His views aren’t as confused as they seem. In fact, they’re remarkably consistent — and they have a long history.
One of the most common misconceptions about Donald Trump is that he is opportunistic and makes up his views as he goes along. But a careful reading of some of Trump’s statements over three decades shows that he has a remarkably coherent and consistent worldview, one that is unlikely to change much if he’s elected president. It is also a worldview that makes a great leap backward in history, embracing antiquated notions of power that haven’t been prevalent since prior to World War II.
It is easy to poke fun at many of Trump’s foreign-policy notions — the promises to “take” Iraq’s oil, to extract a kind of imperial “tribute” from U.S. military allies like South Korea, his eagerness to emulate the Great Wall of China along the border with Mexico, and his embrace of old-style strongmen like Vladimir Putin. But many of these views would have found favor in pre-World War II — and even, in some cases, 19th century — America.
In sum, Trump believes that America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order it helped to create and has led since World War II. He has three key arguments that he returns to time and again over the past 30 years. He is deeply unhappy with America’s military alliances and feels the United States is overcommitted around the world. He feels that America is disadvantaged by the global economy. And he is sympathetic to authoritarian strongmen. Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.
Trump has been airing such views on U.S. foreign policy for some time. He even spent $100,000 on a full-page ad in the New York Times in 1987 that had a message remarkably similar to what he is saying today.
With his background and personality, Trump is so obviously sui generis that it is tempting to say his views are alien to the American foreign policy tradition. They aren’t; it is just that this strain of thinking has been dormant for some time. There are particular echoes of Sen. Robert Taft, who unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination in 1940, 1948 and 1952, and was widely seen as the leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Taft was a staunch isolationist and mercantilist who opposed U.S. aid for Britain before 1941. After the war, he opposed President Harry Truman’s efforts to expand trade. Despite being an anti-communist, he opposed containment of the Soviet Union, believing that the United States had few interests in Western Europe. He opposed the creation of NATO as overly provocative. Taft’s speeches are the last time a major American politician has offered a substantive and comprehensive critique of America’s alliances.
Trump’s populism, divisiveness and friendliness toward dictators is also reminiscent of Charles Lindbergh, once an American hero, who led the isolationist America First movement. In some areas, Trump’s views go back even further, to 19th-century high-tariff protectionism and every-country-for-itself mercantilism. He even invokes ancient Chinese history, telling Bill O’Reilly last August that his idea for a wall across the U.S.-Mexican border is feasible because “you know, the Great Wall of China, built a long time ago, is 13,000 miles. I mean, you’re talking about big stuff.”
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Trump’s starting point and defining emotion on foreign policy is anger — not at America’s enemies, but at its friends. In a lengthy interview with Playboy magazine in 1990, Trump was asked what would a President Trump’s foreign policy be like. He answered: “He would believe very strongly in extreme military strength. He wouldn’t trust anyone. He wouldn’t trust the Russians; he wouldn’t trust our allies; he’d have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it. Part of the problem is that we’re defending some of the wealthiest countries in the world for nothing. … We’re being laughed at around the world, defending Japan.”
He then elaborated on his skepticism of allies. “We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing a hundred and fifty billion dollars year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about 15 minutes if it weren’t for us. Our ‘allies’ are making billions screwing us.”
Trump has long believed the United States is being taken advantage of by its allies. He would prefer that the United States not have to defend other nations, but, if it does, he wants to get paid as much as possible for it. No nation has come in for quite as much criticism from Trump as Japan. “It’s time for us to end our vast deficits by making Japan and others who can afford it pay,” Trump said in an open letter to the American people in 1987. “Our world protection is worth hundreds of billions of dollars to these countries and their stake in their protection is far greater than ours.”
In the intervening years, he found new targets but he never let go of his antagonism toward the Japanese. On the campaign trail recently, he took the unusual step of promising to renegotiate the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty. “If somebody attacks Japan,” he said, “we have to immediately go and start World War III, OK? If we get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so fair. Does that sound good?”
He has also criticized other allies. In 2013, he said, “How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment? When will they start to pay us?” He has made the point again on the campaign trail. In an interview with NBC, he said, “We have 28,000 soldiers on the line in South Korea between the madman and them. We get practically nothing compared to the cost of this.”
Trump doesn’t let Europe off the hook, either. Several years ago, he wrote, “Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous. And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.” On the campaign trail, he complained that Germany is not carrying more of the burden of NATO and asked why the United States should lead on European security.
The truth is very different. America’s allies do pay for a proportion of U.S. bases. But they do not pay the full cost. This is largely because those alliances also work to America’s benefit by providing it with prepositioned forces and regional stability. It would actually cost more to station troops in the United States and have to deploy them overseas in a crisis. But this rings hollow for Trump because he is not convinced that the United States should be doing it at all.
What he has in mind is not just other nations increasing their defense spending a modest amount or sharing more of the burden. It is excessive tribute in exchange for protection.
