How Trump Turned the US Foreign-Policy Consensus Upside-Down
The Republican nominee doesn’t just disagree with Democrats—his ideas represent a break with a long list of policies that have won bipartisan support for decades.
The word “unprecedented” gets thrown around a lot in conversations about Donald Trump’s presidential run. It’s a risky label to affix: History doesn’t always validate its use, and besides, the term has become diluted unto meaninglessness through constant repetition.
To understand the ways in which Trump’s candidacy represents a break from decades of U.S. foreign-policy consensus—including in most, though not all cases, Republican orthodoxy—it’s more useful to follow the old axiom of show-don’t-tell with an inventory of the policy proposals Trump has suggested, juxtaposing them with the old, agreed-upon approach. Here’s a cheat sheet on the GOP nominee’s divergences from the established path.
Hacking and Sovereignty
The existing consensus: U.S. sovereignty is paramount. Foreign government attempts to undermine American sovereignty—for example, through hacking into government officials’ email systems—is an unacceptable violation.
What Trump says: In a July 27 press conference, Trump expressed his belief that Russian-government agents may have hacked then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, and said that would be a good thing: “By the way, if they hacked, they probably have her 33,000 emails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 emails that she lost and deleted. Because you’d see some beauties there.” He added: “I will tell you this: Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Those comments earned immediate backlash, including from many Republicans, who said foreign governments should stay out of U.S. elections. One George W. Bush-era National Security Council member even called it “tantamount to treason.” Max Fisher interviewed experts who were gobsmacked. “Being shocked into speechlessness is not the sort of thing you’re really used to in the business of foreign policy analysis,” one told him.
The existing consensus: The United States’ international alliances are an essential part of the post-World War II system. That includes bilateral ties, such as the “special relationship” with the United Kingdom; collective organizations, especially NATO; and the United Nations. These organizations are essential for preventing another world war, ensuring global peace, and protecting American interests. Some of these premises have been disputed. Some observers viewed NATO as potentially obsolete following the fall of the Soviet Union it was constructed to contain, but the increasing bellicosity of Vladimir Putin has imbued the alliance with new importance as a bulwark against Russian expansionism in Ukraine, Georgia, and Eastern Europe. The George W. Bush administration bridled against UN involvement in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and appointed John Bolton—an outspoken critic of the organization—as U.S. ambassador. But even Bolton saw a role for the UN. Among the U.S.’s allies, Britain is universally considered to be the U.S.’s closest and most important.
What Trump says: Trump has repeatedly questioned the utility and relevance of NATO. He has argued that the United States is overstretched, and that its allies must contribute more to their own defense. Asked whether he would back NATO member states in the Baltics if they were attacked by Russia, for example, Trump replied, “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.” Asked whether he would back Russian annexation of Crimea, he said, “Yes. We would be looking at that.” (It’s hard to know how seriously to take that; Trump responds that he would “look at” or “look into” any number of things.) Bolton pronounced himself “disturbed” by the remarks; NATO members, especially in Eastern Europe, hastened to highlight their contributions. Trump was even more critical of the UN, though he made the comments while speaking to AIPAC, which deplores the UN’s typical stances on Israel. “The United Nations is not a friend of democracy,” Trump said. “It's not a friend to freedom. It's not a friend even to the United States of America, where as all know, it has its home.” As for the United Kingdom, Trump blithely dismissed the special relationship prior to Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation. “It looks like we're not going to have a very good relationship, who knows?” he said in response to Cameron’s criticism of his proposal to ban Muslims entering the United States as “divisive, stupid, and wrong.” Paradoxically, Trump also complains that under Barack Obama’s leadership, “Our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us.”
American Foreign Involvement and Military Deployment
The existing consensus: The U.S has an important role to play in maintaining global stability—a large role, unequaled by any other nation on the face of the earth, and an obligation that comes with both privileges and obligations. While leaders disagree on the scope and depth of those obligations, they generally take a globalist view. U.S. military bases around the world are an essential part of projecting American power, protecting democracy and freedom, and ensuring peace and stability. This is especially true of bases in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, which keep a check on Russia and also afford easy access to South Asia; in the volatile Middle East; and in South Korea, where U.S. troops deter North Korean aggression. American bases in Japan are also important to East Asian stability, especially in the face of a newly aggressive China. Japan has maintained a small, mostly defensive military since 1945.
