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theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer
Friday, November 11, 2016
Analysis: The foreign policy of Donald J. Trump
Way, way back in April of this year, long before we told the world to hold our beer while we took an unexpected leap in the direction of American greatness, Donald Trump gave a foreign policy address in Washington, D.C. People who do not believe Trump has a foreign policy should read it. The speech has its share of contradictions and head-scratchers—something also true of President Obama’s foreign policy addresses—but it is false to say that it lacked coherence.
The message, at core, was this: America saved the world twice, in World War II and again in the Cold War, but since then has operated abroad on autopilot. We allowed an international system that was built to defeat fascism and communism to continue past its usefulness, to become a kind of zombie—and our leaders started to care more about that system’s interests than America’s. Trump’s foreign policy would “shake the rust” off of this approach and “always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. It has to be first.” No longer would we make the mistakes of “rebuilding other countries while weakening our own” or allowing our allies not to pay “their fair share” without consequence.
This position is perfectly coherent, just as it is a stunning departure from generations of bipartisan foreign policy consensus. Whatever the differences between George W. Bush and Barack Obama, they held in common the principle that America’s security depended on the maintenance of the order that Trump wishes to discard. Trump’s America Firstism is something new, and is part of the transnational wave that has given us Brexit in the UK, Orbán in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, Duda in Poland, and may soon give us President Le Pen in France. The politicians riding this wave are, like Trump, populists and nationalists.
So what will Trump’s approach to national security mean in practice? In some ways it will look conventionally conservative. Like Reagan, Trump promises to expand the size of the military. As he said in April, “Our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.” His transition team has announced that he will reverse Obama’s nuclear policies in order to modernize our strategic arsenal, while giving a renewed emphasis to cyber security. Almost all of Trump’s opponents in the primaries would now be saying the same things had they won.
Such continuities with a traditionally conservative approach are easy to imagine because we have lived through eras when such ideas were ascendant. Harder to picture are the breakages. There is an impulse to say that Trump won’t really go through with, say, taking a hostile approach to NATO states on their defense spending or encouraging East Asian allies to look out for themselves on questions of nuclear deterrence because Republicans in his administration will put the brakes on such departures from past practice.
Maybe. On the other hand, Trump said in April that he would not surround himself “with those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Now, politicians don’t follow through on things they say during campaigns all the time, and Trump will find it hard to staff the national security wing of his administration without recruiting from the ranks of Republican foreign policy professionals. At the highest levels—the cabinet officials and top White House advisers—personnel will be policy, to some extent. But it seems only reasonable to expect that on questions where Trump has repeatedly articulated a clear intent, he will pursue that intent, at least initially.
Intentions that Trump has repeatedly articulated: to be on friendly terms with Russia, to fight radical Islam, to renegotiate the Iran deal, and to be tough on trade with China. There are some significant internal contradictions baked into that list. For one, Putin has been very happy to allow ISIS to continue to exist in Syria, because its presence prevents other nations from applying more pressure to Assad. There is even good circumstantial evidence indicating Russian support for ISIS. Perhaps, with Obama’s on-again, off-again hostility to Assad now at an end, Putin’s calculation will change.
On the Iran deal, in April Trump was quite clear that “under a Trump administration, [Iran] will never, ever be allowed to have that nuclear weapon.” Another contradiction, which others have observed: At this point, Europeans are almost certainly not willing to re-impose sanctions, leaving military action as a near-necessity for preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. This would not be a few pinpoint strikes but a major operation, certain to require special operations troops (at the least) on the ground. Does this not risk becoming the kind of unpredictable Middle East “adventure” for which Trump has criticized the Obama and Bush administrations?
Of the Pacific, Trump said in April that he wants to “live peacefully and in friendship” with China—but wants to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, when we “put more effort into adding China into the World Trade Organization … than we did in stopping Al Qaeda.” So we will be adversarial with China on trade—just as we will be with our allies: TPP is now deader than dead. Writing in Foreign Policy, two Trump advisers assert that the president-elect’s true goal in the Pacific is stability—a goal that Trump has elsewhere identified as an overarching global aim for his presidency. How stability will be achieved by taking actions that are likely to fundamentally alter a critical region’s order is not clear, at least to me, and highlights a contradiction that was obvious in Trump’s April speech: that Obama was wrong to pick “fights with our oldest friends,” but also that we are not “bound to be adversaries” with dangerous players like Putin and Xi—despite the fact that our oldest friends desperately depend on our support to survive in neighborhoods dominated by the countries those men lead.
Such moral imperatives are about to be a lot less important in American foreign policy. The United States, for Trump, is not an exceptional nation endowed with a mission to lead a liberal world order, but a powerful nation with its own interests. When these interests overlap with those of other countries, it can cut deals. When our interests are opposed to those of other countries, it is important for those countries to appreciate our strength and show us respect.
Such transactionalism and emphasis on respect are, in a sense, foreign policy principles in their own right—and seem to have the status of life principles for the incoming president. Nations that seek good relations with Trump’s America no doubt have already understood the importance of a good relationship with Trump himself. The personal is now geopolitical.
Supporters of the Obama administration would, from time to time, confide that their man was actually a realist. They were wrong about this for a number of reasons: and they should get ready for a man who looks a lot more like the real thing.