Trump’s Foreign Policy Could Change the Entire International System
A scholar of U.S. foreign policy explains why the 2016 race could be the most consequential election—anywhere—since the 1930s.
Last week, Thomas Wright, an expert on U.S. foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, made a bold claim on Twitter about the presidential race in the United States. “Pretty clear this is the most important election anywhere in the world since the two German elections of 1932,” he wrote, in reference to the parliamentary elections that ultimately resulted in Adolf Hitler coming to power. “No other election has had the capacity to completely overturn the international order—the global economy, geopolitics, etc.”
Throughout this campaign, as others have dismissed Donald Trump’s foreign-policy views as incoherent and ill-informed, Wright has taken those views seriously and sought to place them in an ideological and historical context. He’s carefully separated Trump’s bluster (“Obama founded ISIS”) from what appear to be Trump’s core beliefs. Sifting through Trump’s public statements about international affairs since the 1980s, Wright has concluded that the Republican candidate actually has a consistent worldview unlike anything expressed by a major-party U.S. presidential nominee since America became a superpower.
Trump’s isolationist ideology has three components, according to Wright: 1) opposition to U.S. alliances; 2) opposition to free trade; and 3) support for authoritarianism. In Wright’s view, these three beliefs, if translated into policy in a Trump administration, could do away with the liberal international order that the United States helped design after World War II and has led ever since. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is a more conventional U.S. presidential candidate committed to preserving that order. Hence why, days before the election, Wright is casting his gaze back to the 1930s.
But are the stakes really that high? Google results suggest that “the most important election of our lifetime” comes around every four years. Trump and his supporters have described the possibility of a Clinton victory in no less apocalyptic terms than Clinton and her supporters have used about Trump. Defining the “stakes” of an election is, to some extent, a political exercise. Plus, what specifically is the “U.S.-led international order”—and why exactly is it worth preserving? I put these and other questions to Wright last week, and came away with the most compelling account I’ve come across of how Trump views the world, and how the world could change during his presidency. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
Uri Friedman: As you wrote on Twitter, you feel this is the most important election anywhere in the world since the German elections of 1932. Why?
Thomas Wright: Firstly, I’m not saying that Trump is equivalent to Nazis in Germany—to their rise. But since those elections, I think there’s never been an election where so much is riding on how a major power would behave in the world. What’s unique about this election is that Trump has a very, very different notion of American foreign policy and [America’s] global role, and would dramatically change U.S. foreign policy if he was elected. Since the world is essentially organized around American power and American intentions, that would have an enormously disruptive effect. I think you need to go back, in terms of elections just totally unraveling the status quo, to the ’30s. Obviously that was a much more severe case.
Friedman: What about the elections of America’s most influential mid-20th century presidents, like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower, who shaped [today’s international] system? Or Russia’s first free election after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991? Or even the 2000 election, which resulted in a President George W. Bush, who launched the Iraq War? Those are just some examples from two of the world’s great powers.
Wright: Set aside the Russian example; [with] the other U.S. elections, it was all within a general framework of U.S. strategy and U.S. foreign policy—bipartisan agreement. Certainly from Truman on, they all agreed on the importance of a global role for the United States, the alliance system, institutional order, containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There were differences about how to operationalize that, but there were agreements on the core principles.
This election has a choice that’s never been offered before, where one person is offering continuity with that old strategy and the other, by his own admission, is looking to completely overturn it and to bring in something very, very different. You have to go back to before the [Second World] War to find any major [U.S.] politician, any major nominee making the foreign-policy argument that Trump is making, which is, essentially, an isolationist foreign policy.
Friedman: How would you characterize Trump’s foreign policy? And why is it so distinct?
Wright: I think there are a lot of areas in which Trump has no fixed view and in which he contradicts himself, but there [is] a core set of visceral beliefs that he’s had for many years and that he’s not deviated from. The first is that he is opposed to America’s alliance arrangements with other countries. The second is that he opposes free trade and favors a more mercantilist international economic system. And the third is that he has this fondness for authoritarianism, particularly in Russia. Those three things—there’s evidence for them going back to the mid-1980s, and he’s persisted with them at often high political cost.
The question is whether or not he would moderate or abandon those views if elected. I have no way of knowing, but my view would be that at his age, at 70 years old, having held these beliefs for the better part of 30 years, that he’s unlikely at the moment of complete vindication in his own mind to change his policy when he hasn’t so far.
