What Trump Is Throwing Out the Window
A very interesting review in the NY Review of Books by Jessica Mathews on several books of foreign policy. The review begins:
For three decades, roughly since the end of the cold war, American foreign policy has been the subject of a passionate battle among three groups with radically different views of the part the United States should play in the world and of whether force or diplomacy should be its primary method.
Neoconservatives, who were passionate advocates for the Iraq war, want the United States to be the world’s policeman, concerned not only with states’ external behavior but with their internal adherence to American values, which, they believe, the United States should impose principally through the use of force. They care little for international agreements, believing that bad guys will flout them and good guys don’t need them.
Liberal internationalists, most of whom are supporting the current nuclear agreement with Iran, also want the US to act globally. But they want to build an increasingly strong international system of cooperation and alliances and avoid unilateralism. They see international progress deriving from increasing interdependence and agreed-upon rules to which the United States, however exceptional it may be, must adhere.
For realists, international relations are propelled by powerful states promoting their own self-interest. This view holds that the US should concentrate on its relations with the other great powers and on the balance of power in the most important regions and not waste resources on other parts of the world. Generally, realists argue for a much more limited US involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East.
The global financial crash of 2008 at America’s hands, the rise of ISIS, the transformation of Russia under President Vladimir Putin into a dangerous and committed adversary marked by its 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran, cyber interventions in the US election, and a steadily more nationalistic and militarily provocative China—all of these have dramatically raised the stakes of these conflicts over policy. The crux is no longer in deciding how far America should reach in deploying its power and forcing its values on others, but in what it must do to meet a cascade of challenges to its core interests and national security.
Into this particularly dangerous moment comes Donald Trump. What he has done is to take the few things on which neocons, realists, and liberal internationalists agree and throw them out the window. These are fundamentals of American foreign policy, taken as givens by both parties for the seven decades since the close of World War II. They include, first, the recognition of the immense value to the security of the United States provided by its allies and worldwide military and political alliances.
Second, there is the belief that the global economy is not a zero-sum competition, but a mutually beneficial growth system built on open trade and investment. Since the 1940s the United States has invested in the growth of the world economy out of considered self-interest, believing that it was building growing markets for itself that would operate under a set of rules that it wished to live by. And third, Americans of all political stripes have believed that while authoritarian governments may temporarily enjoy greater freedom of action than governments that have to consider public support, in the long run democracy will prove superior. Dictators have to be tolerated, managed, or confronted, not admired.
Trump’s foreign policy often seems invented in the moment—a mixture of impulse and ignorance amid a morass of contradictions. But in fact its essence, the opposite of the three core beliefs I’ve cited, has been remarkably consistent for decades.* In 1987, either toying with the possibility of a presidential run or building publicity for the forthcoming publication of The Art of the Deal (or both), Trump paid to publish an open letter to the American people in The New York Times and two other major papers with the headline “There’s Nothing Wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy That a Little Backbone Can’t Cure.”
Other nations, he wrote, “have been taking advantage of the United States.” They convince us to pay for their defense while “brilliantly” managing weak currencies against the dollar. “Our world protection is worth hundreds of billions of dollars to these countries”; yet weak American politicians respond “in typical fashion” to “these unjustified complaints.” “End our huge deficits,” he concludes, “reduce our taxes, and let America’s economy grow unencumbered by the cost of defending those who can easily afford to pay us for the defense of their freedom. Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.”
In a 1990 interview he returned to the same theme: “We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing a hundred and fifty billion dollars year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing…. Our ‘allies’ are making billions screwing us.” The same is true for Europe: “Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually…. These are clearly funds that can be put to better use.” Asked, as recently as last April, if he believed that the US gains anything from its bases in East Asia, he answered, “Personally I don’t think so.”
Trump’s admiration for strongmen showed up in praise of Putin in 2016 and previously of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. “Instead of having terrorism all over the place,” he said in February 2016, “we’d be—at least they killed terrorists, all right?” We find similar sentiments in 1990 in Trump’s criticism of then Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev for weakness, and his praise for China’s handling of the Tiananmen Square uprising: “The Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
The views Trump published in 1987, when he was forty-one, have not changed with time: mercantilist economic views; complete disdain for the value of allies and alliances; the conviction that the world economy is rigged against us and that American leadership is too dumb or too weak to fix it; admiration for authoritarian leaders and the view that the United States is being “spit on,” “kicked around,” or “laughed at” by the rest of the world. Critics of President Obama might say that Trump’s language was deserved, but these comments were directed at Ronald Reagan.
Trump’s core views don’t align with any of the current approaches to foreign policy I’ve mentioned. Their close relatives are to be found in Charles Lindbergh and the America Firsters’ admiration for dictators, the mercantilist and isolationist policies of Robert Taft, also in the 1940s, and the similar views of Patrick Buchanan twenty years later. . .