Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has staked out a foreign-policy position quite distinct from his opponent, Hillary Clinton. It is not, however, “isolationist” (contra Jeb Bush and many others) or “less aggressively militaristic” (economist Mark Weisbrot in The Hill) or “a jolt of realpolitik” (journalist Simon Jenkins in The Guardian).
With all due respect to these sources, they’re all wrong. Ditto John Pilger’s claim that Clinton represents the greater threat to the world, John Walsh’s argument that Trump is “the relative peace candidate,” and Justin Raimondo’s assertion that if Trump wins, then “the military-industrial complex is finished, along with the globalists who dominate foreign policy circles in Washington.”
The nonsense written about Trump’s global views has been truly staggering.
Granted, it’s not easy to get a bead on Trump’s worldview. His comments on foreign policy have frequently been incoherent, inconsistent, and just plain ignorant. He hasn’t exactly rolled out a detailed blueprint of what he would do to the world if elected (though that old David Levine cartoon of Henry Kissinger beneath the sheets comes to mind). Trump is clearly winging it in interviews with journalists, as if he’d gotten his foreign-policy information from garbled summaries of National Enquirer’s international coverage.
However, over the last year Trump has said enough to pull together a pretty good picture of what he’d do if suddenly in a position of nearly unchecked power (thanks to the expansion of executive authority under both Bush and Obama). President Trump would offer an updated version of Teddy Roosevelt’s old dictum: Speak loudly and carry the biggest stick possible.
It’s not an alternative to US empire—just a cruder rendition of it.
The Enemy of My Enemy
Both liberals and conservatives in the United States, as I’ve written, have embraced economic policies that have left tens of millions of working people in desperate straits. The desperation of the “left behind” faction is so acute, in fact, that many of its members are willing to ignore Donald Trump’s obvious disqualifications—his personal wealth, his disdain for “losers,” his support of tax cuts for the rich—in order to back the Republican candidate and stick it to the elite.
A similar story prevails in the foreign-policy realm. On the left, the frustration with Obama’s foreign policy—the continuation of wars, the expansion of drone attacks, the failure to reduce nuclear weapons—has prompted some to piece through Donald Trump’s sayings in a desperate search for something, anything, that could possibly represent an alternative. Some on the right, meanwhile, have spent the last eight years opposing nearly everything Obama has proposed—including policies they would otherwise support—and thus would back any Republican candidate, even Ted Nugent, against the Democratic Party’s handpicked successor.
Trump has indeed proven to be a “useful idiot” in making some statements—about NATO, about waging war, about budget priorities—that agitate foreign-policy grandees in both the Democratic and Republican Party. But in his inimitable way, Trump is simply out to shock and awe, to grab some headlines, to tweak the intellectual elite that has long derided him.
Examined more carefully, his positions on war and peace, alliance systems, and human rights break no new ground. He is old white whine in a new, cracked bottle.
Trump on War
Donald Trump likes to point out that Hillary Clinton supported the war in Iraq and he didn’t. Well, it’s relatively easy to be against the Iraq War at this point, when virtually everyone except Dick Cheney admits that it was a terrible decision. But Trump claims that he opposed the war before the invasion took place in March 2003.
The only public statement available, however, shows the opposite. Asked by Howard Stern on September 11, 2002, whether he favored a US invasion of Iraq, Trump replied: “Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish it was, I wish the first time it was done correctly.” By “correctly,” he could only mean that George H.W. Bush should have pursued the war to Baghdad and ousted Saddam Hussein.
Okay, Trump blew it on the Iraq invasion. A lot of people did. But perhaps he has learned from his error. A number of people have pointed out that he considers the intervention in Libya to have been a mistake. And indeed, he argued in a Republican presidential debate in February that the world “would be so much better off if Qaddafi would be in charge right now.”
