We should reassess the American role in NATO and the rationale for continuing to maintain it. But Trump needs to explain to us why we need to do that, not like a technocrat going through the books but as a political leader with coherent vision of the role the U.S. should play in the world. We do foreign policy not to make a profit but in order to protect the country and advance its interests.
That much of what Trump describes as foreign policy or national security doesn’t reflect such a vision, and is usually a product of his stream of consciousness babble, also explains why it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Trump’s tendency to boil every foreign policy issue down to a bad deal in which the U.S. is being ripped off provides some consistency to views that are otherwise all over the map, but as Hadar says this shows that Trump doesn’t have any fixed or specific ideas about what U.S. policies should be. All that he does know for certain is that the U.S. is getting a raw deal with whichever country is involved and he will get us a better one. This conviction is impervious to inconvenient facts, and it allows him to jump from one side of an issue to another without much difficulty. For example, he objects to U.S. involvement in Ukraine because he thinks the U.S. is the only Western power that is doing anything to support the Ukrainian government, but he gives the impression that his only real objection is that Ukraine’s neighbors aren’t more concerned than our government is. But of course Ukraine’s neighbors are much more concerned than the U.S. and have been complaining about the administration’s relative lack of support. I’m confident Trump doesn’t know that, but it also seems reasonable to conclude that if he did know it he wouldn’t be complaining about U.S. policy in Ukraine. Trump supporters and opponents want to see Trump as much more radical and dissenting in his foreign policy views than he is, but the truth is that he’s just badly informed and doesn’t have well-developed views at all.
Trump’s views on NATO are also instructive. He has indicated that he thinks the U.S. should contribute less or that European allies should contribute more, but at the same time he isn’t really calling for a substantially reduced U.S. role in NATO, nor is he saying that the U.S. should refuse to fulfill our treaty obligations to NATO allies. While Trump is quick to blame treaty allies for not pulling their weight or paying their way, he doesn’t think that means that the U.S. should renege on its commitments. Sanger asks him if he would come to the aid of the Baltic states in the event of a hypothetical Russian incursion, and he responds:
Yeah, I would. It’s a treaty, it’s there. I mean, we defend everybody. (Laughs.) We defend everybody. No matter who it is, we defend everybody. We’re defending the world.
Trump can imagine a future in which “at some point, we cannot be the policeman of the world,” but he chalks this up to what he thinks is a lack of American resources. It’s not that he thinks the U.S. shouldn’t be policing the world, but that eventually it won’t be able to do so. As much of a nationalist as Trump claims to be, he never talks about the national interest or the American interest. He latched on to the phrase “America first” when Sanger suggested it to him, but he uses it as a shorthand for not wanting to get ripped off. That brings us back to Trump’s obsession with deal-making, according to which he doesn’t question the underlying policy but only the reimbursement that the U.S. receives for it.
Some of the odder moments in his conversations with Sanger and Haberman come when he is talking about humanitarian intervention and “safe zones” in Syria. When he is asked about the former, Trump gave this answer:
Humanitarian? Yes, I would be. You know, to help I would be, depending on where and who and what. And, you know, again — generally speaking — I’d have to see the country; I’d have to see what’s going on in the region and you just cannot have a blanket. The one blanket you could say is, “protection of our country.” That’s the one blanket. After that it depends on the country, the region, how friendly they’ve been toward us. You have countries that haven’t been friendly to us that we’re protecting. So it’s how good they’ve been toward us, et cetera, et cetera. So you can’t say a blanket. You could say standards for different areas, different regions, and different countries.
As I read this, Trump is saying that his support for humanitarian intervention would depend on the circumstances and the relative friendliness of the nation involved, but he is generally in favor of it. It could be that he doesn’t grasp what humanitarian intervention entails, but it is more likely that he does and has no problem with it. This makes him a fairly lousy candidate for being a non-interventionist or realist of any stripe. Likewise, he appears to have given no thought to how the “safe zones” in Syria would work or who would be responsible for enforcing them. All that he does know is that we’re not going to pay for it:
So you have tremendous problems over there but I do believe in building a safe zone, a number of safe zones, in sections of Syria and that when this war, this horrible war, is over people can go back and rebuild if they want to and I would have the Gulf states finance it because they have the money and they should finance it. So far, they’ve put up very little money and they taken nobody in, essentially nobody in. I would be very strong with them because they have tremendous, they have unlimited amounts of money, and I would ask them to finance it. We can lead it but I don’t want to spend the money on it, because we don’t have any money. Our country doesn’t have money.
Once again, he is arguing that the U.S. can’t pay for the creation of these “safe zones,” because “our country doesn’t have money.” The objection isn’t that the U.S. shouldn’t waste money on a conflict in which it has little or nothing at stake, but that it doesn’t have the money in the first place. The Gulf states, meanwhile, have “unlimited amounts” and should be expected to pick up the tab. Besides being untrue, this dodges the real dispute over what U.S. policy should be. In the end, Trump’s answer leaves the impression that the Gulf states might pay the bill, but it will still be the U.S. doing all the heavy lifting and risking the lives of our soldiers to establish these zones. The best case for Trump here is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and is just endorsing a proposal he doesn’t understand.
Trump’s main slogan is “make America great again,” so his interviewers pressed him on when exactly he thought America used to be great. The answer he gave was revealing:
No if you really look at it, it was the turn of the century, that’s when we were a great, when we were really starting to go robust. But if you look back, it really was, there was a period of time when we were developing at the turn of the century which was a pretty wild time for this country and pretty wild in terms of building that machine, that machine was really based on entrepreneurship etc, etc. And then I would say, yeah, prior to, I would say during the 1940s and the late ‘40s and ‘50s we started getting, we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do, yeah around that period [bold mine-DL].
The two periods that Trump identifies as periods of American greatness are also when the U.S. was most vigorously engaged in overseas expansion or power projection: the early 1900s and mid-century after WWII. He identifies the “late ’40s and ’50s” as the time when “we were not pushed around,” and like so many nostalgic hawks alarmed by the reality of relative decline Trump looks back to an unrepeatable moment in U.S. history as an example of the position he wants the U.S. to have again. This is not the view of someone interested in a neutralist, America First, or restrained foreign policy, but it is the view of someone who sees the periods when the U.S. emerged as a world power or secured its position as a superpower as models to be emulated.