If Popularity Trumps Security

It is not entirely clear quite when it happened but, at some point over the last three months, the improbable became likely. Indeed, barring a spectacular collapse in popular support, or convoluted Machiavellian contortions at the Republican convention, it looks likely that Donald Trump will be the GOP (Grand Old Party – a term used to refer to the Republican Party) candidate for president later this year. The GOP hierarchy may be lining up against Trump’s candidacy, but they are not fools, and the grassroots anger that has gotten him this far will only get angrier if the Republican establishment attempt to deprive him of their nomination.Donald Trump ranked Top 10 Risk to Global Stability

It is easy for outsiders to deride Trump’s bombastic and hate-driven form of populism, but his speeches are not targeted at outsiders. Trump knows his audience and has reached out to them with spectacular success thus far. It is difficult to see how he can translate that success at the party level into national success in a presidential campaign. Yet, this is politics and stranger things have happened.

What if Trump continued to defy all expectations and was elected to be the 45th president of the US? In particular, what kind of foreign policy could be expected from Trump and what would be the security implications of that policy?

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the election of Trump would be one of the top 10 greatest risks to global stability. This is a remarkable intervention into the domestic politics of the world’s pre-eminent superpower and it is the first time that a US (yet to be nominated) candidate has been included in the list. A Trump presidency, according to the Economist, both threatens the global economy, as well as US politics and national security. Rated on a scale of 1 to 25, with 25 considered the most dangerous, Trump scored a 12.

Yet the reasoning of the Economist’s Intelligence Unit is as flawed as are most of Trump’s foreign policy announcements. Indeed, Trump’s global stability rating can only be based on assumptions about what he might do if he wins the presidency. And that judgement can only be made on the basis of Trump’s utterly incoherent foreign policy declarations. In effect, the Economist’s Intelligence Unit has taken Trump’s statements on foreign policy at face value, and that is far more seriously than they deserve.

Trump’s foreign policy statements at this point in time are a poor guide to the kind of foreign policy he would be likely, or able, to pursue if he were to be elected president. There are two reasons for this.

First, his current foreign policy stances are aimed at gaining the Republican nomination and are not a clear set of policies that he will implement if elected president. That explains why he has thus far failed to attract any major foreign policy heavyweights to his team. And it is not only that he has failed to attract them, but also he does not want them. Aligning himself with key figures in the Republican foreign policy establishment would automatically send a signal of intention about his real foreign policy stances and that will not play out well with the audience he needs to attract to get the Republican nomination.

Trump’s success thus far has been based on his ‘outsider’ status. He is outside the Republican Party elite and outside the Washington cognoscenti. It is a place he is happy to be. Until he gains the nomination, he will do nothing to change that stance. This means that all of his foreign policy pronouncements to date should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Second, the idea that even if he were serious about his foreign policy stances, that he would be able to implement them when in power misunderstands the nature of the foreign policy decision-making process. Often described as the most powerful person in the world, even the US president does not operate in a context lacking in constraints. Anyone who doubts this should reflect on Barak Obama’s ongoing attempts to close Guantanamo Bay; something he promised to achieve by 2009. Obama’s audacity of hope in the possibility of change was at the heart of his first election campaign. Yet, what he encountered when entering office was a structural context that impedes change, and that context would likewise confront Trump. The ability of any politician, including the US president, to mould foreign policy in new ways is severely circumscribed by the world itself and the structural context in which decisions are made. Those involved in foreign policy decision making tend to be conservative, and with good reason.

So even if Trump were totally serious about his foreign policy announcements, he will face an institutional and structural environment that is highly resistant to large-scale change. And this is not just the diplomatic core, which Trump is often so scathing about, but also the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff who are clearly unhappy with many of the outcomes of poorly conceived foreign policy adventures.

Still, this does not mean that there are no insights to be gained into how a Trump presidency might approach foreign policy, and there are glimmers of a policy that occasionally shine through the bombastic bluster of Trump playing to the disaffected Republican crowd. In short, what can be expected from a Trump presidency will be a well-travelled route based on ‘America first’, nationalistic isolationism and moralistic public pronouncements, but little in the way of resources aimed at following up those pronouncements. This is pretty much the standard foreign policy line of all Republican administrations apart from George W. Bush, who disastrously went off at neoconservative tangents. It is best described as a form of realism brilliantly articulated by the likes of Hans Morgenthau, one of the major twentieth-century figures in the study of international politics. However, there are also important differences between Trump’s vision of foreign policy and that of Morgenthau’s.