Friedman: Can we dive into those three beliefs in more detail? So the first: opposition to America’s alliance arrangements with other countries. What evidence are you relying on to draw that conclusion?
Wright: The first is this famous letter he wrote in a full-page ad in The New York Times, Boston Globe, and Washington Post in 1987, which detailed his views on American foreign policy and defense policy. [It’s] all about his frustration at Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others—that the U.S. had to defend them and that they were taking advantage of the United States and that they should pay for their own security. He’s made that point in interviews over the years and [it’s been] a feature of the campaign.
The question is whether that means he wants others to pay a little more, or whether he opposes the alliances overall. I’m of the view that he opposes them overall for a few reasons. The first is that he has said that the U.S. has no strategic interest in being in Asia militarily. He said NATO’s original mission is obsolete—so he doesn’t seem to see any need for the U.S. [military] to be forwardly present—and he’s said that the U.S. should only do that if others pay. When he talks about payment, we often think he means [other countries spending at least] 2 percent of GDP [on defense], but actually what he seems to mean is that he judges the cost [as] the cost of the U.S. presence in those regions. So it’s the cost of having [U.S. Pacific Command] and the Seventh Fleet [in Japan and South Korea], or having the U.S. Army in Europe. He said at the Center for the National Interest speech that the cost to the United States of these alliances was in the trillions of dollars. You only get to trillions of dollars if you’re counting in hundreds of billions per year.
If he was to go to the Germans or the Japanese and demand hundreds of billions of dollars a year, they would not be able or willing to do that. And that would give him a pretext to unilaterally suspend [America’s security] guarantees or simply say he wouldn’t uphold them. Even to Oprah in the late ’80s, he said that the U.S. should only defend Kuwait if Kuwait paid 25 percent of its oil profits to the U.S., [since Kuwait] only existed because of U.S. protection. It’s a much more imperial version of U.S. hegemony. We make a mistake when we equate it with [Barack] Obama’s burden-sharing comments [about U.S. allies]. It seems to me to be qualitatively different than those.
Friedman: On number two—favoring a mercantilist economic system—what do you mean by that?
Wright: He says he’s not against free trade, but there’s no record of a [U.S.] trade agreement that he favored. He was asked, “What president do you associate with?” and he said he couldn’t associate with [Ronald] Reagan because of trade policy, and you’d need to go back to the 19th century or early 20th century for views that reflected what he thought on economics. He has a track record of opposing trade deals. He’s talked about tariffs and other punitive measures, including withholding remittances [sent from Mexican immigrants in the U.S. to their families in Mexico], and generally exerting economic pressure. He’s said he wants to cut trade deals, but they will be “fair,” which seems to [mean] lopsided in America’s favor. That’s the definition of mercantilism.
Friedman: Thirdly—his fondness for authoritarianism. How have you seen that manifest itself?
Wright: As far back as 1990, he went to Russia and came back and was disillusioned with [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, and thought he was weak. [He] was asked if he thought Gorbachev should have behaved more like [the government in] China in Tiananmen Square and he said yes—he thought that that showed strength, and the important thing was to show that you were strong. Then, over the years, he said very nice things about various authoritarian leaders—in this campaign about Kim Jong Un, Saddam Hussein. He’s also never said anything really about the importance of democracy or liberalism overseas.
And that’s not even mentioning the Putin stuff. The easiest thing for him in the world politically would have been to say something critical about Russia. But he hasn’t been capable of saying anything critical of Putin personally, or the Russian regime, or Russian foreign policy. That willingness to keep talking about [Russia uncritically] even though he’s paying something of a political cost for doing so shows that this is a real belief. He seems to think he’s a strong man [and] he wants to deal with other strong men—to essentially cut deals and run the world, or to certainly take care of the U.S. position in the world. He prefers that to the messiness of an international order, or democracies.
Friedman: Would you attribute his seemingly pro-Russian or pro-Putin policies to this fondness for authoritarianism?
Wright: To some degree it’s about his views on authoritarianism. But also his first view reinforces his third view: He’s already of the view that the U.S. shouldn’t really be in NATO or in Europe, helping Europe defend itself from Russia. So when Russia complains about NATO, they’re complaining about something that he doesn’t agree with anyway. I don’t think he has his NATO position because that’s what Putin thinks. I think he has that because of his opposition to alliances. Putin also says that, and that’s an added bonus. It’s like, “Why are we doing this when we could have Russian help elsewhere?”