What Trump says: Trump has proposed a sweeping realignment under the banner he calls “America First,” a wide-ranging retrenchment that draws back U.S. presence around the globe. American resources are overextended, and allies need to do more to pay for their own defense. “We have spent trillions of dollars over time—on planes, missiles, ships, equipment—building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia,” he said. “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense—and, if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.” (See: International Alliances, above.) “At some point, we cannot be the policeman of the world,” he told The New York Times. He has suggested pulling back American troops from various places, especially South Korea, where he questioned the utility of U.S. bases, without which “maybe you would have had a unified Korea. Who knows what would have happened? In the meantime, what have we done? So we’ve kept peace, but in the meantime we’ve let North Korea get stronger and stronger.” Trump also said he would speak with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, apparently without preconditions, and accept a visit to the United States by him. The offer of conversation alarmed even close Trump confidants. Despite insisting the U.S. cannot afford to maintain so many bases, Trump has promised to spend heavily on rebuilding the U.S. armed forces. “We will spend what we need to rebuild our military,” he said. “It is the cheapest investment we can make. We will develop, build and purchase the best equipment known to mankind. Our military dominance must be unquestioned.”
The existing consensus: For decades, the United States has publicly opposed nuclear proliferation not only for enemies but for friends. A long line of American presidents have also worked to decrease the world’s stocks of nuclear weapons.
What Trump says: Trump has publicly supported a large expansion in nuclear proliferation around the globe. While decrying Iranian and North Korean efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, he has suggested that other countries should adopt them. For example, he said that if Japan had nuclear weapons (which are banned under its post-World War II constitution) it could defend itself against North Korea. “If Japan had that nuclear threat, I’m not sure that would be a bad thing for us,” he has said. He also said he’d accept a nuclear Saudi Arabia. “Can I be honest with you?” he said during one debate. “It's going to happen, anyway. It's going to happen anyway. It's only a question of time.”
The existing consensus: American politics has generally been very favorable to free trade, believing that open markets and no protectionism provide the largest possible market for American goods and offer U.S. consumers the lowest prices, a good win-win for the world. Free trade has been a central credo of the Republican Party for years, but Democrats have for the most part endorsed it, too. President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law; President Obama has pursued the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While some politicians have called for better protections for American workers, from retraining and aid to “fair trade” conditions, protectionism has mostly become a dirty word, with economists mostly arguing that large tariffs would increase costs for American buyers and ignite trade wars.
What Trump says: Opposition to free trade has become one of Trump’s defining policy ideas. He is part of a growing backlash to free trade; Senator Bernie Sanders spoke out against trade deals, and Hillary Clinton, under pressure from Sanders, has now said she opposes the TPP that she once backed. Still, Trump is distinctive. “If I don’t get a change, I would pull out of NAFTA in a split second,” he told the Times. He opposes TPP. He has promised to close the U.S. trade deficit by levying high tariffs on foreign goods, at one point saying he’d impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. He has also proposed large tariffs as a punishment for American companies that move manufacturing overseas, though he won’t say how big. “It would be 35 percent, it may be 10 percent, it may be five percent, it may be 20 percent,” he told The Detroit News.
The existing consensus: Torture is bad, both as a moral matter and as policy, because it’s unlikely to elicit useful, actionable intelligence. This norm has been severely challenged in recent decades. During the George W. Bush administration, the government approved “enhanced interrogation techniques” that nearly all disinterested observers labeled torture. Some Republicans—notably Senator John McCain, who was tortured as a POW in Vietnam—continued to oppose torture. President Obama barred the Bush-era techniques, and a Senate panel condemned their use, but some advocates criticized Obama for not prosecuting anyone.
What Trump says: Trump has been an outspoken proponent of torture throughout the presidential campaign. “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works,” he said in February. He said he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Trump has said that rules constricting the U.S. are impeding the fight against ISIS: “We are playing by rules, but they have no rules. It's very hard to win when that’s the case.” In June, he told NH1, “We’re going to have to be a lot sharper and we’re going to have to do things that are unthinkable almost.” More broadly, Trump was asked point-blank on June 27 whether the Geneva Conventions, the international accords governing law of war, prisoners of war, and more, were outdated. “I think everything’s out of date. We have a whole new world,” he said.