But last month, he apparently had a change of mind. On Face the Nation, Trump declared his support for surgical strikes to take out Qaddafi. At least that makes last month’s Trump consistent with Trump 2011, who said outside powers should “on a humanitarian basis, immediately go into Libya, knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically, very effectively, and save the lives.” It also makes last month’s Trump consistent with this week’s Trump, who supports the most recent bombing of Islamic State targets in Libya.
At least Trump is consistent on Syria, right? He has argued that the United States has made a mistake to go after Bashar al-Assad and should focus all of its military strength on the Islamic State. In some sense, this position mirrors Barack Obama’s argument back in 2008 that the United States was fighting the wrong war in Iraq and should redeploy its forces to the war in Afghanistan.
Except that it’s not entirely clear that Trump believes this position. After all, at the Republican presidential candidate debate in September, he criticized the president for not acting more boldly at the outset of the crisis in Syria: “Had he crossed the line and really gone in with force, done something to Assad—if he had gone in with tremendous force, you wouldn’t have millions of people displaced all over the world.”
True, Trump has criticized the neoconservative espousal of the use of military force to promote democracy and build states. But that doesn’t mean he has backed off from the use of military force in general. Trump has pledged to use the military “if there’s a problem going on in the world and you can solve the problem,” a rather open-ended approach to the deployment of US forces. He agreed, for instance, that the Clinton administration was right to intervene in the Balkans to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
In terms of current conflicts, Trump has promised to “knock the hell out of ISIS” with air power and 20,000–30,000 US troops on the ground. He even reserves the right to use nuclear weapons against the would-be caliphate. By suggesting to allies and adversaries alike that he is possibly unhinged, Trump has resurrected one of the most terrifying presidential strategies of all time, Richard Nixon’s “madman” approach to bombing North Vietnam. Trump has one-upped Nixon: Much of the world considers him insane, without his ever having set foot in the Oval Office.
Okay, everyone hates the Islamic State. At least Trump is reluctant to use military force in other parts of the world, right?
However, in the interests of maintaining his preferred policy of unpredictability, Trump holds out the possibility of a war with China. He’d keep US troops in Afghanistan. Back in 2011, he channeled his inner Malcolm X in promising war with Iran: “Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped—by any and all means necessary.” He would expand the use of military drones in overseas conflicts, as he said in an interview with a Syracuse newspaper in April—which makes Simon Jenkins’s claim that “at least President Trump would ground the drones” particularly mystifying. Trump has also promised to use unarmed drones to patrol the US borders with Canada and Mexico.
This is not isolationism. It’s not even discriminate deterrence. As in the business world, Trump believes in full-spectrum dominance in global affairs. As Zack Beauchamp points out at Vox, Trump is an ardent believer in colonial wars of conquest to seize oil fields and pipelines.
About the only place in the world that Trump has apparently ruled out war is with Russia. Yes, it’s a good thing that he’s against the new cold war that has descended on US-Russian relations. In this one case, Trump is the proverbial stopped clock. But his position is hardly disinterested, given the economic and political ties to Russia of his business and his policy team.
Trump has also shown no regard whatsoever for basic principles of human rights and international law. He supports the return of torture and has expanded his calls beyond even waterboarding. “We’re going to have to do things that are unthinkable,” he said last month.
One of those previously “unthinkable” things is targeting the families of suspected terrorists, turning the presumably unintentional killing of women and children into official policy. His various plans to ban Muslims from entering the United States run counter to the US Constitution and his justification of the ban with reference to FDR’s shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II only underscores his contempt for basic human rights.
Trump on Alliances
Trump has made few friends in Washington with his criticisms of veterans and their families and his “joke” encouraging Russia to release any e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s account that it might have acquired in its hacking. Yet it’s Trump’s statements about NATO that have most unsettled the US foreign-policy elite.
In an interview with The New York Times, Trump said:
If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich. Then if we cannot make a deal, which I believe we will be able to, and which I would prefer being able to, but if we cannot make a deal…. I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.
