Well, here we are. Ted Cruz is out. John Kasich is out. The last electoral hurdles standing before Donald J. Trump have fallen. It is now certain that Mr. Trump will be the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States. It has been a long and torturous process, full of angst and in-fighting within the Republican-party ranks. Name-calling, wild accusations, and hyperbolic vitriol have been the currency of the realm, much to the chagrin of many of the moderate persuasion.
The Republican Party seems to be in a shambles. Some—Newt Gingrich, Joe Scarborough, Sean Hannity, Fox News Channel, and others—appear to be arrayed on the side of Trump. More will follow now that he is certain to be the nominee. Others—George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Stuart Stevens, John Podhoretz, Ben Sasse, and more—stand firmly within the “Never Trump” ranks. A standoff looks likely. This author would be surprised if the party reaches real unity before November’s election.
That said, what the hell do I know? I predicted Trump would never be the GOP nominee. I take scant comfort in finding myself within the ranks of the many commentators who have been wrong this election year.
This author is acutely aware that many of you SOFREP readers do not want us—the writers—to delve into politics. I get that. You do not come here for politics. That is understandable. However, we do have strong opinions about the candidates, and we also care deeply about policy. We especially care about foreign and military policy, and you all do come here for that, I hope. So, policy is where we shall go today. There will be no personal attacks, nor snide remarks. Go to my Twitter feed for those.
Before we start, though, it must be stated that this article is in no way a judgment of Trump’s supporters. I respect everyone’s right to choose who they want to be their candidate. I have friends and family who voted for Trump in the primaries, and who will vote for Trump in the general election. I am not here to insult them. Rather, I am here only to critique the policy proposals of the Republican nominee. A critique of the Democratic nominee’s foreign-policy proposals is likely not far behind.
Now, after all that preamble, let us examine the policy proposals of the presumptive Republican nominee. I will be drawing almost exclusively from Donald Trump’s own stated foreign policy, as found here, in his only major speech on the topic. I have also looked at various of his other speeches—in which he has addressed foreign policy and military issues—as source material.
The text of Mr. Trump’s major foreign-policy speech is, at certain points, contradictory and confusing. He ridicules the Iran deal while claiming that he in fact does want old enemies to become friends. He advocates promoting Western values throughout the world while criticizing attempts to establish Western-style democracies in other parts of the world. He wants America to act only in her own interests (“America first”), while also saying that the United States must “continually play the role of peacemaker.”
Mr. Trump also states that “our resources are overextended,” but then commits us to “always help to save lives and, indeed, humanity itself.” That seems far from restrained, nor an effective means of husbanding our resources. He says our friends must know that we will stick by the agreements we have made, but he then threatens to tear up NAFTA and unilaterally call for the restructuring of NATO. One cannot be blamed for experiencing confusion over what Mr. Trump truly intends as his foreign policy. The following, though, are the specific points he addresses in his foreign policy speech, to help us clarify.
Rebuilding the military
Mr. Trump calls for returning to a military force structure last seen during the Cold War. He bemoans the fact that the American armed forces have shrunk over the years, which indeed they have, since the “peace dividend” claimed at the end of the Cold War led to a downsizing of the U.S. military. America’s military is smaller than it was at the height of the Cold War, and defense budgets have shrunk since then, though they are still far higher than anywhere else in the world. These facts are indisputable.
What Mr. Trump fails to explain, though, is why they have shrunk. In the simplest terms, it is because our primary military adversary during the Cold War imploded economically, and we no longer fear a full-scale war with a heavily armed nation-state adversary. That fact has allowed the United States to trim military budgets, and begin to restructure toward a leaner, more streamlined military, in line with the threats that face us today. Has that process been perfect? No. Are we where we need to be? Probably not. Do we need to rebuild our “decimated” military (Mr. Trump’s words)? No.
There are real issues, though. America has overtaxed our military members through multiple overseas combat deployments. We are exhausting our soldiers, airmen, Marines, and sailors. Our military faces challenges in procurement and hardware replacement, including overpriced, over-budget, and behind-schedule weapons systems and platforms. We clearly have issues with how we treat our wounded veterans.
