Since the election, commentators have repeatedly voiced concern over the uncertainty of a Donald J. Trump administration’s foreign policy direction. This is true despite the fact that Trump focused on foreign policy issues during the campaign more than most presidential candidates. Even his proposed solutions to domestic problems—such as spurring economic growth by opposing foreign trade treaties and limiting immigration—have strong foreign policy implications.
Why, then, is there so much confusion about his intentions? I can suggest a couple of reasons.
The first problem is that Trump’s statements are not reliable. It is important to note that most politicians running for office try to be consistent in their statements and, once elected, try to fulfill their promises (although they may not always succeed in doing so or may be forced to make compromises). I know that is not the common wisdom, but it is generally true.
Also, most presidential candidates are closely tied to their party, share their party’s basic outlook and policy agendas, and will be encouraged and supported by their staffers and their party colleagues in Congress. This tends to bolster consistency.
Trump, however—as he and his supporters regularly boast—is not a politician, and he does not think like a politician. Part of not being a politician is that, instead of fretting about what the voters will say next election if he doesn’t pursue his stated agenda, he may very well believe the common wisdom that campaign promises are meaningless.
Indeed, in the days following the election he appeared to change his position suddenly on a number of seemingly essential campaign promises (although, to be sure, the new statements have often been vague and conditioned and may be just as easily dropped the next time he addresses a different audience).
He has little concern for consistency. NBC News has listed 141 positions that Trump took on 23 issues in the course of the campaign. His statements do not conform to any conventional ideological schema. As one political analyst put it:
“We probably know less about what the Trump administration will be like than any incoming administration in modern American history. Trump could end up being one of the most moderate presidents in a generation, or he could be one of the most extreme. He might be both.”
Moreover, members of his campaign staff have advised foreign dignitaries not to take everything he says about their countries, or about his intended policies toward their countries, literally. Overall, one cannot assume that he is strongly committed to anything he has said.
His supporters may not care—as The Atlantic’s Salena Zito quipped, “. . . the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
The people in Trump’s entourage have taken that perspective and run with it. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager (who, somehow, continued to receive $20,000 a month from the campaign after allegedly being fired and becoming a paid commentator on CNN) castigated the press for believing what Trump had said during the campaign.
“You guys took everything Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes—when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar—you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”
Leaving aside the question of whether comments made around the dinner table or at a bar constitute an accetable standard of truth for a presidential campaign, this leaves it up to all commentators, all citizens, all foreign observers to decide for themselves what Trump really meant. To suggest that they will all come to the same conclusion because that conclusion is so obvious is ridiculous.
Regarding his ties to his party, Trump regularly took stances opposed to standard Republican positions and occasionally denounced the party as dishonest and corrupt. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., drew up his own legislative agenda as an alternative to Trump’s proposals, and despite his denunciations of the party, Trump has suggested that he may defer to Ryan on legislative matters. So, at least with regard to legislation, there may be a basis for predictability—based on Ryan’s positions rather than Trump’s.
Nevertheless, Trump, as president, will have the power to intervene on issues as the mood strikes him, and Ryan will have to deal with the relatively small but intimidating Freedom Caucus within his own party conference, which introduces whole new vectors of unpredictability. Beyond that, foreign policy is not like legislation; the president often has a freer hand to act without regard for the wishes of Congress.
Finally, we have to remember that Trump simply lies a lot. For some reason, many voters came to view him as more honest than Hillary Clinton, but in the hundreds of statements that it reviewed, Politifact found that Trump made more than three times as many “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire” statements as Clinton. He regularly makes false statements of fact, such as the notion that “the murder rate in the United States is the highest it’s been in 45 years” (although there was an uptick in 2015, 2014 had the lowest rate in 54 years and 2015 was still among the lowest) or the notion that Trump won “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history” (of the 54 presidential elections using the current Electoral College system, i.e., since 1804, his outcome ranked 44th, in the bottom fifth).
A reputation for lying will not benefit him in the conduct of foreign policy. Whether you hope to deter aggression through threats or solicit cooperation through promises, your efforts will be hindered if no one believes you mean what you say.
While Trump has exhibited considerable flexibility on policy details, however, he has shown greater consistency in a few underlying aspects of his worldview. For instance, his view of politics is highly personalized, highlighting the role of individuals. He sees dependence as weakness. His view of international relations is extremely transactional, suggesting that nothing should be done unless it generates a profit in real terms.
The abhorrence of dependence and the transactional view of politics promote a preference for isolationism. Based on this, he is skeptical of the value of alliance commitments. He is highly skeptical of the value of free trade.
Finally, he admires authoritarian leaders, not because we need them as allies in particular situations (a common justification for supporting authoritarian regimes in the past), but precisely because of their authoritarian characteristics. These perspectives have appeared consistently in Trump’s statements not only throughout the campaign but over the course of decades. While consistent, however, this worldview does not necessarily lead to a sensible foreign policy.
First, although it should not be necessary to point it out, I must say that the notion that it is vital to say the words “radical Islamic terrorism” is such utter nonsense that it barely deserves the minimal effort required to refute it. Even the people who repeat this assertion have not come up with a reason why it matters, nor have they even tried. It is simply something to say when you have nothing of substance to offer.
