A really bad deal for America
DONALD J. Trump can be seen as a talented demagogue, or as the manifestation of deep pathologies in the body politic, but he is also the bearer of ideas — crudely framed and sometimes incoherent, but ideas nonetheless. Nowhere is this more true than on foreign policy. In the address he delivered on this subject last month, some elements could have been uttered by any mainstream American politician in the last halfcentury: that the United States should have the world’s most powerful military; that we desire to live peacefully with all nations, including Russia and China; that Iran cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons; that Israel is a close friend; that restraint is a hallmark of strength.
Other themes echoed views expressed by President Obama and his advisers: that our allies are free riders; that the Middle East is a mess to be shunned; that it is time for “nation building” at home; that the foreign policy establishment is filled with over-educated incompetents rightly despised by a superior president and his aides. And then there was the distinctively Trumpian touch: his slogan “America first” invoking the notorious movement before World War II that included not only traditional isolationists but also Nazi sympathizers.
Fundamentally, much of the difference between Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama reflects style rather than substance. Mr. Obama came in scorning what he saw as the misguided “freedom agenda” of the Bush administration and determined to cut deals with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and, as we now know, with Iran under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr. Trump merely takes these views some steps further and decibels louder. He rejects what he terms “ideology” in foreign policy, including longstanding American commitments to democratically elected governments and civil liberties. He admires Mr. Putin, thinks free trade is a synonym for bad deals, and scoffs at a unique American role as guarantor of world order.
Voters should examine Mr. Trump’s statements closely not just because of what they mean for the Republican Party, but what they imply for the two-generation-old American foreign policy consensus. Even in this era of partisanship, there has been a large measure of agreement between the two parties, cemented by officials, experts and academics who shared a common outlook. That outlook held that American interests were ineluctably intertwined with American values, and that when possible, each should reinforce the other, as when the promotion of liberty and human rights helped to weaken the Soviet Union. An open trading order and an unflinching commitment to alliances, as indispensable as they are sometimes frustrating, have also been axiomatic.
Republican foreign policy veterans like me who have vehemently opposed a Trump candidacy have done so on multiple grounds, beginning with his disdain for the norms of the Constitution. But we also believe that Trumpism in foreign policy is dangerous because of its belligerent nationalism, self-absorption, disdain for allies and comfort with the authoritarian leaders of the day. On foreign policy, Hillary Clinton is far better, so why not vote for her? This campaign shows that the foreign policy consensus that has framed this country’s work overseas since 1950 is in peril. The left wing of the Democratic Party believes in it no more than does Mr. Trump. That consensus, with its attempt to reconcile values and interests, prudence with action, needs to be articulated and championed. The public must hear why American leadership abroad is essential to our prosperity and freedom at home.
There is a wide gulf between those who have thought hard about and worked on the challenge of American global leadership and those who assure the American people that foreign policy can be reduced to “don’t do stupid stuff.” Today, the Trump and Obama versions of that sentiment are ascendant. It is the task of those of us in the foreign policy field, Republican and Democrat alike, to make the case that they are profoundly, dangerously wrong. The writer was the counsellor of the US State Department from 2007 to 2009.