All of these things should be addressed, without a doubt. Does anyone really think, though, that we need, and can pay for, a massive military build-up, and a return to Cold War force and spending levels? Will this be done through increased taxes? How else will we pay for it? Is it strategically necessary at this time?
This author fully supports maintaining American military primacy relative to the rest of the world. That is imperative for the preservation of American power. That primacy, though, is, and should always be, relative to the forces against which we are arrayed, and with an eye to preventing Russia, China, or another potential strategic adversary from overtaking us. There is no need to race far out ahead if it means bankrupting a fragile American economy in the process.
Yes, we should revamp procurement procedures and eliminate financial waste. Yes, we should ease the burden on deployed troops by increasing the numbers of combat forces and scaling back the length of deployments. Yes, we need a lean, agile, and superior military. But no, we do not need a senseless build-up, nor a giant, bloated war machine.
Stopping radical Islam and destroying ISIS
Mr. Trump calls for halting the spread of radical Islam. I agree. In fact, I spent years of my life engaged in that struggle. He will do this through working with Middle Eastern allies, and through the use of force, where necessary. He specifically names ISIS as an enemy that he will destroy, though he does not mention how he will do that. Fine, maybe later. Mr. Trump also fails most of the time to address al-Qaeda, with which we have been at war for decades, and which remains strong and continuously targeted against America. That should change.
While in principle Mr. Trump’s goal of destroying ISIS is a good one, the U.S. must not lose sight of the need to continue to target al-Qaeda. That war should go on. We needn’t commit large-scale ground troops to defeating either group. Al-Qaeda and ISIS will not be destroyed through the use of conventional military engagements on the field of battle. They must be targeted through intelligence and special operations forces, in league with allies on the ground, in a campaign more robust than is currently being waged against ISIS in Syria, but along the same lines.
President George W. Bush did this fairly effectively against al-Qaeda in Pakistan, though President Obama was more aggressive. Obama thus more effectively degraded the group over the last eight years, though he built on the infrastructure adroitly set up under the Bush administration. Conversely, President Obama has been slower and more hesitant to engage with the same ferocity against ISIS. No matter who is president, this should change. Both groups should be targeted and destroyed.
Mr. Trump appears to be on the right track with his goal of battling radical Islam, though the immigration aspect of his policy is not helpful. Stopping immigrant flows to America will never make America great. We need immigration to keep America populous and vibrant, as we always have. Yes, we should enforce existing laws and be stringent in screening incoming immigrants, but never should we allow fear to prevent the citizens of the world from pursuing the American dream, and thus making America a magnet for the world’s most gifted and sought-after minds.
Immigration is good for America. There should never be a religious litmus test to come here, either. If there were, I can guarantee you that my Irish Catholic ancestors would never have been allowed in the country back in the 19th century. We can all agree that that would have been very sad!
Resistance to “creating” Western democracies
Despite calling for the promotion of Western values throughout the world, Mr. Trump calls for a halt to creating Western democracies around the globe. With this, I can agree. We should support democracies whenever and wherever we can, be they Western or not (India is a prime example), but we should avoid trying to create them from whole cloth (Afghanistan and Iraq being prime examples). This author is a realist, and if it is in our interests to support non-democratic allies, at times, then so be it. It may also be in our interests, at times, to help foster and develop a democracy, but that should not supersede the importance of the geostrategic stability of a particular region.
Skepticism of alliances
Mr. Trump has made statements about the obsolescence of NATO, and has openly questioned its usefulness. With this I wholeheartedly disagree. I again draw on realism in coming to this conclusion. America’s alliances are good for America. They provide strategic value, comparative advantage, and provide us with platforms from which we can project power around the globe. They provide strategic basing throughout the world, and they allow for American influence to be wielded everywhere. They cannot be thrown away willy nilly, nor should we want to do so.
Yes, America can ask our partners to do more—and we do. We can ask them to contribute more financially, and in troop levels in various theaters around the world—and we do. They do not always comply, given the realities of their own internal politics. They do, however, contribute when, where, and how they can. We should not disparage them publicly as Mr. Trump has done with NATO. We need them. They are a strategic force multiplier. We should never lose sight of that. Realism dictates alliances, and should proscribe us from ever trying to go it alone, if we can avoid it. Alliances are important and necessary.
