THANK YOU, TRUMP! That does not roll trippingly off the tongue. There is ample reason to be terrified of Donald Trump’s possible ascension to the presidency. Yet because he has dared to question ossified principles of our foreign policy, he deserves our gratitude.
Trump steadfastly refuses to accept the world affairs catechism that President Obama recently called “the Washington playbook.” This has spread panic through the inbred American foreign policy establishment. It is a delight to watch.
The “Washington playbook” posits a series of delusional principles that are not only outdated, but undermine America’s national security. Our leaders reflexively genuflect before these false idols: The world is in endless conflict between good and evil; people everywhere look to the United States to fight for the good; and this fight must be waged with force or the threat of force, since only force can crush evil.
Trump is the first serious presidential candidate in this century who appears not to have read the playbook, or not to care what it says. Many of his foreign policy pronouncements sound somewhere between ignorant and scary. Others, however, are astonishingly realistic. Regardless of how this campaign ends, it will be remembered at least in part for Trump’s willingness to reject stale foreign policy dogma.
Instead of denouncing President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Trump proposes to treat him as a reasonable negotiating partner. He has dared to suggest that the United States should be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians. Asked about our commitment to defend Japan and South Korea against all threats forever, he replied, “There is going to be a point at which we just can’t do this anymore.” For good measure he added, “We spend billions of dollars on Saudi Arabia, and they have nothing but money. And I say, why?”
Trump also sees the foolishness of maintaining commercial sanctions on Iran while other countries lift them, which prevents American companies from competing for giant contracts like the ones Iran will soon sign to buy hundreds of new civilian airliners. “We give them the money, and we now say, ‘Go buy Airbus instead of Boeing,’ ” he reasons. “So how stupid is that?”
Trump’s view of the horrific war in Syria is equally logical. He describes our policy of fighting Bashar Assad’s government as “madness and idiocy.” Pointing out what should now be obvious, he adds, “Our far greater problem is not Assad. It’s ISIS.” This raises the prospect that under President Trump, the United States would abandon its efforts to depose Assad and focus on the real enemy in Syria.
Nor would Trump send American troops to confront Russia over Ukraine, where the United States has no vital interest. “Ukraine is a country that affects us far less than it affects other countries,” he reasons. “Why are we always the one that’s leading potentially the third world war, OK, with Russia?”
Trump has even had the temerity to describe NATO, the first peacetime military alliance the United States ever joined, as obsolete. “It was really designed for the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist anymore,” he said last month. “It wasn’t designed for terrorism. . . . A new institution, maybe, would be better for that than using NATO, which was not meant for that.”
These statements send a startling message to the rest of the world. Under President Trump, the gravy train would stop, or at least slow down, and Uncle Sucker would no longer subsidize other countries’ armies and send troops to defend every corrupt regime that asks. Trump has summarized American security policy in these trenchant few words: “We defend everybody. When in doubt, come to the United States. We’ll defend you — in some cases, free of charge.”
Trump’s alternative is to declare, “We can’t be the policemen to the world.” Rather than list all the places in the world where he wants to intervene, he asks, “Why is it always the United States that gets right in the middle of things?”
This apostasy is direct rebellion against the Republican/Democrat, liberal/conservative consensus on foreign policy. That consensus is based on the principle that policing the world is the essence of America’s providential mission, and that chaos will ensue if we stop. Left unspoken is the fear that defense contractors would lose huge amounts of money if the United States stopped waging endless wars and arming countries that do not have our interests at heart. Trump challenges not only Washington politicians and think tanks, but also the plutocrats who bankroll them and foreign regimes that see the United States as an inexhaustible source of cash.
Trump’s heresy is wonderfully refreshing. Unfortunately, it must be taken along with the rest of his proposed foreign policy. Some of his positions, like his promise to renounce last year’s nuclear deal with Iran, are straight from the “Washington playbook.” By demonizing Muslims and Hispanics, he alienates much of the world. His enthusiasm for torture is chilling. When he says he will “listen to the generals,” he implicitly rejects diplomacy and suggests he will consult mainly with Pentagon lifers who are obsessed with finding and fighting supposed enemies.
On some days, Trump seems to reject the “regime change” paradigm and favor a foreign policy based on prudent restraint. Too often, however, he rails ignorantly against imagined enemies. He deserves thanks for sending chills down many spines in Washington. His realism, however, is too inconsistent and unreliable to be truly inspiring.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.