Donald Trump presents his worldview as fresh and new. He promises to shake up the U.S. foreign policy elite that Hillary Clinton represents. He heaps scorn on the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, its failures to engage Russia and North Korea, its woeful neglect of the U.S. military. He wants U.S. allies to pull their own weight.
Trump intends to put “America first” as part of “making America great again.” Spend those war dollars at home, he urges.
It’s a compelling message for many Americans who are buried in debt and working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Trump’s rhetoric on foreign policy has also managed to persuade some who are weary of war: Critics of the Clinton-Obama brand of realism like Patrick Buchanan have gone so far as to suggest that Trump is the “peace candidate” in the 2016 elections.
But Donald Trump is not the peace candidate. True, he is no liberal hawk like Hillary Clinton. Rather, he is an illiberal hawk. He is far more committed to war than any conventional Democrat or Republican.
For instance, when it comes to military intervention, Trump is far from the isolationist that some of his Republican critics have charged him to be. Contrary to his claims, he supported the Iraq War in 2003. Today, he not only embraces the U.S. intervention in Syria but would escalate the air war against the Islamic State group and send 20,000-30,000 American ground troops there. He is in favor of continued U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. He would expand the U.S. drone program overseas and has backed the Obama administration’s recent strikes in Libya.
Indeed, Trump has pledged to use the military “if there’s a problem going on in the world and you can solve the problem.” One of those problems, apparently, is U.S. access to oil. Trump has promoted the idea of the U.S. military seizing the oil fields in Iraq and Libya and bringing in U.S. corporations to run them.
The only exception to Trump’s embrace of full-spectrum dominance is Russia. In Vladimir Putin, Trump sees a friend to oligarchs the world over, and Trump is nothing if not an oligarch. His business empire has benefited from Russian investments, and his campaign manager Paul Manafort was a top adviser to Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Trump wants to sit down and negotiate with Putin, which in itself is not a bad idea. But if his past record is any indicator, Trump will focus more on lucrative business deals than a fair and peaceful settlement of Cold War tensions in Central Europe.
Some liberals oppose all military intervention except those for humanitarian reasons. In other words, they make a liberal exception. Trump supports all military interventions except when they challenge his authoritarian friends and conflict with his business interests – an illiberal exception.
Much has been made of Trump’s reluctance to affirm U.S. obligations as a NATO member to come to the defense of a fellow member if attacked. As with Japan or Saudi Arabia, Trump believes that U.S. allies should pay for their own defense. As damaging to Trump’s reputation in foreign policy circles in Washington has been his refusal to rule out the use of nuclear weapons – against China, in Europe, or to defeat the Islamic State group.
Central to understanding Trump’s positions on alliances and nuclear weapons is his belief that predictability plays into the hands of opponents. Trump treats foreign policy like a poker game – he wants to keep allies and adversaries alike guessing. In this way, he hopes to prod U.S. allies into spending more on their own defense and scare U.S. adversaries into coming to the negotiating table.
In theory or in a poker game, this strategy is appealing. In geopolitics, however, unpredictability can quickly lead to unanticipated consequences, like the abrogation of alliances, an escalation of conflict or even war.
Moreover, despite his promise to spend war dollars at home rebuilding America, Trump is just as committed to Pentagon spending as the next presidential candidate. “Our military has been so badly depleted,” he told columnist Cal Thomas. “Who would think the United States is raiding plane graveyards to pick up parts and equipment? That means they’re being held together by a shoestring. Other countries have brand-new stuff they have bought from us.”
It’s obviously news to Trump that the United States spends more on the military than the next seven global big spenders (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, Japan) combined.
Nevertheless, Trump has promised to increase general military spending, boost funding to go after the Islamic State, implement major tax cuts, and balance the budget. But then, he never said that he was a math whiz.
The appeal of an anti-militarism platform is clear. U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan is in its 15th year. The fight against terrorist organizations like the Islamic State group and al-Qaida keeps spreading to more and more countries, and the United States sent special operations forces to nearly 150 countries last year. The metastasis of Pentagon spending shows no sign of abating.
Hillary Clinton has built a reputation as a hawkish Democrat, particularly during her term as secretary of state. She has shown no signs of bucking this military status quo.
Yet Donald Trump presents himself as an alternative to Clinton’s conventional thinking. Those in the anti-militarism camp who have embraced Trump as their own have been sorely mistaken. When it comes to foreign policy, he’s nothing but a militarist in maverick’s clothing.
U.S. News and World Report, August 9, 2016