Some of the crazier things Trump has said about foreign policy can simply be dismissed. The Great Wall of Mexico for example, plays to the Republican crowd, yet even if he builds it there is no way Congress will pay for it, let alone Mexico. Banning Muslims from entering the US will run into all sorts of legal challenges, although it is conceivable he could increase ‘profiling’. As for bringing back torture, well there is simply no way that he will persuade military and security officers to violate international law. These are the outer edge of a foreign policy stance that is verging on fantasyland. Many of Trump’s supporters find them attractive, but they are not realistic policy options, and Trump knows this.

That said, there are at least two sources where hints of his actual beliefs can be found. The first is a lengthy interview by Maggie Haberman and David Sanger of the New York Times. The second is his foreign policy address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that was markedly different in style from his usual, off-the-cuff campaign comments. Taken together, both the speech and the interview could have been delivered by any of the Republican presidential candidates this year.

Two broad things differentiate Trump’s view of foreign policy and the typical ‘America first’ type of realism that Morgenthau and most Republicans have espoused. Morgenthau’s sixth principle of international politics suggests that politics is an autonomous realm of human activity. Politics is concerned with power and influence, not the financial bottom line. Trump, on the other hand, does not seem to understand the basics of foreign policy and treats it as a branch of business or economics. His grand narrative is that the US is in decline and what explains that decline is the economic costs associated with US leadership of the international system. Trump expects the US to continue to provide leadership of the international system, but to have the costs of that leadership borne by those who most benefit from it.

As he puts it, “Now, I am a person that – you notice I talk about economics quite a bit, in these military situations, because it is about economics, because we do not have money anymore because we have been taking care of so many people in so many different forms that we do not have money… I mean, we defend everybody. (Laughs.) We defend everybody. No matter who it is, we defend everybody. We are defending the world. But we owe, soon, it is soon to be $21 trillion. You know, it is 19 now, but it is soon to be 21 trillion. But we defend everybody. When in doubt, come to the United States. We will defend you. In some cases free of charge.”

Trump’s view of foreign policy as a branch of economics is not surprising given that he has no background in foreign policy, but extensive experience in business. Indeed, he has admitted that what he knows about foreign policy comes mostly from the media. Astoundingly, he also believes that on the basis of this limited knowledge he has an aptitude for foreign policy matters; as he puts it, “But it was not something that came into play as a business person. But I had an aptitude for it I think, and I enjoyed reading about and I would read about it.”

The second major aspect of Trump’s approach to foreign policy is the emphasis he places on the importance of ‘unpredictability’. There is nothing unusual about this in terms of foreign policy practice and in many respects he is simply following many of the precepts set out by Machiavelli in The Prince. Still, while there is some logic to the non-disclosure of intentions in relation to enemies, in a globalised and highly interdependent world, ‘trust’ is highly valued and helps oil the wheels of interstate cooperation. Hence, not communicating intentions to friends can only increase the possibility of misunderstandings.

Given these broad approaches, what then can be expected in terms of specifics from a Trump doctrine? To begin with, his ‘America first’ policy will inevitably lead to a more isolationist foreign policy than has been witnessed for the last two decades or so. Typically, isolationism refers to America’s longstanding reluctance to become involved in European alliances and wars. Isolationists have always believed that America’s perspective on the world was different from that of European societies and that America could advance the cause of freedom and democracy by means other than war. Importantly, however, American isolationism did not entail disengagement from the world stage. Isolationists were not averse to the idea that the US should be a world player and further its territorial, ideological and economic interests. This form of isolationism is at the heart of the Trump doctrine.

However, given that isolationism is not equivalent to disengagement, then what kind of policies might Trump adopt? First, there is no doubt that there will be a return to a more unilateralist policy coming out of Washington. Left to his own devices, Trump would clearly withdraw from global and regional institutions if his demands were not met. Thankfully, he will not be left to his own devices but, nonetheless, there is no doubt that he would push for what he perceives to be a more equitable economic input from states that benefit from US leadership in international affairs. He has said this clearly in relation to The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but also South Korea.

