I have been refusing to write about Donald Trump, because – let us be frank – that is exactly what he wants us to do. He will certainly not be President. He is riding high in the polls of August, our political silly season, just like Michelle Bachmann or Herman Cain were back in 2011.
At some point this fall, voters will start to imagine these candidates not just running for president but actually being president, sitting in the Oval Office making crucial decisions about national security--that’s when they get serious. So let’s jump the gun, put Donald in that office for a minute, and ask what would Trump’s foreign policy look like?
There’s actually a lot to be said for him as Commander in Chief. He’s knowledgeable about the world, obviously bright, sophisticated beneath the spray-on populism, and experienced in high-stakes negotiations with foreign potentates. He also has an ability to speak plainly, which is critical in rallying American support behind a President’s foreign policy.
Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy collapsed because the American id never bought into it; the people were unenthusiastic about their new burdens and Wilson became shrill trying to convince them. Richard Nixon’s foreign policy was more successful, though ultimately détente and its managed hostilities with the Soviet Union was too removed from the basic traditions of America’s world-view to survive. Voters never really cottoned to either.
Trump would have none of these problems. Using only his words, he’s seized the support of a significant portion of the Republican primary electorate from experienced orators like Ted Cruz. That is not the same as seizing a significant portion of the general electorate, but he is a smart man and presumably canny enough to know how to do that when it is required. Presumably. Unfiltered proclamations can be useful means to an end, even if that end is a sotto voce promotion of his own reality show.
No, the idea of Donald Trump as Commander in Chief that should give us pause is not his own skills. It is his focus on them. In response to foreign policy questions in the past, Trump has stressed the need for a “dealmaker” like himself, someone who knows the ins and outs of major negotiations. Someone who knows when it’s time to bluff and settle, and can charm or hustle the most sullen foreign partners. He’ll force Mexico to build its own wall, stand up to the Chinese on everything, and seize Iraq’s oil fields from the Islamic State.
No other candidate has even a remotely similar foreign policy. It is Trump Global, trademarked under a copyright – and that is what should scare us. Diplomacy and the American interest are fundamentally not dependent on individuals, however clever and charming they are. Our interests, like those of many countries, are mostly unchanging. That’s why Barack Obama’s foreign policy looks so similar to George W. Bush’s – and in certain areas, more Bush than Bush.
Obama has stepped up drone strikes, sanctioned Russian aggression, and negotiated free-trade agreements with vital nations of the Pacific Rim. All of these policies serve the basic, mostly unchanging interests of America as superpower:
- Destroy transnational threats.
- Uphold principles like territorial sanctity.
- Promote liberal values like free trade.
In that respect, differences between the two have been matters of degree.
Where Obama has run into trouble, like Wilson before him, was personalizing too much his own foreign policy, mixing too much his own political interests with America’s. Obama had invested a great deal of personal prestige into nuclear negotiations with the Iranians, and surely the Iranians could sense it. Walking away from a bad deal would have been a crippling political blow, and by the end, no deal was clearly worse for him than a bad deal.
And we were almost certainly going to get a bad deal, because the US and Iran do not really have that many common interests. Iran wants a larger, dominant role in the Persian Gulf and in the world, which could only come at the expense of traditional US allies. Iran wants hardline Shia governments in Middle Eastern countries and the US wants democracies. Iran would like a nuclear weapon capability and the US is appalled by the thought. There is a temporary, flickering commonality in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, but even that doesn’t carry over to Syria, where Assad is happy to fight his moderate rebels while the Americans and Kurds deal with ISIS. We just don’t want the same things.
Except – except the Iranians want their sanctions lifted and Obama wants a deal. His personal prestige and interests are wrapped into the negotiations, and so we got one.
It is not difficult to see the same thing happening to Trump. With the ego, with the money, with the reality show, and with the swagger, it is easy to see a deal for Trump the Magnificent leaving America behind. The US hasn’t had a hostile relationship with Mexico for a century and a half. Friendly neighbors are a good thing.
I’m somewhat amused with the idea of invading the Islamic State and seizing its oil (take THAT, conventional paradigms of the Middle East!), but the US hasn’t been in the business of resource grabbing since the Polk Administration. Would Americans support the 52nd state in western Iraq? How many electoral votes should it get? Would the Iroquois vote for him? Probably pretty socially conservative.The Trump show will probably not last through the fall. Comparatively few voters are paying attention, and even less have begun to imagine the candidates as commander in chief. There’s a possibility Trump’s platform will gain traction as the second coming of James K. Polk and manifest destiny, but more likely, in the end, he’ll just be Trump. Glorious, no doubt, and successful, but not the commander in chief.