The Republican party's presidential nominating process is finally drawing to a close after almost a year (though it feels like an eternity). Against all odds (not to mention sanity, reason, and basic human decency), reality TV show host and billionaire businessman Donald Trump is poised to take the Republican nomination. His campaign has often been characterized as one that, aside from talking about building walls and deporting people, lacks policy specifics and substance. In an attempt to finally outline some basic policy ideas and seem even remotely ready for the job, Trump gave a long foreign policy speech in Washington D.C. last week. There was plenty of name calling, and blaming, but also the occasional coherent idea. This week, we'll attempt to cut through the insults and obvious contradictions to take a good look at the future foreign policy of a Trump presidency.
To be fair, not everything that Trump said in his speech was incoherent and offensive. Some of his proposals have a sound basis in modern political theory. More specifically, they point towards a "realist" way of looking at foreign policy. Realism (as opposed to all other ideologies which aren't real?), places its emphasis on the cold, calculating realities of power. This is in contrast to ideologies like internationalism which believe that large institutions (such as the UN) can strongly influence a nation's decisions. To a realist, it doesn't matter if a country is on the UN Security Council if it has no real military with which to defend itself in a fight.
One of Trump's most prominent statements was that the United States should abandon the policy of "nation building" which it has half-hardheartedly pursued with sometimes disastrous results for several decades. Instead, we must focus on creating and fostering stability in the world (and the Middle East specifically). Though he spend a lot of time bashing the current administration's policies, president Obama and his foreign policy staff have actually been pursuing a watered-down version of this for the past eight years. Sure there were instances of nation-building opportunism (Libya in the Arab Spring for instance), but generally speaking, America has tried to purge itself of the "let's invade everyone and force democracy on them" attitude which has helped create such a disastrous Middle East. So long as a population has the basic means to create a good life, maintaining stability ought to take priority over attempts to make a country into America's image.
Another proposed policy is that of asking America's Middle East allies to step up their support for and participation in stabilizing the region. While significant levels of support and some assistance from countries like Saudi Arabia have been provided to the American allied effort, true cooperation is still lacking. Saudi Arabia continues to undermine the American effort by promoting the spread of radicalism abroad and closing itself off to refugees of regional conflicts. Ironically, it would seem the nations of the Arabian Gulf are now the ones engaged in nation building, and it does not appear that they will have amazing results either. Getting all of these players to cooperate with the United States to pursue mutually beneficial ends would substantially help in the stabilization effort. Sadly, and as per usual, Trump offers no specifics on how to do this.
Now for the not so great ideas. Trump's main slogan for foreign policy is called "America first." Nowhere is this more apparent than his ideas on America's trade agreements (or more specifically on ending those agreements). The Donald has made no secret of his hatred for America's trade policies. Just this week, he decided his language wasn't offensive enough and declared that China was "raping our country" with our trade agreements. Awful language aside, Trump has proposed on several occasions (and in his policy speech specifically) that we need to rip up these trade agreements which have indirectly been shifting American manufacturing jobs oversees. His focus on this matter is understandable. After all, he draws substantial support from working class Americans (many of whom have lost jobs due to outsourcing). But what are the implications of rewriting America's trade agreements?
Well for starters, many economists are predicting that ending our current trade policies and creating new "America first" trade deals would ignite trade wars throughout the world. If this sounds scary, it's because it is. Essentially what would happen is that America and China would start imposing high taxes and tariffs on each other's goods, drastically changing prices throughout the global economy. Such a phenomenon would almost certainly plunge the world back into economic recession (especially countries like China which are already experiencing serious economic problems). The trade deficit with China is often used as a scary indicator of our relationship, but few economists have raised any concerns with the current system. Furthermore, the global economy is extremely interconnected, so policies which are not inclusive of the needs of all major players will inevitably come back to hurt everyone at the table.
Then there is the security and stability aspect of economic cooperation. Nations that have strong and mutually beneficial trade agreements are very, very unlikely go to to war with each other or engage in seriously destabilizing policies. What the Donald is advocating for in global economic relations is a system which temporarily advantages America in the short term, but would drastically exploit the rest of the world in the long term. Rather than creating stability, Trump would be engaging in "nation building" the global economy to advantage the United States. There is no doubt that working class Americans need a more level playing field (not to mention retraining programs and meaningful employment), but tearing up trade agreements in the desperate (and extremely unlikely) hope that it brings back manufacturing jobs is impractical and an overreaction. The American economy has been shifting towards information technology and away from manufacturing for decades now. No trade deal, no matter how beneficial to American businesses, is going to reverse this trend.
Trump has also made numerous statements to the effect that America's security commitments around the world need to be re-evaluated. At first, this wouldn't seem like a bad idea. But Trump isn't talking about a couple military arms deals or feel-good security commitments. He has recently advocated for such policies as nuclear weapons in Japan (to counter China's influence) and the dismemberment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (to stop countering Russia's influence). His reasoning is that European and Asian countries need to look out for their own security. After all, if they want it so bad they should take care of their own security themselves right? But going back on our long-term security commitments throughout the world just because they seem to be expensive would be disastrous for American diplomacy. Japan has stated over and over again that they do not want nuclear weapons and would prefer to maintain the American military alliance. NATO members are increasingly viewing the alliance as critical to their survival in the face of an obviously resurgent Russia (with nations like Ukraine and Georgia actively seeking inclusion in the alliance). In short, our allies are our allies because we provide security and stability against other powerful nations with which they would rather not contend. Our military assistance packages to Europe and Asia might not directly benefit the average working class American, but the wars that could come about from ending or drastically realigning this support will.
In all, Trump's polices are all about American military and economic power, but focus very little on our cultural and diplomatic influence. Trump somehow believes that we can be "the best friends" to America's allies while simultaneously disadvantaging them in trade deals and suspending our military contributions to their security. "America First" could marginally benefit the average American worker (at least in the short term), but a selfish and short-sighted foreign policy will inevitably create instability and hostility in the international community. Sure, serving as the de-facto defenders of dozens of nations in the world is expensive. But even more expensive is the instability that arises when half a dozen nations all have equal power and competing political interests (for reference see World War I, World War II, and the vast majority of human history before 1945). Being a global leader also means we have to occasionally put our allies interests slightly ahead of our own if it means preserving the world order (and thus preventing war or political upheaval). This is the price we pay and the burden we bear for being one of the world's most powerful nations. When powerful nations turn inwards and adopt selfish policies, they eventually bring ruin to themselves and all those caught in the way.