At a recent campaign rally, Donald Trump defended former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s record on terrorism, noting that Hussein was a “bad guy” who was nevertheless very efficient at “killing terrorists.” House Speaker Paul Ryan immediately distanced himself from Trump’s remarks, and leading Republican donors jumped in with criticism as well.
Throughout his campaign, Trump has repeatedly angered Washington’s Republican foreign policy establishment with his views on America’s role in the world. Although Trump did not repeat these views during his nomination speech on Thursday, in an interview Wednesday he suggested he might revisit the United States’ willingness to defend its NATO allies - drawing an immediate rebuke from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.
Some of Trump’s foreign policy ideas are downright dangerous. Two of his ideas, for instance - forcing Mexico to pay for a new border wall and banning Muslims from entering the United States - alienate much of the world and neither reflect American values nor promote American interests. His apparent enthusiasm for increasing the United States’ use of torture is downright chilling.
Nevertheless, amid Trump’s showboating and frequently stream of consciousness thoughts, he raises some critical questions that challenge the longtime Washington foreign policy consensus but deserve to be taken seriously.
First, Trump frequently asserts the United States cannot continue to be the “world’s policeman,” thus challenging the belief held by both Democrats and Republicans that the United States remains the world’s “indispensable nation.” U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya support Trump’s case. Washington’s Iraq adventure produced 40,000 American military casualties, over 150,000 dead Iraqi civilians and the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq and ultimately Islamic State. Meanwhile American military support for the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi left the country with an ongoing civil war and the emergence of a powerful Islamic State franchise on the Mediterranean.
Trump also rightly emphasizes the financial costs of American military interventions, pointing out during a Republican primary debate that “we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people” and “if we spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges…we would’ve been a lot better off.” He’s right on both counts. A Harvard study actually pegged the combined costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at between $4 trillion and $6 trillion - almost the same amount of money required over the next ten years just to keep America’s already crumbling infrastructure from deteriorating further.
In these contexts, Trump’s assertion that if the United States had done nothing in the Middle East since 2001 “we would have been much better” has a degree of truth.
Trump also asks some hard questions regarding the United States’ network of global alliances. At various points during his campaign Trump has suggested he would renegotiate Washington’s alliance with Japan and halt purchases of oil from Saudi Arabia. He called NATO “obsolete” - even suggesting “maybe NATO will dissolve, and that’s okay.” While these positions make many in the mainstream foreign policy establishment apoplectic, Trump raises some legitimate points.
For example, when it comes to NATO, only five countries in the alliance meet the NATO guidelines that each member spend a minimum of two percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, but only five countries - including the United States - meet this requirement. The alliance with Japan is even more unequal. Tokyo spends only one percent of GDP on defense, and as Trump points out, Washington remains required to protect Japan in the event of a conflict, while Japan does not possess any reciprocal requirements.
This means it’s not beyond the realm of possibility, for example, that the United States could find itself dragged into a war with China if Beijing and Tokyo clash over the uninhabited Senkaku islands - a pile of rocks possessing no strategic interest to the United States.
Lastly, Trump’s willingness to meet with with the leaders of American adversaries such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin should not be dismissed out of hand. As odious as the North Korean regime may be, the reality is that Pyongyang possesses a growing nuclear arsenal, and even the Pentagon admits “North Korea is committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States.”
While Kim appears unwilling to eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear program, it’s arguably in the American national interest to at least sit down with Kim to determine if a deal between Washington and Pyongyang could even be possible. Given that no other policy that Washington has pursued towards North Korea in the last 15 years has worked, no harm can come of trying something different.
The argument for engaging with Russia is even stronger. While demonizing Putin makes for good rhetoric, U.S. and Russian interests overlap in some places. Cooperation to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism and proliferation represents one fruitful area for further cooperation. Containing the violence in Syria is another example where coordinating with Moscow might be useful.
Indeed, since Washington first began working with Syrian rebels in 2012, its proxies have at various times allied with al Qaeda’s Syrian branch; fought each other; turned American-supplied weapons over to al Qaeda; and according to a recently released Amnesty International report committed war crimes, targeted ethnic and religious minorities and imposed Sharia law in cities they control. In this context, Trump’s belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move into Syria and desire to fight Islamic State is a “wonderful thing” makes some sense.
What Trump ultimately offers is an American foreign policy more focused on narrow American national interests than previously pursued by the United States. This does not mean Trump’s views necessarily reflect the best course for the United States - strong arguments in favor of American alliances and the importance of Washington’s continuing role as the world’s “indispensable nation” exist - but at a minimum it’s worth debating the pluses and minuses of the traditional “Washington Playbook” approach to foreign policy.
Unfortunately however, while some of Trump’s viewpoints help promote needed debate, many of his other foreign policy ideas are incoherent or even alarming. Moreover, while Trump sometimes espouses a narrower world role for the United States, at other times he completely contradicts this realpolitik approach. For example, Trump promises if elected his “number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran” while also deploying 30,000 American troops to Syria to fight Islamic State. These policies make Trump sound more like a traditional neo-conservative Republican than an original thinker.
When all is said and done, though, Trump does bring some refreshing new foreign policy ideas to the fore - and whatever Trump’s merits as a candidate, these proposals deserve our serious consideration.
Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union.