Trump is, articulating a coherent vision of international relations and America’s role in the world.
David Sanger and Maggie Haberman capture it well here is a portion of their lengthy New York Times interview with Trump:
“In Mr. Trump’s worldview, the United States has become a diluted power, and the main mechanism by which he would re-establish its central role in the world is economic bargaining. He approached almost every current international conflict through the prism of a negotiation, even when he was imprecise about the strategic goals he sought.” The United States, Trump believes, has been “disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many, many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher. We were the big bully, but we were not smartly led. And we were … the big stupid bully, and we were systematically ripped off by everybody.”
Trump hasn’t the slightest objection to being perceived as a bully, but he doesn’t want to be ripped off. Thus, he says, he’d be willing to stop buying oil from the Saudis if they don’t get serious about fighting the Islamic State; limit China’s access to U.S. markets if Beijing continues its expansionist policies in the South China Sea; and discard America’s traditional alliance — from NATO to the Pacific — partners if they won’t pull their own weight.
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?”
In his inimitable way, Trump is offering a powerful challenge to many of the core assumptions of Washington’s bipartisan foreign-policy elite. And if mainstream Democrats and Republicans want to counter Trump’s appeal, they need to get serious about explaining why his vision of the world isn’t appropriate — and they need to do so without merely falling back on tired clichés.
The Tired clichés roll easily off the tongue:
U.S. alliances and partnerships are vital. NATO is a critical component of U.S. security.
Forward-deployed troops in Japan and South Korea are vital to assurance and deterrence.
We need to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. And so on. How do we know these things? Because in Washington, everyone who’s anyone knows these things.
But this is pure intellectual and ideological laziness.
Without more specificity, these truisms of the Washington foreign-policy elite are just pablum.
Why, exactly, does the United States need to keep troops in Japan, or Germany, or Kuwait? Would the sky really fall if the United States had fewer forward-deployed troops? What contingencies are we preparing for? Who and what are we deterring, and how do we know if it’s working?
Who are we trying to reassure? What are the financial and opportunity costs? Do the defense treaties and overseas bases that emerged after World War II still serve U.S. interests? Which interests? How?
Does a U.S. alliance with the Saudis truly offer more benefits than costs?
What bad things would happen if we shifted course, taking a less compromising stance toward “allies” who don’t offer much in return?
Questions like these are legitimate and important, and it’s reasonable for ordinary Americans to be dissatisfied by politicians and pundits who make no real effort to offer answers.
Trump’s vision of the world — and his conception of statecraft — it reflects a fairly coherent theory of international relations. It’s realist, transactional, and Machiavellian — and it demands a serious, thoughtful, and nondefensive response.
If those in the foreign-policy community can’t be bothered to offer one, a “TRUMP” sign on the White House may be better than we deserve.