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Trump’s Foreign Policy

On Monday I gave some reasons why foreign policy realists might not be interested in supporting Donald Trump. Leon Hadar delves deeper into the question today and concludes that Trump isn’t a realist:

But then Trump’s bombastic rhetoric doesn’t reflect any coherent foreign policy agenda, and certainly not one that could be described as “realist.” He seems to be telling us what he won’t do as opposed to what he would do as commander-in-chief, and he never really explains his own definition of the U.S. national interest and what U.S. geostrategic goals should be. Should the United States reduce its military commitments in the Middle East and elsewhere? What role should the United States play now in East Asia? If he is opposed to the nuclear deal with Iran, does he believe that the United States should use its military power to prevent the ayatollahs from acquiring access to nuclear capabilities? And what is so “realist” about the idea of bombing ISIS if you cannot explain what would replace it? Bombing is a means to achieve a goal, and Trump has yet to clarify his strategic goals in Syria and Iraq.

Trump doesn’t provide any answers to these and other questions and is basically telling us that we should trust him to make the right choices. And we cannot direct those questions to his foreign policy advisors since he has none.

There have been a few attempts in recent weeks to try to shoehorn Trump into different foreign policy traditions, but these always give Trump’s views more coherence than they have. Thomas Wright tried to paint Trump as a latter-day Robert Taft, which seems both inaccurate and more than a little insulting to Taft. Wright also asserted:

Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.

It would certainly be notable if Trump sought this, but Wright doesn’t have much evidence that this is so. Trump often complains about wealthy allies that aren’t obliged to do anything for the U.S., so he isn’t pleased with “cheap-riding” allies, but he never suggests that the U.S. should abrogate treaty commitments or refuse to defend allies. Trump doesn’t like arrangements from which the U.S. doesn’t derive tangible benefits, and so he complains when the U.S. is picking up the entire tab for defending allies, but nowhere in his statements can one find proof that he thinks the U.S. should actually have fewer commitments around the world. His statements do suggest that he thinks wealthy allies should do more to provide for their own defense, but saying that is a long way from believing that the U.S. should abandon most or all of its security commitments. Wright credits Trump with wanting a much more significant departure from postwar foreign policy than Trump appears to want. I’ve said before that Trump can’t be fairly described as an “isolationist”: the label is a meaningless slur, and there isn’t much evidence to support the idea that he favors a dramatically less activist and meddlesome foreign policy. If there’s one consistent theme in Trump’s thinking, it’s that he doesn’t want America to be on the losing end of a bargain, but that can cut any number of ways when it comes to making policy.

Take the nuclear deal, for example. Trump regularly attacks it as a terrible deal made by “stupid” people. I suppose we couldn’t expect him to endorse any deal that Obama made, but his arguments against the deal (like most arguments against the deal) make no sense. When Iran shipped out its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia, Trump complained that Russia was getting the uranium instead of us:

But what kind of a deal is that? Even that. They’re shipping it to Russia, right? Why aren’t they shipping it to us? Why aren’t we getting it? They’re shipping it to Russia. I don’t like that.

Trump takes an important nonproliferation success that the deal with Iran made possible and sees it purely in terms of what material benefit the U.S. gets out of it. (One might ask why the U.S. would want or need Iran’s low-enriched uranium, but that’s almost beside the point.) The fact that the deal is so far doing exactly what it is supposed to do–making it practically impossible for Iran to acquire or even pursue a nuclear weapon–doesn’t interest him. Likewise, he has often repeated the false charge that the deal “gives” Iran $150 billion. At most, once their debts are settled with various other countries, the final figure for sanctions relief is likely to be around $50 billion. The more important point is that this is Iran’s own money that had been frozen under the sanctions. Any deal that Iran agreed to on the nuclear issue was bound to provide relief from sanctions, so there was no way that Iran wouldn’t be permitted to access these funds as part of an agreement. Once again, Trump is hung up on the dollar amount of the sanctions relief while ignoring the benefits of the deal.

I suspect Hadar is correct when he concludes that Trump’s foreign policy would probably not be all that different in substance from that of his rivals:

President Trump may prove to be more pragmatic than a President Rubio in handling world affairs, but his definition of core U.S. national interests would not be much different.

Depending on your view of current U.S. foreign policy, that is either reassuring or very dissatisfying. For a lot of Trump’s supporters, I assume it will be the latter.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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