Donald Trump’s foreign policy remarks were hailed by Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker and other prominent Republicans as being impressive and reasonable, perhaps even rising to the level of presidential-ish. I am inclined to agree with the idea that, even lacking the coherence of a traditional presidential speech, that in terms of delivery and content this was perhaps the best policy presentation we’ve seen from Trump to this point – which is not saying a lot, but we have a small sample size. Having given some further thought to his arguments, it’s reasonable to see how his positioning could benefit him in the short term in a general election. As for beyond that, in the unlikely event he defies all available polling and shoots the moon to win the presidency, a number of his approaches would have to be reevaluated and adjusted.
It’s worth reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” when it comes to reviewing the unique central element of Trump’s approach, which is not actually about interventionism or war, but instead about his desire to transform our relationships with our allies into strictly transactional affairs.
“Winning a hundred victories out of a hundred battles is not the ultimate achievement; the ultimate achievement is to defeat the enemy without even coming to battle. Thus it follows that the highest form of warfare is to out-think the enemy; next is to break his alliances; then to defeat his armies in battle; the lowest form is to besiege his cities. Siege warfare should only be undertaken if it is unavoidable.”
The problem with the approach favored by Trump in this instance is that he simultaneously argues in favor of steps that will achieve one of the highest goals of our strategic foes by affirmatively breaking our own alliances, without neutralizing or winning over America’s foes. This calls to mind the late 19th century German errors that led to the lapsing of the alliance of Germany, Austria, and Russia that had kept east-central Europe at peace for nearly half a century. As a strategic self-inflicted wound by Germany upon itself, this bore remarkable and had world-shattering consequences in the long run. Trump is promising to take America down the same road.
Trump’s guiding vision in foreign policy is not taken from Sun Tzu. Or from Andrew Jackson. Or from Clausewitz. It is instead a vision that has the most in common with the understanding of global power dynamics by the great scholar Henry Hill.
“To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an after-school job, I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew that I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in a neighborhood that was full of nobodies. They weren’t like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops… One day some of the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother’s groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect… For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”
And then there is on the nose invocation of “America First.” Trump is not a fool, particularly when it comes to language. He knows – or least has been told – what that phrase indicates. But he’s gambling that Americans are so historically illiterate that they won’t get the subtext, just the text. On its face “America First” is a good way to sell what Trump is selling. Even knowing the phrase’s connotations, he uses it. Then again, if all Americans but a handful of elites favor that phrase in principle and don’t really even know what Charles Limburgerwhatsisname’s politics were, Trump is absolutely going to use that lack of knowledge to both troll the elites and appeal to a country innocently ignorant of the historical reference.
Of course, there’s a lot in Lindbergh’s “America First” rhetoric that Trump likes and even emulates:
There is a policy open to this nation that will lead to success—a policy that leaves us free to follow our own way of life, and to develop our own civilization… It is based upon the belief that the security of a nation lies in the strength and character of its own people. It recommends the maintenance of armed forces sufficient to defend this hemisphere from attack by any combination of foreign powers. It demands faith in an independent American destiny. This is the policy of the America First Committee today. It is a policy not of isolation, but of independence; not of defeat, but of courage. It is a policy that led this nation to success during the most trying years of our history, and it is a policy that will lead us to success again. – Charles Lindbergh’s NYC address, April 23, 1941.
It is not bad to hold to a belief that America too often looks after foreign interests over American, and that foreign powers knowingly manipulate American weakness and goodwill to ensure that end. But there is significant danger in adopting the belief that the global order is not something America is called upon to sustain given its unique position, understanding that peace and security depend upon the willingness of the United States to sustain both, through diplomacy, aid, and military might. Standing up for our interests is about more than telling our allies, many of whom are in the throes of economic turmoil, that they must pay more for “protection”.
Where order breaks down in a global economy, America’s interests and the interests of our allies inevitably suffer, and there is a great degree of difference between restraint in intervention in the affairs of other nations and in abdication of our responsibility to prevent large scale war. What is missing from Trump’s message is any indication he understands the need for the United States to ensure the maintenance of the two principles the world order is built on: the sovereignty of nation-states and the free flow of commerce. The absence of this recognition from his message is more troubling than his saber-rattling about trade wars and protection payments – because the United States’ role in this regard, weakened as it has been under Obama, is still what separates us from true global chaos.
Trump’s critique of past mistakes by the Bush and Obama administrations is one that has a lot of truth to it. But the irony of this speech is that his prescriptions for the future would be more encouraging if he weren’t making the same mistake Obama has: mistakenly believing we are now just one nation among others.