Moreover, it is practically designed to offend Muslim allies (the ones who do the actual fighting on the ground in the Middle East, including ones whom some might consider radical) and the millions of Muslims who may be sitting on the fence. In any event, “moderate” and “radical” are our terms, not theirs, and the notion that we can decide who is a moderate Muslim and that moderate Muslims will not be offended by all this is simply wrong. The suggestion that the terrorists represent Islam offends them. Constantly repeating this assertion amounts to doing the terrorists a favor.
Now, let’s examine just one of the positions rooted in Trump’s consistent worldview. In an interview with the New York Times in July 2016, Trump discussed his position on NATO. He stressed that he did not want to say whether he would come to the assistance of NATO members under attack, regardless of treaty obligations, because he saw it as better to keep the Russians guessing about his intentions.
He also complained: “Many NATO members are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.” He then suggested that the United States should come to their assistance only if “they fulfill their obligations to us.”
There are problems with this on many levels. It is true that the issue of burden-sharing has been argued and debated within NATO for as long as NATO has existed. The current standard is that each NATO member should contribute 2 percent of its GDP to its own defense budget, and nearly all—not all, but nearly all—fall short of the mark.
The burden-sharing issue is rooted in the common problem of collective goods: The smaller countries in a deterrent, or collective-defense, alliance often invest suboptimal amounts in their own defense if they believe that a large ally is going to defend them anyhow. They will often argue that they have other fiscal obligations, cannot afford large military outlays, and could not contribute enough to have a meaningful impact on the collective defense in any event. This has given rise to years of debate, negotiation, and deal-making within NATO and other U.S. alliances.
Trump seems to be addressing this issue, and many analysts view his statements from this perspective. Yet, while it is often difficult to ascertain what Trump is thinking from what he says, that does not appear to be what he means here. In this and related statements, he seems to expect allies to make cash payments to the U.S. Treasury in return for our defending them. If they don’t make those payments, we will not be there for them.
This questioning of commitments undermines the very purpose of a deterrent alliance. (Without any evident recognition of the irony, in a speech in April, right after making this argument—“The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice.”—he then went on to complain that under Obama, “our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us.”)
Elsewhere he has spoken more specifically of how much the United States spends on bases overseas to defend allies and has suggested that we should bring those troops back home to save money.
Yet even as a narrow fiscal calculation, this argument does not make sense. He is not talking about demobilizing those troops; he intends to expand the military, so they would have to be stationed here in the United States. According to a 2013 RAND report, it does cost $10,000 to $40,000 extra per person per year to station troops abroad, but the host countries cover most of it.
Regardless of what Trump suggests, countries like Germany, Japan, and South Korea (the countries where most U.S. overseas bases are located) actually do spend considerable amounts to defray the costs of the U.S. military presence, albeit in the form of free land, tax and fee waivers, or in-kind payments of services, supplies, and facilities, not direct payments to the Treasury. Last April, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, all things considered, it is actually cheaper to keep our troops in Korea than to bring them home.
Yet all of this still misses the main point. There is a reason for stationing troops overseas—even if it were to cost more. The purpose is to show a commitment to the common defense; the purpose is deterrence. A single U.S. battalion stationed in, say, Poland or a Baltic state, cannot defeat a Russian invasion directly, but it can convince the Russians that an attack on that state automatically means a larger war with the United States—something best avoided.
The United States benefits from the maintenance of peace and stability. It costs far less not to fight a war because it never happened then to let it happen and then get dragged into it. (See World Wars, I and II.) If Putin were to consider Trump’s frequent praises of him, put them together with Trump’s questioning of the U.S. commitment to NATO, and then conclude—mistakenly—that he could intervene with impunity in the Baltic states, you could very well end up with World War III.
As a businessman, Trump is accustomed to negotiating about dollars, maximizing revenues and minimizing expenditures, but national security, and politics more generally, is a different kind of beast. The goal is rarely in the form of dollars or anything else that can be quantified and calculated in the same way. Nor can success be measured easily or precisely when success means the absence of action (e.g., not being invaded).
Deterrence, stability, peace—these are valuable goals, but they are achieved through perceptions and other amorphous psychological processes as much as through hardware; and the key perceptions, being the perceptions of the other side, cannot be precisely manipulated. Trump may think he is being clever and improving his bargaining leverage by keeping his commitments vague and fostering an image of unpredictability, but such tactics can easily backfire.
Remember, in 1950 Kim Il Sung had been pestering Stalin for a year to let him invade South Korea, claiming both that he had prepared uprisings in the south and that his military could seize the entire peninsula before anyone had time to react. Stalin put him off repeatedly—until a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops and a speech by Secretary of State Dean Acheson put into doubt our commitment to the south’s defense.* The result was the Korean War. Would something similar happen in the Baltics today? We should make an effort to assure that we never find out, and Trump’s approach is not the best way to go about it.
So, in conclusion, it is worth repeating: It is difficult to know what Trump will actually do as president. On the one hand, it seems that he doesn’t really mean many of the things he says. On the other hand, the underlying beliefs of his worldview have such dangerous implications that they might never get through the foreign-policy bureaucracy. At least, that’s what I like to tell myself.
*Other factors were the failure of the United States to intervene in the civil war in China, which was generally considered more significant than Korea, and the Soviet testing of its first atomic bomb.