This statement sent the US and European foreign-policy elite into a state of apoplexy. Combined with earlier statements about pressing US allies in Asia to pull their own weight, you can add foreign-policy elites in Japan and South Korea to the list of foreign leaders on the verge of cardiac arrest.
In fact, Trump’s position is not particularly radical. US leaders, both Republican and Democratic, have consistently urged “burden sharing” for decades. Every US government has tried to pressure Tokyo and Seoul into paying more under their host-nation support agreements. Both the Bush and Obama administrations tried to lean on European partners to meet their obligations to spend 2 percent of GDP on their militaries. Trump would not likely achieve any better results in this regard, his mafia-style threats notwithstanding.
The only departure from the usual script is Trump’s suggestion that the United States might not fulfill its own commitments under Article 5 to defend another NATO member in distress.
I doubt Trump has read the NATO charter. But it’s useful to remember that Article 5 does contain an interpretative opt-out. In the event of an armed attack on a NATO member, another member is obligated to take such action “as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic.” President Trump, in such a situation, could simply deem military force to be unnecessary. That would be radical, but not unprecedented (as when, for instance, Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and butted heads with Greece).
Again, I doubt Trump actually believes in abandoning NATO. Rather, he believes that threats enhance one’s bargaining position. In the Trump worldview, there are no allies. There are only competitors from whom one extracts concessions.
Some Trump enthusiasts have quietly celebrated the candidate’s more hard-headed approach to Israel. Justin Raimondo, for instance, has praised Trump’s understanding of the conflict as a real-estate dispute that requires a more even-handed mediation. But Trump, in his speech before the American Israel Political Action Committee, lambasted the Obama administration for “pressuring our friends and rewarding our enemies.” He then said:
We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem. And we will send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel. The Palestinians must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is absolutely, totally unbreakable.
Ultimately President Trump would extend the same reassurances to other allies once he is briefed on exactly how much they contribute to maintaining US hegemony in the world.
Trump on Pentagon Spending
Critics like Jean Bricmont rave about Trump’s willingness to take on the US military-industrial complex: “He not only denounces the trillions of dollars spent in wars, deplores the dead and wounded American soldiers, but also speaks of the Iraqi victims of a war launched by a Republican president.”
But Donald Trump, as president, would be the military-industrial complex’s best friend. He has stated on numerous occasions his intention to “rebuild” the US military: “We’re going to make our military so big, so strong and so great, so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it.”
More recently, in an interview with conservative columnist Cal Thomas, he said, “Our military has been so badly depleted. Who would think the United States is raiding plane graveyards to pick up parts and equipment? That means they’re being held together by a shoestring. Other countries have brand-new stuff they have bought from us.” That the United States already has the most powerful military in the world by every conceivable measure seems to have escaped Trump. And our allies never get any military hardware that US forces don’t already have.
Well, perhaps Trump will somehow strengthen the US military by cutting waste and investing that money more effectively. But Trump has promised to increase general military spending as well as the resources devoted to fighting the Islamic State. It’s part of an overall incoherent plan that includes large tax cuts and a promise to balance the budget.
An Exceptional Ruler
Let me be clear: Hillary Clinton has traditionally adopted foreign-policy positions to the right of Barack Obama. As president, she will likely tack in a more hawkish direction. But she stays within the confines of the realist tradition embraced by the liberal and conservative elite. Her global positions would be predictable, numbingly so in some cases.
However disappointing a Clinton II presidency might be with respect to Russia, drones, or Syria, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Donald Trump represents an alternative. He is no isolationist, unless you count his growing isolation within his own party. He is firmly committed to the use of military force, increases in military spending, preserving US alliances, and invoking exceptionalism when it comes to international law.
Indeed, the major difference between the two candidates is that Hillary Clinton is committed to the same American exceptionalism as her predecessors. Donald Trump is committed to only one thing: Trumpian exceptionalism. He believes himself exceptional and an exception to the rules.
The truly embarrassing part is that some otherwise sensible people also make an exception for Trump when they consider him a refreshing alternative to the status quo.