to articulate and explain why the United States would be better off with a foreign policy that was less interventionist, less costly, less hypocritical, less beholden to special interests, and above all more successful than the strategy of liberal hegemony pursued by the past three U.S. administrations.

This more restrained approach seeks to advance the U.S. national interest first and foremost. In other words, it maintains that the first goal of U.S. foreign policy is to make Americans safer and more prosperous. This alternative grand strategy would eschew ambitious attempts to remake the world in America’s image and would press key U.S. allies to take more responsibility for their own defense. The United States would not disengage from the world or retreat to Fortress America, but it would be much more selective in its use of military power and focus primarily on preventing potentially dangerous concentrations of power from emerging in Europe, Asia, or the Persian Gulf.

Unfortunately, because these ideas overlap with some (but by no means all) of Trump’s pronouncements on foreign policy, his increasingly incoherent, ignorant, and incompetent campaign threatens to tarnish this alternative in the minds of some observers. Assuming he loses — fingers crossed — the end result could perpetuate America’s present grand strategy despite its many shortcomings.

To give The Donald his due, he has thus far said three perfectly sensible and uncontroversial things about foreign policy. First, he has made it clear he believes the primary purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to advance U.S. interests. In other words, he thinks most states pursue their own interests first and foremost and the United States should do the same. Though most of the foreign-policy establishment claims to have loftier goals (i.e., spreading democracy, promoting human rights, halting proliferation, etc.), Trump’s emphasis on U.S. interests is hardly beyond the pale.

Second, he believes many U.S. allies are wealthy countries free-riding on American protection and failing to bear their rightful share of collective security burdens. He’s correct, and plenty of other U.S. leaders — including President Barack Obama and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — have said exactly the same thing on numerous occasions.

Third, Trump is skeptical of ambitious efforts to “nation build” in far-flung corners of the world, and he now claims to be opposed to dumb wars. It’s hard to argue with him on this point either, though let’s not forget that he supported the Iraq War in 2003 (and then denied that he had done so). Moreover, he sometimes sounds like he’d be willing to go to war at the drop of a hat. But a disinclination to enter more open-ended quagmires is hardly a controversial position at this point.

Reasonable people can disagree about these three assertions, but they are hardly bizarre or outside the boundaries of acceptable discussion. If Trump stuck with them and made them the centerpiece of his foreign-policy platform, the 2016 campaign might actually feature an instructive and long-overdue debate on the global role of the United States and the proper use of American power. Unfortunately, those three elements pretty much exhaust Trump’s wisdom on foreign affairs, and the rest of his views are a farrago of ignorant, offensive, and toxic beliefs that have no business anywhere near the Oval Office.

For starters, Trump’s views on international economics reflect a protectionist outlook that was discredited a couple of centuries ago. Tearing up the North American Free Trade Agreement or leaving the World Trade Organization would not restore American manufacturing or make the country “great” again; it would instead be a body blow to the United States and the world economy and could quite possibly trigger another global recession. Trump simply doesn’t seem to understand that trade is not a zero-sum game where one state “wins” and the rest “lose”; it’s not like one of his shady business deals, which have lined his own pockets and left lots of unhappy customers feeling bilked. Furthermore, Trump’s claim that he can single-handedly negotiate “great” deals to replace the existing global trading system just tells you that he doesn’t know how such deals are actually negotiated or how that order works.

On top of that, Trump’s thinly veiled racism and his penchant for insulting rivals are a recipe for diplomatic disaster. Seriously, how can someone who routinely demeans Hispanics and Muslims expect to conduct effective diplomacy with our neighbors in Latin America or with the entire Arab world? There is a good case for playing hardball with allies and adversaries alike — at least some of the time — but a more self-interested grand strategy will work better if the president isn’t constantly offending everyone in sight. Other countries are already worried about American power and the ways it gets used (and abused); the last thing we need is an American equivalent of the impetuous and bombastic Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Moreover, the strategy of offshore balancing that I favor puts a premium on flexibility and on keeping one’s options open. To do that successfully requires a cool head and a certain amount of discipline, because you never know when today’s adversary becomes tomorrow’s ally and you don’t want to burn bridges with potential partners unless you absolutely have to. Needless to say, coolness and discipline are qualities in which Trump is conspicuously lacking. As Winston Churchill said of John Foster Dulles, he is the “only bull I know who carries his china closet with him.”

