During an appearance on Morning Joe the week of the Republican National Convention, the son of the GOP’s presidential nominee was tapping into the zeitgeist. “I’ve been a politician for three weeks now, I think we’ve figured it out pretty well…. [I]f you look at the last few decades…I don’t know that politicians have exactly served us well,” Donald Trump, Jr. told his hosts. The Trump clan positively revels in the fact that people are fed up with the Washington establishment. They’re here to fix things. Everything, it seems, and fast.
Repairing the damage done—over decades and by politicians on both sides of the aisle, apparently—is no big deal, to hear Trump folk talk. It’s basically a question of applying lessons learned in the private sector, the Republican candidate is fond of saying. As is often the case with populism, this brash espousal of supposedly simple solutions belies a thoroughgoing know-nothingism when it comes to the reality of politics and statesmanship. And nowhere is this attitude more acutely troubling than in the realm of foreign policy.
Populist know-nothingism isn’t just fashionable on this side of the Atlantic. You can be for or against the British decision to leave the European Union, but it’s hard not to agree with Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff that how the decision was taken was pure madness. The problem was not, he writes, “that British leaders dared to ask their populace to weigh the benefits of membership.” Rather, for an issue of such strategic importance, continues Rogoff:
[I]t was the absurdly low bar for exit, requiring only a simple majority. Given voter turnout of 70 percent, this meant that the leave campaign won with only 36 percent of eligible voters backing it. This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics…. Modern democracies have evolved systems of checks and balances to protect the interests of minorities and to avoid making uninformed decisions with catastrophic consequences. The greater and more lasting the decision, the higher the hurdles.
For his part, Donald Trump seems to envision ruling with no hurdles at all (why let hurdles slow you down, when you’ve figured everything out?). And one of those problems he apparently aims to fix for us is NATO, a defense pact that has served us well for three-quarters of a century. It’s been on his mind for at least a few weeks now. Trump told the New York Times recently that, if Russia attacked a member of NATO, he would only come to the defense of those nations that have done their fair share vis-à-vis the United States.
It’s hard to know precisely what Trump has in mind—only those members who have spent the NATO-mandated 2 percent of GDP on defense?—but the real estate tycoon is probably applying his “art of the deal” to international relations, trying to put our dead-beat allies on notice. “In a deal,” the master negotiator instructs us, “you always have to be prepared to walk away.” Trump also tells us he wants to keep Vladimir Putin guessing at the same time. Unfortunately, now our allies our guessing, too—about U.S. reliability. A good part of the art of foreign relations is having care with language, being clear about your aims. It was, at least in part, the ill-chosen words of U.S. diplomat April Glaspie that led Saddam Hussein in 1991 to believe that the United States would not intervene if Iraq invaded Kuwait. It also helps to be able to distinguish between friend and foe. Trump’s NATO musings almost certainly assure and encourage adversarial Russia, and without a doubt they’ve provoked bewilderment, anger, and anxiety among our closest allies.
Burden-sharing is important. It’s also appallingly overrated, however. The first-order question is: Why we do have alliances in the first place? Henry Kissinger notes that traditionally nations have established and joined alliances to enhance their own power. The United States is no different, but our goal is not might for might’s sake. Rather, it is using power in its many different forms to both advance our interests and to realize a vision of the world most conducive to the spread of values that advance peace and bring broad-based material prosperity. Of course, it’s true what Trump says, “you can’t forget about the bills.” It’s equally true, though, that the objectives we’re pursuing in foreign and national security policy—indeed, in our American interest—are not always easily quantifiable, to be reduced to simple bottom lines and outcomes quickly discernible to the mindset of ROI.