So when Trump constantly utters what may be his favorite refrain on the stump — “Our country doesn’t win anymore” — he is referring to a view he’s held for decades. He wants to get paid as much as possible for all the things the United States does to secure the international system (never mind that this same system laid the groundwork for the greatest burst of prosperity in human history, with the United States as the main beneficiary). This includes, but is not limited to, alliances. As the world’s only superpower, one of America’s most important functions has been to ensure open access to what are called the global commons — the oceans, air and space. The U.S. Navy guarantees the openness of sea lanes for civilian trade, for example.
But according to Trump, the United States should not do this for free. How much does he want? Well, in 1988, he told Oprah Winfrey that Kuwait should pay the United States 25 percent of their oil profits because the United States “makes it possible for them to sell it.” If he were president, he said, “the United States would make a hell of a lot of money from those nations that have been taking advantage of us.” In his 1987 letter, he wrote, “Tax these wealthy nations, not America.” What he has in mind is not just other nations increasing their defense spending a modest amount or sharing more of the burden. It is excessive tribute in exchange for protection. There’s a name for that.
The sense that America is being ripped off by its international relationships also shapes his view on trade, which is probably the aspect of his foreign policy that has received the most attention. Trump says he is in favor of trade, but he has come out against every trade deal in living memory. He calls NAFTA a disaster and is a strident critic of the forthcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership. He wants to slap tariffs on other countries — again harking back to 19th–century protectionism — and negotiate bilateral deals. Most economists believe this would create a downward spiral in the global economy, but Trump does not seem to care.
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Of course, managing allies and partners is just one part of a foreign policy. The other is dealing with rivals and enemies. Trump has certainly cast himself as a ferocious critic of the Islamic State and Iran, but he has a curious view of two countries — Russia and China — that are not enemies but are perhaps better described as a rival and a competitor, respectively.
For most makers of foreign policy, the challenge posed by Russia and China is to U.S. allies and the U.S.-led order, not to the U.S. homeland. But since Trump does not care as much about the allies, it is not surprising that he takes a more lenient view. There is another factor that endears authoritarian leaders to him — his respect for “strong” and “tough” leaders.
In 1990, he told Playboy that the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, did not have a firm enough hand. Asked whether that meant he favored China’s crackdown on students, he said, “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world.”
In 2015, Americans would find out that he had not changed his mind.
In December, Putin was asked for his views on Trump. The Russian leader replied that Trump is “really brilliant and talented person, without any doubt. It’s not our job to judge his qualities, that’s a job for American voters, but he’s the absolute leader in the presidential race. … He says he wants to move on to a new, more substantial relationship, a deeper relationship with Russia, how can we not welcome that? Of course we welcome that.”
For most American politicians, an endorsement by a foreign leader, especially one who is hostile to the United States, is something that could spell political disaster. So when Trump appeared on “Morning Joe” the next day, the news media were expecting him to try to limit the damage, perhaps with a stark denunciation of Putin. Instead the exchange on “Morning Joe” went as follows:
Trump: When people call you “brilliant” it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.
Joe Scarborough: Well, I mean, also is a person who kills journalists, political opponents and …
Willie Geist: Invades countries.
Scarborough: … and invades countries, obviously that would be a concern, would it not?
Trump: He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.
Scarborough: But, again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him.
Trump: Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe.
It was a revealing exchange that did not end there. In the weeks that followed, Trump would openly say that he thought he would get along “just fine” with Russia. Putin could be a strong ally in the war against ISIL. For Putin, Trump would be a dream come true: an American president who possesses views commensurate with Putin’s own antiquated notion of great-power politics. Putin would no longer have to deal with a president committed to wide-open global trade, NATO and democracy close to his borders — the formula that won the Cold War. Trump and Putin also have a similar interpretation of recent history. In 1990, Trump believed Gorbachev had ruined Russia and destroyed its economy, which is exactly what Putin meant when he referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragedy. It’s not hard to imagine these two men sitting down to cut a deal, perhaps something like Putin offering to help Trump on ISIL and Iran in exchange for giving Putin a freer hand in Europe.
Trump has said less about Chinese president Xi Jinping except to call him very smart. It is clear, though, that to him the main problem with China is not its aggressive actions in the South China Sea, its attempts to blunt U.S. power projection capabilities or its repression at home. Instead, Trump has made the alleged Chinese economic threat a core part of his stump speech. He accused China of devaluing its currency and even went so far as to say it created the issue of climate change to gain an advantage over U.S. manufacturing. He promised to slap tariffs on Chinese goods, although he is vague about how much (he told the New York Times it could be as high as 45 percent but subsequently rolled that back).
U.S.-China relations are about more tha economics, of course. Given Trump’s worldview, it is easy to see how a deal might be struck. China would offer President Trump an extraordinarily preferential economic deal and in exchange he would leave China alone to do as it wished in the South China Sea and East China Sea. After all, it would help American workers, at least in the short term. America’s allies would be upset, but a President Trump might even see that as a bonus.
