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Trump Is Less Hawkish Than Hillary. Who Cares?
Clinton’s instincts might be overly aggressive. Trump’s are an incoherent catastrophe.
In a presidential campaign dominated by discussion of the candidates’ behavior, temperaments, and professional connections, there has been shockingly little mention, by the campaigns and the media, of policy. In particular, hardly anyone has paid attention to foreign policy, beyond the allegations of foreign interference in the electoral process. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have not been forced to answer clarifying questions about their foreign policy positions, beyond the narrow scope of U.S.-led counterterrorism operations within Iraq and Syria.
This should be a critical part of any national campaign because, unlike their role in domestic legislation and appropriations, American presidents have tremendous power and authority over the scope and conduct of foreign policy. This has been especially true since 9/11, when the chief’s constitutional authorities started being used to justify a range of covert and clandestine actions, as well as expanded military commitments, with very little restraint or oversight from Congress or the courts.
I took it upon myself this year to write several pieces assessing the sorts of Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would likely be. Of those, I have received the most feedback from the one titled “Hillary the Hawk: A History.” And given Clinton’s willingness to use force and belief in the power of coercive diplomacy, I do believe that she is slightly more “hawkish” than Trump.
To be perfectly clear, however, I have little doubt that Donald Trump would be a vastly more dangerous and destabilizing foreign-policy president than Hillary Clinton. The business mogul has not demonstrated a grasp of even the most basic principles, laws, and behaviors that govern the conduct of foreign policy, or the manner in which nation-states interact. Worse, he refuses to learn, proudly stating when asked who he listens to on foreign policy, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things…. I have a good instinct for this stuff.” He simply does not.
The basis for this judgment are Trump’s own statements on foreign policy issues.
Trump has no ability to articulate or prioritize foreign threats. He has repeatedly stated that the top threat to U.S. national security is “nuclear global warming.” Unless he is somehow incorrectly referring to the diametrically opposite concept — the “nuclear winter” scenario first articulated in the journal Science in 1983 — then absolutely nobody has any idea what this means. If Trump said the biggest threat is cyberattacks (as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper does), or Russia (as the Joint Chiefs do) it would offer some insight into how he views the world. But his embarrassing and unprecedented belief that “nuclear global warming” is a threat is a disqualifying proclamation.
Relatedly, Trump has no understanding of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. When asked which leg of the nuclear triad he thought was most important, he replied: “I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.” It has become an overused scare tactic to envision an irrational Trump with his “finger on the button,” launching a preemptive nuclear attack. However, considering the consequential decisions the next president may have to make on nuclear warhead modernization, delivery vehicle replacements, and deterrence scenarios, an incoming president should have some idea about America’s 1,930 deployed nuclear weapons.
Trump either has no understanding of U.S. conventional military power, or is being intentionally misleading about the capabilities of the armed forces. He inaccurately defames the most globally committed and powerful military in world history as being “very weak” and “seriously depleted,” and led by generals who “have been reduced to rubble to a point where it’s embarrassing to our country.” Other than repeating the Reagan “peace through strength” mantra with zero context, Trump has given little indication what sorts of military missions he would support. He opposes using U.S. ground troops for “nation-building,” but has repeatedly endorsed using them in Iraq (and in Libya in 2011) to coercively extract the country’s oil and natural gas. This is an illegal act of aggression fit for King Leopold II of Belgium, not a U.S. president.
Trump also has all but pledged to start trade and currency wars with U.S. allies and partners, ending what he labels an “era of economic surrender.” Withdrawing from multilateral treaties that govern and regulate the flows of people, goods, and services, or imposing onerous tariffs and sanctions would immediately crater U.S. exports — which comprise 13.5 percent of GDP — and increase unemployment. Increased trade correlates with a reduced likelihood of war between states, and even of coups within conflict-prone countries. More cruelly, he has threatened to prevent remittances from being sent to Mexico (approximately $25 billion per year), which is the single most effective poverty alleviation activity imaginable, unless Mexico City pays for “that wall” he plans to build along the U.S. southern border. (Ironically, Trump’s candidacy is causing remittances to Mexico to surge.)
Finally, and most dangerously over the long-term, Trump does not believe in human-induced global warming. He has promised that he would “cancel” the historic climate agreement negotiated last year among nearly 200 countries in Paris. In 2012, he claimed it was a hoax created by China to undermine U.S. industry, and nearly every time there is a cold snap in the country, he cites the chilly temperatures as evidence that global warming is not happening. For the third consecutive year, 2016 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record, according to NASA. It is simply too great a risk for the United States to be led by a president who cannot accept the overwhelming consensus of scientists, and recognize the urgency to confront this complex and truly global challenge.
Of course, Trump has numerous other foreign-policy positions that should invalidate him as a reasonable president, from misrepresenting the informal pledge of NATO member states to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense as money owed to the United States, to promising to reintroduce torture to as a U.S. counterterrorism tactic. When it comes to foreign policy, Trump’s own positions make him the most immoral, poorly informed, and dangerous presidential candidate in recent American history.
If Clinton is elected, there will undoubtedly be troubling foreign-policy positions and actions which must be thoroughly questioned and scrutinized. I just deeply hope that citizens have the opportunity to hold a President Hillary Clinton to account.
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images