To sort some of these things out, a decision-maker might actually benefit from relevant knowledge and experience, and perhaps even from a bit of outside counsel and advice. Trump has manifestly none of the former, and projects open disdain for the latter. Experts are easy prey these days. Ex-Justice Minister and Brexiteer Michael Gove, caught up in UK populism, proclaimed in the run-up to Britain’s EU referendum that “people in this country have had enough of experts” (a rich sentiment, coming from a former Times columnist and editor who now aspires to write a book on 18th-century Tory politician and thinker Henry St. John). Here in the United States, scorn for people who study things is certainly a constituent part of Trumpism, even if the disease knows no partisan bounds. President Obama told the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg this spring that he was proud to have torn up “the Washington playbook” in foreign policy. A few weeks later, the President’s right-hand man, Ben Rhodes, elaborated, disparaging the foreign policy community—those historians, economists, demographers, social scientists, diplomats, foreign-policy scholars, and foreign correspondents to whom past administrations have looked to for guidance—as “the blob.”
To understand Trump’s thinking on any matter of policy is no easy feat, but he seems to act as if alliances are some kind of charity—of which we’ve already given enough. Or, maybe he intends to treat NATO like one of his commercial enterprises, operating according to the well-worn business adage,”If it can’t be counted, it doesn’t count.” Imagine we had applied Trumpian cost-benefit alliance to World War II, the Marshall Plan, or the Korean War—moves that set the stage for decades of prosperity and progress for the West, prosperity that ultimately allowed it to triumph over the Soviet Union. Or, to take a more recent example, to the first Gulf War, when George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III assembled a coalition of 32 nations to help eject Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. It was the United States and Britain that did the heavy lifting militarily. Many of those coalition partners actually contributed very little. Even still, we relied on Arab allies for local cover; we benefited from European participation (and a UN mandate) for international legitimacy; and we depended on NATO bases in Europe for logistical support, including ammunition transfers, air traffic control, and refueling. And by the way, little of Operation Desert Storm had to do with tiny Kuwait per se. In those days we had a vision and strategy for the Middle East. We deemed it unacceptable that Saddam would grab Kuwait in a move toward regional hegemony.
For NATO and Europe, Trump has an answer to all this, of course: “[T]his is not 40 years ago,” he told the Times‘s David Sanger. “We are not the same country and the world is not the same world.” Alas, Russia is no longer the same country it appeared to be becoming twenty years ago. And with the U.S. retreat over the better part of the past decade, world order is fraying badly. Does Trump have anything resembling a vision for Europe, and for transatlantic ties? Apart from his bromance with Vladimir Putin, how does he see Russians aims today? How does Trump actually define American interests in this part of the world—apart from though the lens of finances and balance sheets? What purpose should NATO actually serve, if any at all, in his view? For that matter, what price tag—overhead cost or insurance premium, if these expressions help—would be appropriate to help maintain freedom, peace, and prosperity in Europe? Vladimir Putin has a vision. As a Russian friend of mine puts it: “Moscow dreams of the day NATO dies.” One wonders whether Trump has thought any of these things.
Critics stick Trump for being temperamentally unsuited for the presidency. They point to his disregard for values, his lack of relevant knowledge and experience, his impulse control problems, and his, shall we say, hubristic tendencies. Perhaps most dangerous of all, though, is his thoroughly misguided conceit that the money-making, real estate-acquiring, deal-making skills he has acquired in private business are seamlessly applicable—and vastly beneficial—to the affairs of government, public service, and the conduct of foreign policy. It’s scandalous to see how all those defense-minded, supposedly strategic thinkers of the GOP are falling in right behind the leader. Now suddenly Newt Gingrich, previously a supporter of NATO enlargement, is no longer sure whether the Baltic states are defense worthy. But then this is the Newt Gingrich who recently fawning like a star-struck college intern about Trump business prowess: “the guy…knows how to run Miss Universe, The Apprentice, Trump Towers, construction, golf courses, casinos.”
Which all reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s quip: “the nine most terrifying words in the English language—I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Here’s a wager. If Donald Trump makes it to the White House, the new most terrifying 11 words in English will be: “I’m from the private sector, and only I can solve things.”