The other day Trump gave a speech outlining his foreign policy at the National Interest. Short on details, it was strong on instinct. Predictably, the hawks and moralists have gotten into a tizzy. Their monopoly is being challenged by the Republican front-runner and they are panicking that the blustery child that is Trump will convince the mob that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of lives, millions of refugees, and a multitude of wrecked countries: after three decades the war party’s record of liberal internationalism and regime change has not only left the world more unstable and innocents dead, but wasted American blood and treasure. Good intentions indeed.
Trump’s singular focus is whether or not a policy advances America’s national interest. The position is simple as it is unusual. G. K. Chesterton once described America as a nation with the soul of a church. We Americans have always believed that our political project had global implications. Not until the 20th century, though, did we begin to actively use force to spread our ideals. The impulse pre-dates Woodrow Wilson, but Wilson became the clearest and most forceful advocate of a muscular and idealistic foreign policy. It did not survive the post-war era, but the seeds were sown. Unfortunately, even as WWII and the Cold War drew America into unprecedented military and political involvement in foreign affairs, the end of the Cold War and the lack of a global threat exacerbated America’s post-WWII tendency towards delusions of grandeur— the belief that America is the indispensable nation with a calling to hold the world together and spread democracy. For the last twenty five years successive administrations have bought into this idea of national mission. But the butcher’s bill has been steep even for a wealthy country like America and the results have been disastrous to poor. With the rise of China, Russia, and terrorism, it’s worth rethinking the ledger book, and Trump is proposing just that. And his guiding principle is simple: What do we get out of it?
This is unique but not unprecedented. Trump is heralding back to the days of Nixon-Ford and Kissinger. For them, the Cold War was too dangerous and resources too limited to be cavalier idealists. The war in Vietnam, LBJ’s idealistic experiment in state-building, was going about as well as it would for us later in Iraq. The arms race with the Soviets was accelerating. China continued to fuel Hanoi’s war effort and loomed as a future threat with massive manpower. And so Nixon, the ardent anti-communist, tossed sentimentality out the window and for the sake of improving America’s strategic standing and decreasing tensions with the communist bloc flew to hated, Maoist China. There he cut a deal and an informal alliance emerged between the USA and China against the USSR. The world would never be the same. Granted, Nixon found Maoism deplorable, but China’s internal affairs did not concern him. Such moral high-mindedness he could not afford. What concerned him was America, full stop.
Of course, in reevaluating America’s commitments and expenditures (or lack thereof), there’s a good deal of bobbing and weaving. Trump’s apparent contradictions (maybe we will use the bomb, maybe we won’t) are only a problem if there is a lack of strategic vision. We have yet to know how Trump will bob and weave to our advantage, and skepticism over his ability to do so is warranted, but back to the instinct: he’s got a clear and sensible goal and he’s got (at least in theory) the means to achieve it. Rosa Brooks at Foreign Policy sums up the approach well:
To those who criticize his apparent contradictions, his vagueness about his ultimate strategic objectives, or his willingness to make public threats, he offers a simple and Machiavellian response: “We need unpredictability.” To Trump, an effective negotiator plays his cards close to his chest: He doesn’t let anyone know his true bottom line, and he always preserves his ability to make a credible bluff. (Here it is, from the transcript of his conversation with the New York Times: “You know, if I win, I don’t want to be in a position where I’ve said I would or I wouldn’t [use force to resolve a particular dispute].… I wouldn’t want to say. I wouldn’t want them to know what my real thinking is.”)
Trump has little time for either neoconservatives or liberal interventionists; he thinks they allow their belief in American virtue to blind them to both America’s core interests and the limits of American power. He has even less time for multilateralist diplomats: They’re too willing to compromise, trading away American interests in exchange for platitudes about friendship and cooperation. And he has no time at all for those who consider long-standing U.S. alliances sacrosanct. To Trump, U.S. alliances, like potential business partners in a real-estate transaction, should always be asked: “What have you done for me lately?”
Trump’s approach: Never let them know the bottom line and cut the lofty theatrics and explain how we concretely benefit from such and such a policy. Warm fuzzies don’t count. Those are ephemeral whereas the costs are very real. He’s proposing that we end America’s Jesus complex in world affairs and take care of our own. That’s a tall order as American’s have become so accustomed to being the white knight, but the time is ripe. We are no longer a unipolar power. Our enemies, while dangerous, are not the ideological and existential threat the USSR represented. Necessity dictates nuance and prudence not ham-fisted regime change.
To this end, Trump suggests that we ought to sit down and talk with Russia and China. This is a breath of fresh air, and the establishment of both parties will have none of it. Russia is the eternal enemy. There can be no compromise because Putin is evil (never-mind Saudi Arabia our bosom buddies.) And China must be disciplined. But as Trump puts it: “The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends and when old friends become allies, that’s what we want. We want them to be our allies.” He’s channeling John Quincy Adams and the Founders. He’s going back to an older, American strategic approach to world affairs. He’s also channeling the venerable George F. Kennan, the grandfather of our containment strategy in the Cold War: “No other people, as a whole, is entirely our enemy. No people at all—not even ourselves—is entirely our friend.” Trump may be a buffoon, and he may be a disastrous president, but he’s got his eye on the bottom line. At the very least, hopefully he’s able to drag the Republican Party away from Wilson and into closer alignment with the tradition of realism as embodied by Richard Nixon, George Kennan, and the Founders.