On March 25, 2016, David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times interviewed the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, about his views on US foreign policy. The lengthy interview provided the first detailed insights into what the United States’ role in the world would be if Trump were elected president.
In sum, Trump suggested current US foreign policy initiatives and treaties have become obsolete and are in serious need of reinterpretation and possible renegotiation. Trump argued that the US has been taken advantage of by US allies who act as free riders, refusing to pay their fair share for US military protection. As Trump sees it, the financial burden of the United States’ role as a world superpower is no longer sustainable, given the tremendous debt the US has acquired. Trump suggests one of the primary objectives of US foreign policy should be “making deals” to acquire “full reimbursement” for US military protection from allies like Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea and NATO. Trump characterizes the US as a “poor nation, a debtor nation” that can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. Using the US-Japan defense treaty as an example, Trump repeatedly stated the US would no longer be “ripped off” by “unfair, one-sided treaties” if he were to become president.
The New York Times interview is important not for what Trump said, but what he didn’t say. He made no attempt toidentify parts of the world that might be critical to the United States’ national interests like Southeast Asia or the emerging economies of Africa and Latin America. He disavowed cause and effect relationships, making the erroneous assumption that state actors would immediately accept American demands on security and trade related issues. He provided no strategy stating exactly how the United States could effectively negotiate in the international arena on the one hand, while perpetuating an “America First” doctrine based exclusively on the promotion of US national interests on the other. Trump made no mention of transnational institutions like the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund and how they would react to his attempts to change the rules of trade and currency revaluation with nations like China. Trump’s worldview was myopic; the Middle East, ISIS, North Korea, China and Russia dominated his thinking. The rest of the world seemed to not exist.
Trump sees transparency as something to be avoided at all costs. He stated; “Everything we do, we announce, instead of winning, and announcing when it’s all over. There’s such, total predictability of this country, and it’s one of the reasons we do so poorly.” In response to a question regarding how the US might deter Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, Trump intimated he would use trade to negotiate with the Chinese, stating, “I don’t want them to know what I’m thinking.” In place of transparency, Trump would rely on unpredictability. Yet he appears oblivious to the inherent risks of this decision-making approach.
Successful foreign policy is contingent on developing bilateral and multilateral support, based on leadership rooted in confidence building and tangible credibility that agreements negotiated will be honored. Although strategic ambiguity is apparent in negotiations between nation-states, unpredictability subterfuges the negotiating climate that is dependent on painstaking, confidence-building measures that may take years to establish. Trump’s approach would undermine strategic alliances and accelerate brinkmanship. In short, the world would be a more dangerous place if Trump were president.
In his response to a series of questions about the United States’ role in the world, Trump demonstrated breathtaking simplicity, avoiding specifics about the current state of international affairs. He argued that China is doing fine economically, despite recent economic analyses suggesting China’s economy is headed for a recession. Trump seemed unaware that US economic sanctions are still in place against Iran. His claim that NATO was set up specifically to “talk about the Soviet Union,” is ludicrous. Concerning the alliance between the US and Japan, Trump noted, “Well I think maybe it’s not so bad to have Japan — if Japan had that nuclear threat, I’m not sure that would be a bad thing for us.” Trump failed to recognize Japanese constitutional restrictions on nuclear weapons production or that his comments might embolden nationalistic right-wing extremist groups in Japan that support a nuclear capacity. This lack of concern about the current state of the world is reflective of Trump’s innate hubris. He seemingly feels he does not need to know these important facts. Further, the type of dialogue he has used on the campaign trail would have disastrous results in the realm of foreign policy. Trump does not possess the tone, stature or temperament to be a statesman.
The superficial nature of Trump’s foreign policy philosophy was exposed in a March 27, 2016, speech in Washington, DC, at the invitation of the Center for the National Interest. In the speech, “billed as a major address,” Trump expressed the need to “shake the rust off American foreign policy.” Yet Trump offered no detailed policy prescriptions, relying instead on gross generalities to explain his foreign policy agenda. The speech veered toward the absurd; a Trump administration “will lead a free world that is properly armed and funded, and funded beautifully,” tothe fanciful; “ISIS will be gone if I’m elected president. And they’ll be gone quickly. They will be gone very, very quickly.” His focus on recreating US strength through “unquestioned” military dominance was a major theme, but he made no mention of how the financial resources to achieve this goal would be acquired.
Trump’s über-realist faith in the power of the nation state is difficult to imagine in a multipolar world in which the forces of globalization, transnational institutions, the mass migration of peoples and the increasing power of multinational corporations weaken state sovereignty. Further, Trump’s comments on “reinvigorating Western values” and “strengthening and promoting Western civilization and accomplishments” ring hollow with his stated desire touse state-sponsored torture on terrorist suspects. His attack on the “false song of globalism” is a rejection of over six decades of diplomatic initiatives instituted by both Republican and Democratic administrations to promote respect for international law, and develop a set of normative beliefs, practices and institutions designed to enhance peaceful interstate relations and economic stability. In interviews with foreign policy elites around the globe, the Guardian stated, Trump winning the presidency “fills great swaths of the planet with dread … with concerns over everything from trade to the nuclear trigger.” It is clear that his “America First” doctrine is built on a set of incoherent principles and portrays an unrealistic version of state-centered diplomacy: a form of authoritarian “Pax Americana” for the 21stcentury. Ultimately, Trump’s foreign policy would diminish US power, and China and Russia would fill the void created from American disengagement.
In the end, Trump’s foreign policy creates a vision of US chauvinism based on militaristic and authoritarian impulses. His foreign policy agenda would promote instability, reduce American power and enhance the prospects for authoritarian states to heighten their global influence.