Well, yes, much as I hate to say it, he’s sort of right about a few things, mainly in foreign policy. And now that he’s tanking in the polls, I can shed my reluctance to acknowledge his very limited merits. Anyway, even where he seems to be right, he doesn’t deserve much credit, for a number of reasons.
For one, Trump is such a shameless shape-shifter on policy that it’s often hard to know what he really believes. I have sometimes felt uncomfortable seeing him criticize Hillary Clinton’s judgment for her role in pushing intervention and regime change in Libya. Trump’s right that she was wrong: this turned out to be a disastrous blunder for the US. But then I am reminded that Trump himself was gung ho for invading Libya, even castigating the Obama administration for dithering. So, zero credit for Trump on Libya. Ditto for the G.W. Bush invasion of Iraq, which Hillary supported. Trump claims to have been against that misadventure, but the only public record shows him voicing at least mild support until well after the war was underway.
Even where there is no apparent inconsistency with his past statements and where Trump’s positions seem to have merit, he’s coming to them from the wrong place, and on the basis of a laughably poor understanding of the subject matter.
Take international economic policy. Trump opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a position that I share. But apart from calling it a very bad deal, Trump demonstrates no knowledge of or interest in the contents of the TPP, and his views on the subject reflect a simpleton’s understanding of international economics. China is not part of the TPP but often it’s not clear that Trump knows that, since he almost invariably links his pronouncements on the TPP to China. He says that China is “killing us” on trade, but what does that mean? What can it mean when he proclaims the ridiculous objective of “balancing” our trade with China? (Message to Donald: our exports to China will probably never equal our imports from that country. They make more things that we want to buy than vice versa, and there is nothing wrong with that.) He offers no alternatives to our current international economic policies except for threatening a trade war with China.
So, can we really give Trump credit for being “right” on international economic policy when he seems to know so little of what he is talking about? His views on international trade, like most of his foreign policy positions, are expressions of the crudely xenophobic ultra-nationalism that is intrinsic to his demagogic appeal, rather than products of a thoughtful, informed analysis.
Trump has repeatedly complained that this country’s allies don’t contribute their fair share of common defense expenditures, that they are thus exploiting our generosity. Stripped of its hostile overtones, this is a respectable line of argument, one that US analysts and policymakers on up to President Obama have been making for decades. He has been castigated for threatening to walk away from NATO if our NATO allies don’t assume their fair share of common military expenditures. But why wouldn’t a gradual reduction of the US contribution be justified if our allies persist in free-riding on our lonesome willingness to spend big bucks?
Trump’s broader skepticism toward the value of the NATO alliance is also more than defensible. He’s right that NATO became obsolete with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Its principal function has been to preserve American influence in and over Europe. Here are the Political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt writing in the current (July-August) issue of Foreign Affairs:
In Europe, the United States should end its military presence and turn NATO over to the Europeans. There is no good reason to keep U.S. forces in Europe, as no country has the capability to dominate that region.”
Sort of sounds like Trump, no? But it’s hard not to suspect that Trump’s diffidence toward NATO has a lot to do with his warm feelings toward Vladimir Putin, who would love to see the US out of Europe. And, we can all be pardoned for suspecting that the Trump-Putin mutual affection affair has something to do with Trump’s considerable business ties with Russia. So, even if Trump is rightly challenging a usually unexamined assumption of US foreign policy—the centrality of NATO to US security—he seems to be coming to that stance from the wrong place. We might give him the benefit of the doubt if he demonstrated more than a rudimentary understanding of the issues—if his criticisms of US policy showed a thoughtful and knowledgeable analysis of global threats and defense requirements—but he doesn’t. Instead, Trump’s foreign policy views combine a remarkable ignorance of the world with his trademark arrogance.
Even Trump’s suggestion that Japan and South Korea should do more to protect themselves, perhaps by acquiring nuclear weapons, isn’t as outlandish as it may sound. There is a respectable school of thought among international relations theorists that looks relatively benignly on nuclear proliferation, viewing nuclear weapons as a stabilizing force. I’m not saying that I agree with that perspective, just that it can’t be dismissed as wacky. But Trump’s complaints about Japan and South Korea, like his diffidence toward our European allies, seem more an expression of his crude “America first” truculence than of an informed analysis of the role of American power in the world.
Trump often sounds anti-interventionist notes on foreign policy which, taken at face value, may seem commendable, even preferable to the hawkish inclinations of his Democratic opponent. Still, his hypernationalist rhetoric, combined with his advocacy of a still bigger military and his belligerently narcissistic personality, make it hard to imagine him as a prudently restrained steward of America foreign policy. And one of the major benefits of a less globally activist American foreign policy—reduced “defense” spending requirements—wouldn’t be realized under Trump. Repeating a favored Republican meme, Trump absurdly claims that our military, which is many times over the most powerful in the world, is too weak. He wants an even more bloated US military budget. Why? What for?
I was already thinking along similar lines when I saw Stephen Walt’s recent post, “Donald Trump: Keep your hands off the foreign policy ideas I believe in!” Walt laments that Trump is giving a sensible approach to US foreign policy a bad name. We do need an informed debate about the assertive globalism that has marked American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Hillary Clinton would be vulnerable in such a debate. Donald Trump is not the man to lead it.