NATO, a pillar of American foreign policy for decades, is “obsolete.” Washington should slash funding for the 28-member, 67-year old alliance because it’s “costing us a fortune.” Japan and South Korea should develop their own atomic weapons rather than continuing to rely on America’s nuclear arsenal. Seoul should “reimburse” Washington for protecting the Pacific. The U.S. should stop buying oil from Saudi Arabia and other Arab exporters, if they won’t send troops to fight militant Islamists. Nation-building has been “proven not to work.” U.S. military bases abroad don’t help America project power or protect its interests. America is being “ripped off” by free trade. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is a stand-up guy, and China is an “enemy” that is “bilking us for billions.” Washington should “knock the hell out of ISIS,” but not send U.S. combat troops, or even special forces, to do it.
Welcome to Donald Trump’s flat-earth view of the world. His dark take on America’s role in the world represents not just a “dramatic break with years of Republican Party orthodoxy,” as the Washington Post put it, but with the foreign policy “realism” of the Democrats as well. More isolationist than interventionist, Trump sees America not as an inspirational beacon of freedom, as Ronald Reagan saw it, or “exceptional,” as almost every other president has claimed, but as a pathetic giant that has been out-negotiated at every turn by longstanding foes—and even its allies. Trump’s America is a quintessential victim, or as he would say, a “loser.”
Before outlining his views this week to the Washington Post’s editorial board and to reporters from the New York Times, the billionaire builder and reality TV star relied mostly on evasions and platitudes when asked how, specifically, he would “make America great again.” But perhaps that was the wiser course. For the policies he now espouses—and waffles on when asked about their likely impact—would upend long-standing bilateral and international alliances, jeopardize the free movement of goods and people that has been an engine of American prosperity, and accelerate the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in unstable regions.
Foreign policy experts who earlier signed an open letter declaring that Trump’s foreign policy and national security views make him unfit to lead the nation said they felt vindicated by his recent remarks. William H. Tobey, a former deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration (which oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons), and now a professor at Harvard’s Belfer Center, said that Trump’s demand that allies pay more “fundamentally misunderstands the security benefits America gains from its alliances.” Moreover, he said, Trump’s admiration for Russia and China’s brutal repression, would “undermine America’s position as a champion for human rights and strengthen the most anti-American forces” in both countries. Trump’s trade policy, he concluded, “could have been written by Smoot and Hawley,” the legislative champions of the 1930 tariffs that are widely regarded as a cause of the Great Depression.
Slashing funds for NATO, say other Trump critics, would be particularly perilous in the wake of the Paris and Brussels attacks, the massive flow of refugees to Europe, and the free movement of goods and people encouraged within the so-called Schengen Zone. “This is the time to be encouraging NATO to expand its mission, not curtail such efforts,” one former official said.
Even more worrisome is Trump’s consistent anti-Muslim rhetoric. A majority of law enforcement officials warn that banning foreigners from the U.S. based on race or religion is not only antithetical to American law and values, but would cripple efforts to secure the assistance of Muslims who oppose ISIS. But Trump has company in this. While Senator Ted Cruz has called Trump’s views on NATO “catastrophically foolish” and warned that abandoning Europe and “the most successful military alliance of modern times” would be a massive gift to Russia and ISIS, he, too, has endorsed destroying ISIS by “carpet-bombing them into oblivion” and by patrolling Muslim neighborhoods to prevent terrorist attacks. NYPD chief William Bratton denounced the idea in an op-ed for the New York Daily News.
Philip Zelikow, former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, says the media are wrong to focus on the specific content of Trump’s foreign policy prescriptions. It is a “waste of time to think harder about these positions than he does himself,” Zelikow says. “As he knows well, his appeal is social and cultural. It is not ideological.” Trump’s attraction is attitudinal. Handwringing about his stance on trade, NATO, or Mexico, “actually misunderstands him at some level,” says Zelikow. Trump’s asking voters to trust him to fix “all this stuff in a way you’ll like.” In other words, there is actually no way of knowing what Trump would really do about any particular issue as president. “He doesn’t know himself,” Zelikow says. And perhaps even more ominous, “he doesn’t think he needs to know.”
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