In his own mind, I think he has a very coherent worldview. He’s never stumped on questions related to these issues. He is on technical questions of nuclear strategy or Korea or other things. But he has a north star.
We underestimate just how much he’s committed to this. He’s been voluntarily speaking about this for three decades. Everyone accuses him of not studying, and that is true. But in this very narrow way, when he says he listens to himself [for foreign-policy advice], and all of these funny comments he’s made that are easily ridiculed, what he’s really saying is that he believes he’s thought about this pretty deeply for a long time and that he’s been proven, in his own mind, correct.
Friedman: On these three prongs—disregard for America’s alliance system, a mercantilist economic view, and fondness for authoritarianism—can you think of any major-party U.S. presidential candidate in the post-World War II period who has advocated such things?
Wright: No. I really can’t. The closest you come to might be [Pat] Buchanan in 1992, but he wasn’t the nominee. [Robert] Taft in the late ’40s was more of a holdover from the prewar period but also had a much more balanced view. He was not pro-authoritarianism, and he was not really mercantilist. He was against alliances, but he was much more mainstream. I think you really have to go back to [Charles] Lindbergh [in the 1940s] to find a parallel.
These views, I think, have existed for a long time. What happened though is that politicians exercised restraint in not tapping into them. Everyone operated, even when they were seen as radical, within limits. Trump is the first one to really try to tap into it. And I think, in doing so, he’s awakened something that maybe always had the potential to be awakened, but the major politicians had chosen not to do so because they felt like it was an undesirable or irresponsible position.
Friedman: In this election, we’ve heard the phrase “U.S.-led international order” a lot. Usually it’s in a context like, “Donald Trump may well undo the post-World War II U.S.-led international order that has underwritten global peace and prosperity for decades.” I’ve written lines like that myself. But it’s a phrase that can seem pretty abstract. What does the term mean to you?
Wright: What I mean by it, and what is generally meant by it, is the system that was created in the late 1940s that includes the U.S. alliance system, forward military basing around the world, originally the open Western economy and now the open global economy, and a set of institutions and rules that are imperfect but generally govern state behavior. Collectively, that order operated in the West until 1991, and then went more global—not completely global—and really is the organizing principle for world politics today. And that order rests primarily on American power and American foreign policy, in that others want it and like it, but it’s hard to see it persisting if the U.S. decided to pull out of it. It’s unlikely that NATO would exist in anything like its current form without America.
Trump would jeopardize that by liquidating some of the key aspects of that order. The security order in Europe and Asia would be transformed. The global economy would be transformed. Now if he totally reverses himself and appoints all sorts of mainstream Republican foreign-policy leaders to be in his cabinet, then maybe that doesn’t apply. But if one takes him at his word, then that could happen.
That’s where we get into the analogies of the ’30s, because this order has existed since the late ’40s, and obviously the period between the ’30s and ’40s was one of great conflict. So the last time that an order really fell apart and was replaced by something else was in the ’30s—not counting the Eastern order, which fell apart in 1989/91. The last time that the Western world was fundamentally changed was [in the ’30s].
Friedman: Do you think the president of the United States has the power to undo that order single-handedly? He still has to deal with a Congress filled with people who have adhered to the bipartisan consensus that you mentioned.
Wright: I think the answer, unfortunately, is yes, for a couple of reasons. The first is that the checks and balances that are inherent in the presidency mainly apply to domestic policy. They don’t apply to foreign policy nearly as much. There are some, but even the ones that are formal, like the appropriations for war, have been eroding in recent decades. In general the president has much freer scope of action on foreign policy. [Trump] may become frustrated with domestic policy and may focus on foreign policy, because it’s something he actually does care about and also he has more freedom of maneuver.
The second point is that what he is promising is not to do something rather than to do something. He’s said he would threaten [that if allies] didn’t pay up he may stop honoring those alliances. Congress can stop him from formally dissolving a treaty, but they can’t make him uphold an alliance that he doesn’t want to uphold. Like they can’t force him to go to war with Russia over the Baltics [if Russia attacked the Baltic members of NATO] or to visit the Baltics or to say that [defending the Baltics is] covered under [NATO’s] Article 5. Simply by not doing things, he can do something.