America first in trade
It is hard to argue with someone when they push for “America first.” Do not be fooled into thinking, though, that any American president would ever fail to put what they see as American interests before all else. Each administration acts in a way that it sees as being best for America. You might not agree, but it does not mean that their intentions are not pure. When Mr. Trump calls for “America first” in trade, he is really advocating for protectionism, which he thinks will help American trade.
There was a time when almost all mainstream Republicans believed in unfettered free trade. It was a bedrock principle for many, though admittedly, there have always been detractors within the conservative world. Well, as of today, the latter are ascendant, and they speak through Mr. Trump. They say NAFTA is bad, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is bad, tariff-less trade is bad, American industry should be protected, and trade wars should be initiated against countries with surpluses vis-a-vis America. They also say that taxes should be levied against American companies that would dare to go global in their business operations.
This kind of thinking is dangerous for world order, threatens to dismantle the global pax-Americana, and will not provide for the long-term prosperity of Americans. We cannot protect our way to a healthy economy, and trade protectionism can, and has, led to many expensive wars. I am no economist, though, so I will let The Economist make the case for free trade on my behalf.
Isolationist foreign policy
In the same vein as calling for trade protectionism, Mr. Trump also advocates to some degree for isolationism in his foreign policy, though not completely. He would intervene in the world “where necessary,” but he has also called for leaving Syria to the Russians, for example, and backing away from many global conflicts in which he does not think America should meddle. Mr. Trump decries the “false song of globalism,” which is another way of advocating for a form of isolationism.
If the United States wants to remain the world’s preeminent superpower, wants to preserve the world order it has so tirelessly worked to create following World War II, and wants to avoid being sucked into global conflicts it has failed to prevent through diplomatic engagement, then it simply cannot pull away from the rest of the world. Other states will fill the vacuum America leaves, and those states will almost assuredly threaten American interests through their actions. The only way to preserve a world order beneficial to America is to engage with the world, albeit in a smart, realistic, interest-driven way. Isolationism never works for us.
Relations with China and Russia
Finally, Mr. Trump appears to call for warmer relations with Russia, and claims to want to work with China where we can. These are worthwhile goals, in principle, up to a point. However, what Mr Trump fails to address is whether those states want to work with us in a constructive way. When it comes to Putin’s Russia, the answer is that they probably do not.
It behooves President Putin to frame America and the West as adversaries, and he acts accordingly. Is it worth giving in to Putin on Ukraine and stopping NATO expansion merely to appease the Russians? Is it worth handing Syria over to them so that Mr. Putin is satiated? No, it is not. It is not in America’s interests, and not worth the consequences simply to maintain warm relations with Russia. Russia is a strategic competitor. Mr. Trump should not forget it. He will not charm his way into Putin’s good graces, nor should he try.
With regards to China, it is in American interests to maintain peaceful relations, and thus preserve Asian stability. How do we do that, though, while threatening economic warfare with the Chinese, as Mr. Trump often does? Does he think the Chinese will react passively to the imposition of tariffs and trade barriers? At a minimum, a destructive and expensive trade war might erupt. The greater danger is that almost certain economic warfare will lead to military warfare in east Asia. Simply put, Mr. Trump appears as though he will be far too accommodating to the Russians, and far too confrontational with the Chinese.
Then again, maybe he won’t.
What is it, really?
This is the fundamental problem with Mr. Trump’s foreign policy. It is too hard to divine exactly what he will do. One moment he trumpets isolationism, while the next, he promotes active engagement with the world. One minute, he wants to work with allies, while the next, he proposes throwing them aside, calling alliances obsolete if they fail to meet what he sees as acceptable levels of commitment.
In sum, Mr. Trump’s foreign and military policies are far too incoherent to adequately provide for the security of the United States, especially in the challenging and often unpredictable global environment in which we currently find ourselves. We can do better as a nation, and for the sake of American interests, we must.
Photo courtesy of Mark Humphrey/AP