Trump: Better the Devil You Don’t Know?
We know that President Hillary would adopt such a confrontational approach around the world. In the case of Donald Trump his instincts appear to favour a more realistic American role.
Donald Trump is an outsider. He has never held an elected or appointed public office. He has no military background. There is nothing to suggest that he has formally studied politics or has campaigned actively for anyone else (with perhaps one notable exception).
Unlike Hillary Clinton whose record as a warmonger and interventionist we can examine alongside her public statements with Donald Trump we have only his statements to try to discern what foreign policy a Trump presidency might pursue. Even with this there are difficulties as in some cases his statements are either inconsistent, contradictory or both!
Let’s look at what a Trump presidency might mean for Europe and the rest of the World to see if he represents the lesser of two evils.
China and Asia
Trump sees China as a major rival to the US. He believes that China manipulates its currency to gain economic advantage and competes unfairly with US companies by dumping exports. Trump has criticised other politicians for failing to discuss issues of trade with China asking:
“When was the last time you heard ‘China’s killing us?’ They’re devaluing their currency to a level that you wouldn’t believe it makes it impossible for our companies to compete. Impossible.”
He advocates both economic and military pressure to force negotiations on these topics. Trump has said he would impose tariffs on Chinese goods; designate them a currency manipulator; crack down on alleged theft of US intellectual property and expose unfair export subsidies.
Trump has suggested withdrawing troops from South Korea and Japan if they don’t contribute more and allowing the two countries to develop their own nuclear weapons.
The long-standing status quo of a strong forward American military presence in Asia could change under a Trump administration.
“At some point we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea,” he argued, adding, “I would rather see Japan having some form of defence, and maybe even offense against North Korea, because we’re not pulling the trigger.” He added that South Korea should also begin contributing more to its own defence and brushed off concern about a nuclear-armed South Korea, suggesting that “it’s going to happen, anyway.”
A Trump Presidency would, probably, reduce US spending on shoring up the positions of long-term allies Japan and South Korea. Chinese hegemony in the region would likely increase with South Korea moving closer to them (because of fears of North Korea and nervousness toward a growing military capability in Japan). There are already calls for nuclear armament in South Korea and these would be fortified. The trend in Japan toward normalisation of the military would quicken. The financial position of the US against China would improve as a result of both military savings and a more aggressive trade stance.
Trump has said nothing about what US policy toward Ukraine would be. He has indicated that he feels European states should support Kiev: “With respect to Ukraine, people have to band together from other parts of Europe to help,” Trump said.
“I don’t like what’s happening with Ukraine. But that’s really a problem that affects Europe a lot more than it affects us. And they should be leading some of this charge,” Trump said in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd on the Aug. 16 episode of “Meet the Press.”
“I look at the Ukraine situation and I say, so Ukraine is a country that affects us far less than it affects other countries in NATO, and yet we are doing all of the lifting, they’re not doing anything. And I say, why is it that Germany is not dealing with NATO on Ukraine? Why is it that other countries that are in the vicinity of the Ukraine not dealing with — why are we always the one that’s leading, potentially the third world war, okay, with Russia? Why are we always the ones that are doing it?”
This is a consistent theme of the Trump campaign. “I’m all for protecting Ukraine–but, we have countries that are surrounding the Ukraine that aren’t doing anything. They say, “Keep going, keep going, you dummies, keep going. Protect us.” And we have to get smart. We can’t continue to be the policeman of the world.” (Source: Fox Business/WSJ First Tier debate, Nov 10, 2015)
Trump has sometimes appeared to favour US support for Ukraine more strongly but the consistent emphasis is on European countries taking greater responsibility. He has been lukewarm toward the idea of Ukraine joining NATO. This is consistent with his view that America has failed to win favourable deals with other NATO countries he sees as unwilling to pay their fair share.
It’s a question of course for European nations to decide whether or how far they wish to intervene to support Ukraine. Trump argues that it is in US interests to avoid such burdens and instead urges us to take them on. It may be that without the significant investment provided by the US appetite for this would be very limited. Increased military spending during a time of austerity is unlikely to be a vote winner. My own view is that increased support for Ukraine or allowing Ukraine to join NATO would increase prospects of conflict with Russia – a State with which European nations should be seeking the best relations with.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has spoken of the “unbreakable bond between Europe and North America, on which our Alliance is founded.” Listening to Donald Trump you might think that the bond was somewhat weaker. Trump has criticised NATO. He says that the alliance no longer serves its founding purpose and that it is too costly to the U.S. The US pays about 22 percent of direct spending by NATO, the most of any nation, so it’s not hard to see he has a point.