Middle East Policy
The existing consensus: There are few areas of the world and foreign policy where U.S. leaders have been so divided as in the Middle East, but a few lodestars of agreement exist. For example, Americans (even those critical of Israeli policy on some matters) have long viewed Israel as the most essential ally in the region, a beacon of democracy. U.S. policy has backed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the U.S. has worked sporadically to convene peace talks, but has sided with Israel in most talks. They have also treated Saudi Arabia as an important ally—a distasteful one, run by a backward, brutal, theocracy, but essential to regional stability and oil supplies. Finally, Iran has been viewed as a dangerous threat that should not be allowed to acquire the nuclear weapons it so badly desires. Top U.S. officials have tended to take a fairly hawkish stance. Many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, joined with Republicans to back the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
What Trump says: Trump has been wildly self-contradictory on Israel. He has complained that President Obama has been “the worst thing that ever happened to Israel.” But his own statements have rattled Israeli leaders. Trump has refused to commit to either a one- or two-state solution. “Well, I think a lot of people are saying it’s going to result in a two-state solution,” he told the Times. “I’m not saying anything. What I’m going to do is, you know, I specifically don’t want to address the issue because I would love to see if a deal could be made.” He said he wanted to be “sort of a neutral guy,” but has also insisted, “There’s nobody more pro-Israel than I am.” Like many American policymakers, Trump is now critical of both the war in Iraq and the U.S. intervention in Libya, though he supported both of them at the time. Like Clinton, he has promised to take a hard line on ISIS but has offered few details. (He says he has a foolproof plan, but doesn’t want to tip the group off.) Trump has been highly critical of Obama’s deal with Iran to stave off nuclear arms, a position on which he agrees with most Republicans. Trump has threatened to stop buying oil from Saudi Arabia and withdraw protection if the kingdom doesn’t ante up more money. “We lose monetarily, everywhere. And yet, without us, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t exist for very long,” he said.
The existing consensus: Europe writ large remains an important partner for the United States. In addition to the United Kingdom, Western Europeans countries like Germany and France are close allies. The European Union is an important economic power and guarantor of stability on the continent, and it should be strengthened. President Obama spoke out against Brexit, the referendum of the UK leaving the EU, as well as against a Scottish independence referendum in 2014.
What Trump says: In typical zero-sum fashion, Trump has criticized the EU as a competitor with the U.S. for economic might. In May, he said that Brexit would be a good thing for Britain, though in June he warned, “I don’t think anybody should listen to me because I haven’t really focused on it very much.” Shortly after the successful vote to leave, he arrived in Scotland, which had voted heavily to remain, and congratulated Scots on taking their country back. (Trump seems to have opposed the 2014 Scottish referendum.) After the vote, he said, “The people have spoken. I think the EU is going to break up.” Not content only to snub the British government (see: International Alliances, above), Trump has also called Brussels a “hellhole”—he later said, “Belgium is a beautiful city”—and said he would not travel to France due to the threat of terror. “France is no longer France,” he said.
Promoting Democracy and Civil Society
The existing consensus: Foreign-policy thinkers’ worldviews are often crudely divided into idealists, who are eager to spread democracy and liberalism, and realists, who are more willing to accept imperfect situations in the service of strategic interests. U.S. leaders have generally agreed that democracy and self-determination are positive, and that both democratic government and civil society should be encouraged overseas, though the U.S. government has not always lived up to those principles—frequently backing repressive governments that were aligned with the U.S., or backing the overthrow of democratic ones that were not.
What Trump says: Trump has by and large rejected the very idea that democracy and liberalism are preferable overseas, or that the U.S. should encourage them. Asked directly whether he supported the overthrow of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad, Trump offered a vague answer that suggested not. “I don’t want to say that, I have a very specific view on Assad, but I think we have to get rid of ISIS before we get rid of Assad …. Look, Assad hates ISIS; ISIS hates Assad.” He said he would not press Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ease up on purges and crackdowns on the press and civil society. “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger,” he said. That is not, to be fair, the most threatening thing he has said about the free press. Asked about murders of journalists connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump replied, “He's running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” refusing to condemn the murders. More broadly, Trump has shown himself to be greatly enamored of Putin. That’s a break with many American conservatives, who criticized President Obama (and Secretary of State Clinton) as naive for attempting a “reset” with Russia at the outset of the Democrat’s presidency. Trump, closer to Obama, says it would be good if the U.S. got along better with Moscow. Trump has repeatedly praised Putin’s leadership, bragged that he called him a “genius,” and said that the two men would get along.