In both cases, he thinks that the Germans and the South Koreans in particular are not paying their way in terms of covering the costs for the security blanket the US provides. This is not a new argument, and it forms the basis of Robert Kagan’s influential neoconservative book Of Power and Paradise. However, Trump’s economic version of it misses some vital facts about foreign policy. What America gains from NATO and close contacts with South Korea cannot be measured in purely economic terms. Trump clearly is not conversant with how power operates in the international system, or he thinks it comes out of the vaults of a bank.

What American leadership of the system facilitates is influence, alliances and a role that allows them to shape the international order in ways that benefit the US. Despite the many problems with the concept, ‘soft power’ is as important today as is military power. The normative environment surrounding the use of force has radically changed, and it is no longer possible to use military force to achieve one’s ends without taking into account the negative normative costs associated with the use of that power.

It can seem that Trump has no understanding of these developments and that he intends to dismantle the post-WWII world order and return the international system to one where the great powers constantly compete. However, despite his claims, there is little prospect of this happening, not least because in reality, this system was constructed to serve American interests, but also because many of the other major states in the system, including China, benefit from it. Of course, many states suffer as a result of this post-WWII system, but those are not the type of states Trump would want to ally with.

However, Trump will clearly use trade as a weapon, particularly in relation to China, and for a country such as Australia, which is so dependent on trade with China, that is perhaps the greatest worry. Any trade war between the world’s two largest economies can only be bad for business for everyone. Australia would not be immune from this. In fact, for a businessman, Trump has a strange understanding of the role of trade in the global security framework. Trump has repeatedly condemned what he views as unfair trade deals that have allowed countries like China to benefit at the expense of US jobs. He has said he supports free trade, but not “stupid trade”. “I feel that we have had horrible negotiators, horrible trade deals,” he said at the most recent Republican debate. “The jobs in this country are disappearing, and especially the good jobs.” But yet again, most of these pronouncements can be taken with a large pinch of salt, and it is simply not going to be possible to rip up trade deals in the way he suggests. Once again, his rhetoric can largely be explained as a siren call to those Republican voters he needs to gain the nomination.

What about Israel, Iran and the Middle East? He has claimed he “would knock the hell out of ISIS in some form. I would rather not do it with our troops, you understand that.” Effectively, what this means is that he would attempt to put pressure on other countries to use their troops and supply US air support; basically a continuation of Obama’s policy. Given his bellicosity, however, it would be expected to see an increase in drone activity and a ramping up of air support in Iraq and Syria. But in Syria, as well as in Europe, he clearly believes that he can do business with President Putin. This suggests that he would be prepared to leave dictators and autocrats in power free of external interference.

It is certainly clear that he believes that if Assad and Gadhafi were still in power, the Middle East would not now be such a mess. Also, of course, he has argued that he wants to dismantle the nuclear weapons deal with Iran. According to Trump, the biggest concern with the deal is not necessarily that Iran is going to violate it, but that they can keep the terms and still get to the bomb by simply running out the clock and, of course, using the dividend gained from the lifting of sanctions to fund their attempt to gain pre-eminence in the region.

This is something he could achieve, and there are many on the right in the US who would support rejecting the deal with Iran. The consequences of doing so, however, could be increased tensions in the Middle East, and an emboldened Israel taking unilateral action while the Trump regime looks the other way. His support for Israel seems to be genuine enough, although if he follows through on his plan to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the prospects of achieving a solution to that conflict would seem to be beyond reach.

Finally, there are Trump’s contentious views on nuclear proliferation, which ironically enough, do have some basis in the academic literature; although it is clear Trump has not read it. Strange as it sounds, the idea of using well-managed proliferation to bring stability to certain regions is the argument advanced by American political scientist Kenneth Waltz. However, it is surely a dead-end argument, and the possibility of terrorists gaining access to nuclear material of any kind makes the thought of proliferating nuclear weapons a particularly dangerous idea.

In the final analysis, a Trump presidency, however unlikely, would not be the foreign policy disaster many are predicting. Australia should not be complacent, but the prospects of him achieving some of his stated foreign policy goals, even if elected, are even more remote than the possibility that he will be elected. Foreign policy has its own dynamics and logics as the Trump doctrine will discover.


Colin Wight
Colin Wight is a Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney. In addition to his current roles as a lecturer and PhD supervisor, Professor Wight is Editor in Chief of the European Journal of International Relations, and has written a number of books, including Rethinking Terrorism: Terrorism, Violence and the State and Agents, Structures and International Relations: Politics as Ontology, both available through Amazon.com.