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Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Revolution

The Republican frontrunner represents a shadow tradition that hasn't enjoyed this level of prominence in more than 80 years.

Ralph Freso/Getty Images

It’s easy to dismiss Donald Trump’s foreign policy as simple bluster, especially since he keeps shifting his stance on key issues when challenged by questioners. The idea that Trump is a lightweight when it comes to foreign policy was bolstered earlier this week, when he met The Washington Post’s editorial board and evaded tough questions about how to deal with ISIS by launching into irrelevant asides:

RYAN: You [MUFFLED] mentioned a few minutes earlier here that you would knock ISIS. You’ve mentioned it many times. You’ve also mentioned the risk of putting American troop[s] in a danger area. If you could substantially reduce the risk of harm to ground troops, would you use a battlefield nuclear weapon to take out ISIS?

TRUMP: I don’t want to use, I don’t want to start the process of nuclear. Remember the one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counterpuncher. Rubio hit me. Bush hit me. When I said low energy, he’s a low-energy individual, he hit me first. I spent, by the way he spent 18 million dollars’ worth of negative ads on me. That’s putting [MUFFLED]…

RYAN: This is about ISIS. You would not use a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS?


TRUMP: I’ll tell you one thing, this is a very good looking group of people here. Could I just go around so I know who the hell I’m talking to?

So, yes, Trump can’t answer specific questions about foreign policy with any degree of informed knowledge or consistency. But this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that he has a bold and consistent global vision. He may be weak on the details, but he is strikingly audacious in championing a shadow tradition that stands in opposition to the bi-partisan internationalism that has dominated American foreign policy since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. 

The tradition that Trump belongs to is often labelled isolationist—a pejorative description popularized by its internationalists critics. But the term unilateralist might be more accurate. Internationalists—which include all American presidents from Franklin Roosevelt onwards—believe that America has an obligation to be the bulwark of the global capitalist order, creating and supporting a system of alliances like NATO, keeping global trade routes open, and pushing for treaties that ensure the widest possible access to foreign markets (or “free trade”). Very occasionally American presidents will depart from this internationalist agenda, as Nixon did when he unilaterally withdrew American support for the Bretton Woods system of financial exchange in 1971, or as George W. Bush did when he went to war in Iraq in defiance of the United Nations. Still, despite these exceptions, American commitment to internationalism has been remarkably robust.

Donald Trump wants to change all that. As Thomas Wright, the director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at The Brookings Institution, argues

In sum, Trump believes that America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order it helped to create and has led since World War II. He has three key arguments that he returns to time and again over the past 30 years. He is deeply unhappy with America’s military alliances and feels the United States is overcommitted around the world. He feels that America is disadvantaged by the global economy. And he is sympathetic to authoritarian strongmen. Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.

Wright sees Trump’s unilateralism as following in the footsteps of the aviator Charles Lindbergh and midcentury Republican Senator Robert Taft, both of whom were fierce critics of the way Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman made the United States the cornerstone of internationalism. 

While it’s true that Trump’s “America First” agenda echoes Lindbergh and Taft, there is a much more immediate precursor whose unilateral foreign policy resembles Trump’s approach: Ross Perot. 

These days, Perot is best remembered for his third-party run in 1992 and 1996 (a course that Trump threatened to take this year, until he started winning) as well as his fierce opposition to the NAFTA trade agreement (a hostility Trump shares). But the similarities between Perot and Trump don’t end there.

What is generally forgotten today is that Perot’s opposition to free trade was part of a larger unilateralism. He thought that America’s major allies—notably Japan, South Korea, and the NATO countries—were free-riders taking advantage of American generosity. 

“We were spending $100 billion a year defending Europe, $100 billion a year defending Asia,” Perot told a newspaper interviewer in 1992. “Let’s assume that gets cut to $50 billion a year defending Europe, $50 billion a year defending Asia. Go to those two areas, and in a very nice, diplomatic way, explain to them the incredible economic and industrial advantage they have in not having to defend themselves. We’ve been paying that bill for 45 years, and we cannot continue to do that, and they are going to have to reimburse us if they want us to continue to do that.” 

In another interview that year, Perot was even open to the idea of dissolving NATO and other alliances. “Now, they might conclude that over a period of several years they would like to gear up and defend themselves,” Perot said. “Fine.” 

During his meeting with the editors of The Washington Post, Trump was asked whether he wanted to expand NATO. His response that America’s allies ought to pull their own weight was essentially a re-iteration of what Perot argued in the 1990s:

TRUMP: Look, I see NATO as a good thing to have—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? And I think the concept of NATO is good, but I do think the United States has to have some help. We are not helped. I’ll give you a better example than that. I mean, we pay billions—hundreds of billions of dollars to supporting other countries that are in theory wealthier than we are.

DIEHL: Hundreds of billions?

TRUMP: Billions. Well if you look at Germany, if you look at Saudi Arabia, if you look at Japan, if you look at South Korea—I mean we spend billions of dollars on Saudi Arabia, and they have nothing but money. And I say, why? Now I would go in and I would structure a much different deal with them, and it would be a much better deal. When you look at the kind of money that our country is losing, we can’t afford to do this. Certainly we can’t afford to do it anymore.

Trump’s affinity for the foreign policy of Perot helps us situate Trump in the broader debate on American foreign policy. From Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Barack Obama, American presidents have been internationalists who believed that America needs to build transnational structures to uphold a global capitalist order that enriches America as well as its allies. Trump belongs to a unilateralist counter-tradition that sees wealth as a zero-sum game, so that if America is paying for the security of allies, it is losing out.

The unilateralist tradition that Trump represents has been shut out of major party politics for most of the last century. Herbert Hoover (or perhaps his predecessor Calvin Coolidge) was the last major unilateralist president. Otherwise, unilateralists were shunted from positions of power. Charles Lindbergh and Robert Taft were set aside by the Republican Party in favor of Wendell Willkie and Dwight Eisenhower. Ross Perot had to run as a third-party candidate. If Trump is the Republican nominee, he will be the first unilateralist with the backing of a major party in more than 80 years, initiating a true revolution in foreign policy.