Third, Trump’s contempt for the U.S. military — as revealed in his feud with the family of a Muslim American soldier killed in action — is both disrespectful and divisive. I might be more sympathetic if Trump were criticizing a senior military leadership that seems to have forgotten how to win wars but instead Trump is picking a fight with the soldiers who have sacrificed mightily to carry out the missions they were assigned.

Fourth, Americans ought to look askance at Trump’s fondness for foreign dictators, most notably Vladimir Putin. I’m a realist, and I recognize that Washington has to do business with plenty of countries that don’t share its particular political values, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, Singapore, and many, many others. But Trump’s open admiration for Putin — and, even worse, his invitation for a foreign government to illegally interfere in a U.S. election by hacking the Democrats’ computers — is almost too bizarre to believe. It suggests a man bereft of any genuine commitment to America’s own democratic principles.

If that were not enough, consider his views on nuclear weapons. Having previously expressed a rather cavalier view of nuclear proliferation, this week it was reported that Trump went further and repeatedly asked a foreign-policy advisor why the United States couldn’t use a few nuclear weapons to solve pesky foreign-policy problems like the Islamic State. Reasonable people can disagree about the role nuclear weapons play in U.S. foreign and defense policy, but someone who thinks breaking the nuclear taboo or using them to deal with terrorism has no business being commander in chief.

Last but not least, there is the question of character. Has there ever been a presidential candidate as thin-skinned as The Donald and as incapable of controlling his own id and ego? I mean, the guy lets a crying baby get to him. And then there’s his apparent disinterest in facts, evidence, the truth, etc. All politicians spin the truth in various ways, but Trump’s willingness to just make stuff up and then deny it when challenged is unparalleled. And it was impossible to watch his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention without hearing faint echoes of the classic fascist appeal: “Enemies are everywhere, the danger is growing, our political opponents have betrayed us, and I alone can save you.”

In short, Trump is just about the worst salesman for an alternative foreign policy that one could possibly imagine. It’s a pity, because a serious debate on U.S. grand strategy is badly needed and Trump’s cartoonish approach to the subject makes it less likely that genuine alternatives will get a fair hearing.

So assuming Trump loses, are we stuck with the same strategy of liberal hegemony that has performed so poorly for the past 25 years? Hillary Clinton and her vast team of advisors are strongly committed to the familiar nostrums about America’s “indispensable” role, and her administration may keep trying to roll the stone uphill and remake the world in America’s image. Indeed, some insiders think she’ll be quick to abandon Obama’s somewhat more cautious attitude and take a more interventionist approach to trouble spots like Syria.

Maybe, but I’m not so sure. The days when the United States could manage most of the globe simultaneously are behind us; the federal budget will be tight no matter who wins; China is getting stronger and more ambitious; and the next president will have to make some hard choices and set priorities among Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and other global issues. You might also recall that former president and potential first gentleman Bill Clinton was exceedingly cautious about using military force — and especially U.S. ground troops — and he once told aide George Stephanopoulos that “Americans are basically isolationist.” That insight is even truer today: Because the United States presently faces no existential threats, public support for a costly foreign policy remains paper-thin. Clinton may try to run the world as her predecessors have, but she’ll have to try to do it on the cheap.

So even if Trump goes down in a resounding defeat and a President Hillary Clinton enters the Oval Office accompanied by a phalanx of liberal interventionists and unrepentant neoconservatives, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if she behaves with more restraint than her hawkish past might suggest.

In any event, liberal hegemony isn’t going to work any better for her than it did for her husband, for George W. Bush, or even for Barack Obama. Continued efforts to remake the world with American military power will continue to backfire, and the failures will force Americans to take a hard look at alternative grand strategies but hopefully without the disturbing distractions that Trump has provided. As Churchill also once said, the United States eventually does the right thing — after first trying all the alternatives.

Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.