The concerns raised by Trump regarding NATO are similar to those he has expressed on US defence spending in Asia. Trump hasn’t said he wants the US to pull out of NATO (as Hilary Clinton has claimed).
“No, I don’t want to pull it out. NATO was set up at a different time. NATO was set up when we were a richer country. We’re not a rich country anymore. We’re borrowing, we’re borrowing all of this money. We’re borrowing money from China, which is sort of an amazing situation. But it was a much different thing. NATO is costing us a fortune and yes, we’re protecting Europe with NATO but we’re spending a lot of money. Number one, I think the distribution of costs has to be changed. I think NATO as a concept is good, but it is not as good as it was when it first evolved.”
Trump has not ruled out US withdrawal from NATO. He told Bloomberg politics:
“I think NATO may be obsolete. NATO was set up a long time ago — many, many years ago when things were different. Things are different now. We were a rich nation then. We had nothing but money. We had nothing but power. And you know, far more than we have today, in a true sense. And I think NATO — you have to really examine NATO. And it doesn’t really help us, it’s helping other countries. And I don’t think those other countries appreciate what we’re doing.”
This may of course be a negotiating position to encourage other nations to pay more into NATO. What seems likely is that a Trump presidency would either lead to a NATO with a greater European ethos and which would look very carefully at the financial consequences of political decisions and military strategy or no NATO at all. Under either of these outcomes confrontational approaches to Russia might change to a more nuanced approach accepting spheres of influence. Would that be bad for Europe? I don’t believe so. In fact the Hilary Clinton confrontational model is far more worrying than the limited US role envisioned by Trump.
Trump has used the slogan America First which is a throwback to the isolationist Republicans of the 20s and 30s. The Republicans abandoned this in 1941 to support war with Germany but in 1945 the first instinct was to bring US troops back home. In 1946 the Republicans won Congress but supported the Truman Doctrine of containment of Communism in 1947. The Truman doctrine was a response to the British acknowledgement that they did not have the resources to continue intervention in the Greek civil war where the Communist side was gaining ground. The US intervened heavily in the Italian elections in 1948 to ensure a Communist defeat. In France the US supported the anti-Communist parties. Republicans took up this anti-Communist crusade which led to a commitment to retain US troops in Europe. Trump can be seen as advocating a reversal of a bi-partisan policy starting in 1947 and returning to a more isolationist stance many years on from the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
Trump has not attempted to demonise President Putin as is fashionable with elements of the ‘Western’ establishment.
Instead he has said:
“I would talk to him. I would get along with him. I believe I would get along with a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with. I think I will get along with Putin, and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable world.” (Source: 2015 Republican two-tiered primary debate on CNN, Sep 16, 2015)
In an interesting aside Trump also questioned an anti-Russian stance in NATO:
“I’m certainly not a fan of us being against Russia. Why are we always at the forefront of everything?” (Source: Meet the Press 2015 interview, Chuck Todd and Donald Trump, Aug 17, 2015)
Sadly there is little difference between Trump and Clinton on policy toward Iran. Trump has called the multinational nuclear agreement with Iran a “terrible” deal that the Obama administration pursued out of “desperation,” and said it threatens the future of Israel. He opposes all aspects of the deal, including the lifting of international sanctions and the inspections regime, and promises to renegotiate it if he is elected president.
Trump sees Iranian regional influence as a problem:
“We will stand up to Iran’s aggressive push to destabilize and dominate the region.”
Yet nowhere does he explain why Iranian influence in the region should be a problem for the US or seen as negative or destabilising. Nor does he indicate why Turkish or Saudi influence would ultimately be more beneficial for US interests. Curiously he can list many reasons why Iran is a problem for the State of Israel. Perhaps we should not be too harsh on him for this, after all many US politicians seem to regard the interests of Israel and the US as identical.
Trump started well on Israel. He suggested that Israel would have to pay for US military aid itself (Israel gets $3.1 billion in annual military aid from the US). Outrageous! He talked of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in which the US would be neutral. It’s always refreshing to hear anything but unequivocal support expressed by a US politician for Israel. He suggested that the US would focus mainly on its own problems and leave much of the rest of the world to fend for itself.