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Thus, beneath the bluster, the ego and the showmanship is the long-considered worldview of a man who has had problems with U.S. foreign policy for decades. Trump has thought long and hard about America’s global role and he knows what he wants to do. There is virtually no chance that he would “tack back to the center” and embrace a conservative internationalist foreign policy. If he did get elected president, he would do his utmost to liquidate the U.S.-led liberal order by ending America’s alliances, closing the open global economy, and cutting deals with Russia and China.
He would find this hard to do, not least because the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment would be opposed to him and he needs people to staff his National Security Council, State Department and Defense Department. But there is real power in the presidency, especially if there is clear guidance about the chief executive’s wishes. In any event, the mere fact that the American people would have elected somebody with a mandate to destroy the U.S.-led order might be sufficient to damage it beyond repair.
After his election, other countries will immediately hedge against the risk of abandonment. There will be massive uncertainty around America’s commitments. Would Trump defend the Baltics? Would he defend the Senkaku Islands? Or Saudi Arabia? Some nations will give in to China, Russia and Iran. Others, like Japan, will push back, perhaps by acquiring nuclear weapons. Trump may well see such uncertainty as a positive. Putting everything in play would give him great leverage. But by undoing the work of Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, it would be the end of the American era.
Some might think this is overstated. After all, there have been other presidents who broke with America’s allies and renegotiated previous commitments. In his first term, Richard Nixon was unwilling for the United States to bear the cost of upholding the Bretton Woods economic system, so he decided to unilaterally change the rules and make others pay, instead. In 1971, faced with inflation and stagnation, he canceled the convertibility of the dollar to gold without consulting his allies. This brought a dramatic end to Bretton Woods. Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, were also famously comfortable with strongmen and authoritarian regimes.
The Republican primary of 2016 is shaping up to be the most important party primary since 1940. The reason we must revisit 1940 is that Republicans have struggled to find a new north star after Iraq.
But Trump is no Nixon. Nixon had an acute sense of America’s unique role in the international order, even if he pursued it differently than his predecessors. He strengthened America’s alliances and maintained its commitments. Detente with the Soviet Union and the opening with China were part of a sophisticated strategy to create geopolitical space to gain an advantage over the Soviets. Trump, by contrast, has offered no vision of a U.S.-led order except that he wants to end it.
To understand Trump, in the end, we have to go back to Taft and Lindbergh. The difference is that, unlike Trump, Taft was not outside the mainstream of his time. Many people believed America was safe and that it did not matter who ran Europe. Also, unlike Trump, Taft was boring and struggled to break through the noise in several nomination battles. The more bombastic and controversial figure was Lindbergh, the man who became a household name as the first person to fly across the Atlantic. Lindbergh led a national movement that was divisive, xenophobic and sympathetic to Nazi Germany.
The Republican primary of 2016 is shaping up to be the most important party primary since 1940. Lindbergh did not run, of course. But Taft was in with a strong chance. Only the fact that the field was badly divided created an unexpected opening for Wendell Willkie, an internationalist, to emerge as the nominee at the convention. Some of Roosevelt’s advisers were so relieved at Willkie’s nomination that they advised their boss he no longer had to run for an unprecedented — and controversial — third term.
The reason we must revisit 1940 is that Republicans have struggled to find a new north star after Iraq. Except for Rand Paul — whose own brand of libertarian isolationism, unlike Trump’s, didn’t sit well with voters — the establishment candidates were not sure whether they still supported Bush 43’s strategy or opposed it. Most tried to muddle through with a critique of President Barack Obama. Marco Rubio stuck to the ambitious Bush 43 approach but found a declining market. Some, like Ted Cruz, tried to deal with the shift in sentiment by cozying up to pro-American dictators and abandoning support for democracy promotion. Cruz even used the isolationist term America First to describe his foreign policy. But Cruz seems to have thought little and said even less about America’s global role outside the Middle East. Ironically for someone with the reputation of being exceptionally smart, he lacks Trump’s detail and substance.
It is in this vacuum that the long-dormant Taftian foreign policy has made an unexpected comeback in the hands of Trump. What happens next is anybody’s guess. It is hard to see how the Republican foreign policy establishment, which is steeped in American primacy and a U.S.-led international order, endorses an isolationist strain of thinking that has long been presumed dead. A split seems more likely than reconciliation.
In any event, if Hillary Clinton secures the Democratic nomination, as expected, and Trump maintains his huge lead over the GOP field, a Clinton-Trump race would present two starkly different views about America’s global role. For the first time since World War II, Americans will be asked to give their view on the most fundamental question of U.S. foreign policy: Do they want a U.S.-led liberal order or not? Internationalists will have to explain all over again why the United States flourishes and benefits from a healthy international system. Taft and Lindbergh lost before, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the messenger this time.
Thomas Wright is a fellow and director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at The Brookings Institution. Follow him on twitter @thomaswright08.
Source: Politico.eu 1/21/16,