Sometimes, it is an art form to parse from Donald Trump’s words what he really means. For example, he does not speak the way a typical politician does, spouting off platitudes about America’s role in the world and assuming everybody wants and deserves freedom. But, that does not mean Trump does not have a coherent foreign policy. Indeed he does, and as radical as it may be, it makes sense.
At the heart of Trump’s message is a belief that America is overextended. This is not one party’s or President’s fault but the result of many decisions that have led the United States to substitute a multilateral relationships over the national interest. This means the United States has taken great risk and costs onto itself in its commitments to many nations. In return, those nations have not offered the United States anything similar in return.
Trump tends to focus on focus on several things in his rhetoric. For simplicity, I have lumped them into categories below.
NATO and Russia
When Donald Trump said NATO had outlived its usefulness this caused consternation across the Atlantic and in DC. But, there is evidence to back up Trump’s claims. The US has been involved in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade. At the behest of NATO, the US deposed Gaddafi in Libya. In all these cases the US has taken the brunt of the costs monetarily and personally. While NATO nations have helped somewhat they have done so far below their capabilities.
When one looks at the European Union he/she find a conglomerate that has a GDP that rivals the United States, a larger population and an advanced industrial base. When NATO was founded Europe was still recovering from World War II and was incapable of standing up to the Soviet menace. That is certainly not the case today. But, Europe has taken for granted that the US will always be willing to stand up for them even if they do not stand up for themselves. Europe could easily develop stronger military capabilities yet they choose not to do so.
Importantly, from Trump’s perspective , the primary strategic focuses of the US have been ignored by NATO, even as it is aimed to benefit Europe. The US has been actively involved in the Middle East for 15 years and short of the United Kingdom and air support from France, has received little support from most of Europe.
NATO’s focus has always been on Europe and as such has little interest in initiating in conflicts outside their area of focus. That is fine but it also means the US should be free this makes Europe irrelevant to its strategic interests. Indeed, NATO is partly becoming irrelevant even its members as evidenced by France’s unilateral actions fighting terrorists in Central Africa.
If NATO will not commit to out of area engagements not undertaken under Article V then the question deserves to be asked: of what use is it to the US? Trump believes it is not the US’s responsibility to defend Europe if it refuses to develop the strategic and military capabilities to defend itself and aid the United States in its strategic priorities.
In sum, current US policy dictates the US is liable for the defense of Europe. Europe is not liable for the defense of the US. Such a policy is intolerable. Either this agreement must be renegotiated or the US will exit NATO and engage in bilateral talks with nations (like Russia) that will further US national interests along with their own. Trump does not just believe this for NATO but also the world as he has echoed similar themes with regards to China, Japan, and Korea.
The same view largely holds true for Trump’s views on trade. International trade is not a good unto itself. It must benefit all parties. At this point, with a sluggish economy and massive deficits, the primary goal of US trade should be to facilitate the creation of jobs in the United States.
Along the same lines, the aggregate growth of the economy with no regard to social costs is no longer acceptable. The US partly has such massive inequality because of this mindset. Trade deals may grow the GDP and increase the coffers of big business and executives, but it does not deal with critical issues nor does it address long-standing and deepening social issues.
Currently, large multilateral free-trade agreements are far to complex to modify to the American interest. Instead, bilateral, simpler treaties should be pursued, such as NAFTA. In these negotiations the US would wield a stronger hand. Just consider how much Canada and Mexico’s economies rely on US trade. So does China, Japan, and Korea. The US should be free to pursue treaties that benefit the national interest and not just the abstract commitment to free trade.
China deserves its own mention here because it is a massive economy. If India was as powerful an economic force as China they would deserve a mention as well. That said, China is highly dependent on US exports to a degree that India is not. China is also involved in US strategic interests in the Pacific and Asia.
Right now, the Chinese economy is more dependent on the US than vice-versa. Despite protestations to the contrary it is clear China would suffer more if the US eliminated China’s favored nation status or was the target of tariffs. Past Presidents have either never recognized or refused to understand this dynamic. With the high ground that it has, the US should negotiate a new deal with China in a bilateral context. Indeed, the US would be foolish not to compel such a negotiation, lest it lose the advantage it currently holds.
Multilateralism Needs to End
As mentioned above, US foreign policy has been preoccupied with the concept of multilaterialism. This needs to end. The US’s primary preoccupation in foreign policy has been the end of Islamic terror. This is a goal many nations share. Currently, that mostly includes the elimination of ISIS. However, Islamic terrorism is particularly menacing for a few reasons. First, as history shows, attacks can be escalated. Think the Trade Tower bombing of 1993 to 9/11. Secondly, terrorism has costs beyond money and personnel. It has an enormous psychological toll on a nation. To defeat such an insidious threat, total power should be brought to bear from the US and its allies.
Again, current allies such as NATO (to say nothing of the UN) have not offered up such resources. The US stands ready to work with partners willing to achieve similar goals and share in the risk. This includes Russia, which for all its flaws, does not like the Islamic State anymore than the US.
More important to the current situation, Russia has internal issues with the Islamic State and has significant military resources it could bring to bear. Current divisions between the US and Russia over Ukraine could easily be ameliorated. Kiev would have economic and political ties with the West but would not be used as a base for Western forces. In return, Russia could retain the Crimea and have a degree of autonomy in Eastern Ukraine. The US and NATO would retain a buffer with Russia and Russia would gain a foothold in Eastern Europe among a mostly Russian populace. Additionally, who is to say the US cannot ring concessions out of Russia due to its weakened economic state?
Some nations have smartly realized this is where things are headed with or without Trump. Germany just instituted a policy allowing for foreign engagements outside Europe. Japan, for the first time since the end of World War II, relaxed its policy not allowing its troops to be used in offensive operations outside the nation. Other nations will likely follow suit.
The Trump Doctrine
To Trump, the issue in US foreign policy is that the nation has been slow to change in the face of a changing world. The Post World War II period of multilateralism no longer works and continuing to pretend it does harms the national interest.
To many, 9/11 represents a defining moment. It is when the US realized they had a new threat in a monopolar world. After 15 years of middling success in the Middle East the US needs to be willing to find new or current partners who are willing to commit significant resources to combat this new threat. If that means ending or renegotiating current treaties, then so be it. The US can no longer afford not to seek out partners with a similar national interest.
Trump has said many of these things in a disjointed way. His comments on NATO, Japan, Russia, China, and the UN should all be taken in the context of the current geopolitical situation. But, they fit. Trump is proposing a massive redefinition of US foreign policies based on the current reality, not those of 20, 30, or 40 years ago. It is a foreign policy based on “American First” and maximizes the nation’s benefits.
This makes Trump’s foreign policy radical, but rational. It is radical in the change it would cause if implemented (if he even can). But, it is rational in the sense US policy overseas is reflexively based on commitments that are decades old. The world has changed, but US policy has not. It should!