These alliances rest on deterrence—it’s effectively a promise to come to the military aid of another country if it’s attacked. That’s governed under articles like Article 5 of NATO, which are actually quite ambiguous when you look at them. Article 5 says a country will come to the assistance [of an attacked NATO member] in whatever way it deems appropriate. Successive presidents have interpreted that as meaning a certain thing. But it’s quite possible that a future president could say, “I interpret it as meaning a strong dressing down [of the aggressor].” [Trump is] not legally bound to defend the Baltics militarily by going to war with Russia. And once that’s called into question, then the entire equation changes in terms of deterrence.
Friedman: How would my daily life as an American change if the U.S.-led international order changed?
Wright: [I’m] arguing that when you get rid of the architecture that made this possible, a lot of the positive elements in the world today will be very badly damaged and will come to an end. But there’s no real way of proving that. We can’t say if the alliances went away tomorrow, you can say with certainty that Russia will invade the Baltics or anything else. To a certain degree, it’s an assessment based on what has happened before in history and an assessment of the intentions of others.
But I would say over a 10-year period, what would probably happen is that the world would become much more dangerous in terms of other countries coming close to conflict with each other, and that there would be a lot of revisionism—countries testing borders and trying to protect their own interests unilaterally. There would be an increase in security competition, and that may very well drag the United States back in at a later stage. Even if the U.S. said it wanted nothing to do with Europe, nothing to do with Asia, the history from the early 20th century is that that ultimately can get out of control and can drag the United States in.
I [also] think the global economy would take a huge dive. There would probably be a very severe recession because the U.S. would not be guaranteeing the openness of the global economy. Trump’s position basically is: For the U.S. economy to do well, other countries must do worse. But our experience over the last 70-odd years is the opposite. It’s that in order for the U.S. and any individual country to do well, the global economy has to do well.
Friedman: Would the international order really unravel if the United States didn’t lead it? Couldn’t NATO, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and so on carry on even if America wasn’t at the helm?
Wright: Somebody has to do the heavy lifting, so who would do that? People made that argument pretty credibly in the 1990s to mid-2000s about Europe—that Europe could take on a lot of the burden, or China would become more liberal over time and it would uphold the order. But what’s happened over the last five or six years is that Europe has become more divided and weaker, becoming less engaged in the world and less capable, and China’s become more authoritarian. There is no alternative. If the U.S. doesn’t engage, then others will not step up. Now if the U.S. does more, others may do more as well as partners.
Sometimes we get distracted by talking about what others should do. The real question is: What do we expect others will do? Europe should do more, but realistically, if the U.S. pulled out of Europe, what’s likely to happen in France, for instance? Is it more likely that France will become very internationalist and liberal, or is it more likely that it will trend to the right and that [National Front leader] Marine Le Pen will have a better chance of being elected—[that France] will have a nationalist government that will look out for itself? To me, the record is pretty clear over the last five or six years that if the U.S. pulls out, things will get worse domestically in other countries, and they’ll become more fearful and more protectionist and more nationalist.
Friedman: How does the United States actually lead this order at the moment?
Wright: The most important thing is the alliances—those security guarantees, conventionally and the nuclear umbrella, that provide a degree of certainty in Northeast Asia and in Europe, that create certain geopolitical facts, and that make it very difficult for those who would want to [militarily] challenge that status quo. Economically, everything from keeping the sea-lanes open to being generally on the side of an open global economy with free movement of capital and a certain set of rules. On the trading system, the WTO, a lot of that is multilateral, but it wouldn’t survive if the U.S. [as the world’s largest economy] unilaterally defected.
On the values front, it makes a big difference that the U.S. and Europe and some of the democracies in Asia support democracy and certain standards of human rights and other norms. There are many countries where those [values] are relatively fragile and if the international mood turned against those, they would probably become quite brittle.
Friedman: How orderly is the order right now? U.S. alliances with countries like the Philippines and Turkey have been fraying recently, The New York Times reported the other day that global trade is declining amid a souring public mood about free trade. European unity has been threatened by the British vote to leave the European Union. So is the order already buckling even when the U.S. is leading it as it traditionally has?
Wright: There are challenges, but I think they’re manageable. From a historical perspective, they’re well within the capacity of the U.S. and its allies and other like-minded countries to deal with. Given that we seem to be in one of those moments where there’s a bad economic environment for a while after a financial crisis and an upswing in nationalism, I think this is still pretty benign by the standards of what can happen in those moments.