Aaron Miller: Donald Trump's recent responses on key foreign policy questions mostly wrong
But Trump's fellow Republican candidates have also offered unrealistic proposals, he says
Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
There was a time not so long ago when I would argue that all you really need to “do” foreign policy is an atlas, common sense and pretty good judgment. Back then, I was railing against the foreign policy establishment (of which, I suppose, I’m considered a member) who didn’t think Caroline Kennedy could handle the job of U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Having listened to Donald Trump in interviews and town hall appearances, though, I’m beginning to rethink this a little.
To be fair, in comparison with some of the other worldly rhetoric of the other candidates – Ted “I’m going to rip up the Iran agreement” Cruz or John “I’m going to create a Sunni army of Arab states” Kasich – Trump’s been pretty realistic on issues such as Iraq and risk-ready foreign interventions.
And he’s raised some very good questions about whether the United States can be the world’s policeman and why we allow Germany and Japan to outsource their security to the United States.
But while Trump’s suggestion that the United States is pursuing a foreign policy for suckers might resonate on the campaign trail, his answers on some very important core issues are mostly wrong.
Not only that, but his temperament is scary and his instincts seem to run in the direction of a dangerous and contradictory mix of poorly thought through isolationism and muscular nationalism – a combination that has never served U.S. interests, and which is even more dangerous in today’s world.
“NATO is unfair, economically to us, to the United Sates. Because it really helps them more so than the United States, and we pay a disproportionate share.”
That’s what Trump told The Washington Post editorial board on March 21. Like many issues foreign and domestic, Trump sees the alliance as a bad business deal that needs renegotiating or perhaps like a landlord whose tenant is living in a rent-controlled apartment but he still wants to break the lease.
Yet while it’s true that the context in which NATO was forged is changing, the alliance still serves American interests.
For example, the infrastructure we maintain facilitates U.S. military operations in the Middle East, including in Afghanistan and against ISIS. Plus, at a time when Europe is under great stress and is vulnerable to Vladimir Putin’s machinations, NATO represents a practical and symbolic U.S. commitment to a free Europe.
As for direct funding, the United States pays roughly 22% of the costs. Indirect funding does indeed reflect a much greater U.S. share, simply because we are and will always remain a global power projecting our military strength in a way the Europeans can’t and never will. But if Trump wants to renegotiate that principle, he should maybe get a new campaign slogan: “Make America Small Again.”
In his recent interview with The New York Times, Trump suggested, “not happily,” that he’d be willing to consider withdrawing U.S. forces from Japan and South Korea if they didn’t significantly increase their contributions to defraying the costs to the United States in deploying its troops. Once again, Trump treats the projection of U.S. power as a landlord-tenant relationship and seems to ignore the broader implications of alliance politics in areas of the world where America actually has not only vital interests, but adversaries willing to undermine them.
The United States has about 50,000 military personnel in Japan from all the services, and almost 30,000 in South Korea. And yes, the United States pays a higher proportion of the costs. But the benefits these many years of maintaining a power balance vis a vis China and North Korea, deterring aggression and preventing conflict – or even nuclear war – have not only been mainstays of Republican and Democratic administrations for decades but have been well worth the investment considering the alternatives.
But perhaps most unsettling has been Trump’s recent comments about using – and letting others develop – nuclear weapons.
While Trump pretends to care deeply about the dangers of nukes, he talks recklessly not only about the United States using them in Europe (“I’m not going to take it off the table”) but allowing others (Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia) to develop them.
Trump’s logic on the proliferation question wanders all over the parking lot, from it’s better if these powers have nuclear weapons to defend themselves (Japan against North Korea) to they’re going to get them anyway (Saudi Arabia).
In his truly frightening interview with Anderson Cooper at the recent GOP town hall in Wisconsin, Trump flitted back and forth between thinking proliferation is a good idea, to using it as a kind of leverage – either they are allowed to defend themselves or pay us to do so.
Indeed, Trump seemed to seriously flirt with the idea that the world might be more stable and safer with more nukes, not less. Such a position would contravene decades of U.S. anti-proliferation efforts and raises troubling questions about how Trump might actually behave as keeper of the “nuclear football,” the most lethal power a U.S. president possesses.
Of course, campaigning isn’t governing. And it also should be noted that Trump has been competing with a number of other Republican candidates who have also made unrealistic and unrealizable foreign policy promises, vows likely to quickly be broken on the rocks of reality if they took office.
So in the unlikely event that there would be a Trump presidency, much of what he’s saying now on foreign policy would probably never come to pass. Or perhaps the soberer and more grounded side of Donald Trump would prevail.
Still, do we really want to risk electing a president who is ill-advised, ill-prepared and ill-tempered when it comes to leading this country’s foreign policy? The last thing America needs in the cruel and unforgiving world in which it operates is a guy who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know – and seems in no hurry to find out.