On Wednesday, Donald Trump gave a long awaited speech on foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest (CFTNI) in Washington, D.C., laying out what he characterized as “a new foreign policy direction.” While the foreign policy views of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s front runner, are well known–she is a firm believer in the continuation and spread of the American-led, liberal international order–Trump’s speech was a long awaited articulation of his views.
While Trump’s foreign policy views are not as fully developed as Clinton’s–or any of the other remaining candidates from both parties–they deserve close examination, as he is the front-runner of the Republican Party. They certainly do not merit the mockery and accusations of incoherence that they are being subjected to.
I do not endorse Trump or support his views as pertaining to a host of domestic and civil society issues. It is unfortunate that good ideas are being articulated in a haphazard manner by someone as polarizing as Trump. Yet Trump’s foreign policy ideas are important and need to be taken seriously because they inject a much needed dose of realism back into the U.S. foreign policy debate, which is too often influenced by neoconservatives on the right and liberal internationalists on the left, who in practice share similar approaches. As Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest, which is published by CFTNI, pointed out, Trump:
is having a salutary effect in forcing open a long-overdue debate in the GOP over foreign policy. Magazines like mine have long urged the GOP to confront its tawdry history in Iraq and to take a second look at the foreign policy approach espoused by the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. Trump is a far more blunt instrument, but the appeal of someone who can rip away the moth-eaten drapery that has occluded the GOP from accepting basic realities about American foreign policy seems obvious.
It is Trump’s explicit goal to replace “ideology with strategy,” and end a U.S. foreign policy program that since the Cold War truly has veered off course, as old notions of the balance of power and national interest were discarded in an attempt to remake the world. This leads to both a waste of resources and a lack of clarity in understanding the goals of U.S. foreign policy. Most importantly, Trump realizes the mistakes of nation building and overextended alliances. While figures like Senator Lindsey Graham believe this demonstrates Trump’s lack of understanding of “the role America plays in the world,” I believe that at the instinctual level, it actually shows greater common sense from Trump than most of his party. Trump gets that the United States’ role in the world is now “democracy promotion, multilateralism, [and] security guarantees,” and wants to change this.
Contrary to the now-habitual belief of many in Washington, it is not necessary for the United States to “proactively shape the world” in order for it to achieve the global conditions needed for it to prosper or for the global commons to be kept open for all nations. In fact, attempting to shoehorn a U.S.-led order throughout the world is both counterproductive and impossible. As my co-author and I pointed out earlier this month, it is possible to maintain a global order favorable to the United States in a much less intrusive manner, as the British Empire was able to for a century, merely by patrolling the seas and controlling important chokepoints, and preserving the balance of power, all while leading by example. After all, despite not changing its political structure, China opened its economy and its people can mostly live their daily lives as they please, leading to increased global growth.
In Asia, the implications of Trump’s foreign policy would be an end to the current conception of the “Asia Pivot” as it stands, as Trump would draw back from commitments to allies. I have previously argued that the Asia Pivot should be limited, both for the sake of the United States, economically and strategically, and the region. Without a pivot, China would feel less boxed in and reactive. At the same time, a better balance of power in the region would come into being as countries like Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia step up their capabilities, leading to a firmer armed peace. There is no doubt that an advanced economy such as Japan could shoulder its defense burdens eventually if it so chose, and a strong Japan or a strong Indonesia fiercely defending their own turfs would certainly give pause to China or any other potentially aggressive power.
A country such as India, which is not dependent on the United States for its security, is already in a much better position for making its own regional security decisions. Moreover, without a carte blanche from the United States, countries in Asia would be more inclined to resolve festering disputes, rather than operating on the assumption that every inch of territory should be considered inviolable under the notion of the integrity of national sovereignty
While not fleshed out well, many of Trump’s views, if implemented through experienced advisors, could lead to some welcome changes in the world order and benefit U.S. foreign policy. At the very least, he has started a welcome debate at the highest levels of U.S. politics. Perhaps 19th century notions of balance of power and less intrusiveness in the internal arrangements of other countries are a better way to go than present attempts at liberal internationalism.