His later talk at AIPAC’s policy conference was billed as a turning point.
Trump said there that as president Israel is the first country he would visit in the region. He declared that if Israel is attacked, he would come to its defence.
He endorsed Jewish settlements in the West Bank and would move the American embassy to Jerusalem which he described as “the eternal Capital of the Jewish people”.
Stating that he would stand behind Israel 100 percent, he proclaimed himself a “big fan” of Israel. Trump declared:
“When I become president, the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one.”
Cynical explanations concerning votes and campaign finances have been advanced for what has been depicted as a change of heart.
My view is that Trump has always supported Israel. He was a grand marshal for the Israel parade in 2004. In 2013 he endorsed Benjamin Netanyahu in a video message for his re-election campaign (the notable exception mentioned at the start of this article). He has received many awards from Zionist groups for his support of Israel. When he won one in 2015 from the Algemeiner, a Jewish news organization, he said, “We love Israel. We will fight for Israel 100 percent, 1,000 percent. It will be there forever.”
Seen in this context his more balanced statements regarding the Palestinian problem that were out of character. We also need to bear in mind that the comments he made were cast in a model of Trump personally negotiating a Middle East peace settlement and therefore needing to be balanced, or at least appear, balanced. Very little detail was given. Perhaps it should just be written off as an egotistical flight of fancy. Neither Hilary Clinton nor Donald Trump will lead to a more balanced policy toward Israel and Palestine – the lack of which has been a root cause of instability in the Middle East and hatred of the US for decades. Trump instinctively favours a more isolationist US foreign policy with the contradictory exceptions of policy toward Israel and, perhaps as a consequence of support for that country, Iran.
Trump has suggested that the United States let Russian forces destroy the self-declared Islamic State in Syria. In October 2015, he characterized Russian airstrikes in Syria as a “positive thing,” adding that Russia would likely suffer the same fate as the United States in the region. “We just get bogged down in the Middle East and Russia will get bogged down in the Middle East.”
Trump has also indicated that the emphasis on “regime change” which underlies the interventionist positions of Hilary Clinton is not key for him. Speaking on the “Morning Joe” show he advocated leaving Syrian President Bashar Assad alone and focusing military action on the so-called Islamic State. The host, Joe Scarborough, remarked it sounded as if Trump was taking a consistent line on foreign policy, clarifying: “You wouldn’t have gone into Libya. You wouldn’t have gone into Iraq. You wouldn’t go into Syria. You wouldn’t have fought Assad.”
“Right,” Trump agreed. “But I’ll go after ISIS big-league”.
Trump takes a commonsense view on ‘Strongmen’ in the Middle East and whether it was or is right to intervene to remove them:
“Q: You think the Middle East would be better today if Gaddafi, Saddam and Assad were stronger? That the Middle East would be safer?
TRUMP: It’s not even a contest. Iraq is a disaster. And ISIS came out of Iraq.
Q: Well, let me button this up. If Saddam and Gaddafi were still in power, you think things would be more stable?
TRUMP: Of course it would be. You wouldn’t have had your Benghazi situation, which is one thing, which was just a terrible situation.
Q: Would you pull out of what we’re doing in Syria now?
TRUMP: No, I’d sit back.”
(Source: Meet the Press 2015 interview moderated by Chuck Todd , Oct 4, 2015)
When Trump takes a non-interventionist position as he does in many areas he certainly rises in my esteem. Many also want to stay out of foreign conflicts. It is neither in the interests of America or the World that the US takes a hawkish, interventionist stance. Just look at where that has already led if you doubt that. We know that President Hillary would adopt such a confrontational approach around the world. In the case of Donald Trump his instincts appear to favour a more realistic American role. Trump, as a businessman, is looking askance at huge US military spending and questioning some of the underlying assumptions behind it. That could lead to some radical policy shifts. Sure there are inconsistencies such as his attitude toward Israel and Iran. Being joined at the hip with Israel leads to US involvement in the region and hostility toward Iran helps only Sunni extremists but generally it’s unlikely he would want to squander American wealth and lives on foreign adventures.
Set against that is his willingness to see greater numbers of nations acquire nuclear arms and the instability caused by shifts in long-term power relations.
Even with this caveat it may still be that the saying “Better the Devil you know to the Devil you don’t” should be reversed. Trump may well be the lesser of two evils.