The nomination of Donald Trump this week could had been an opportunity to begin to understand the foreign policy of the New York businessman turned into politician. Like in many other areas of policy it doesn’t sound clear what he means but it certainly doesn’t sound like an average Republican. Even in an event organized by the Washington Post at the convention to discuss this topic, two experts in national security like Congressman Adam Kinzinger and Cato Institute’s Emma Ashford seem unable to underline a coherent vision of what Trump wants America to do overseas.
But despite the somehow incoherent mumblings of the insurgent politician there are some clues that could very useful to understand the logic behind his statements. Trump had expressed sympathy for Putin who he considers a strong leader, while the neoconservative wing of the GOP had sounded very hawkish on Russia comparing the Putin government with the Soviet Union. There is a wide variety of conservative that also had express sympathy for Russia, but in general there a two groups, the paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan who consider Vladimir Putin a defender of Christian values or populists like Sarah Palin who appreciate the image of Russian president as a tough leader. Trump had said that he would like to maintain good relations with Putin and the Russian president had also express sympathy for the real-estate mogul. But it seems that there is an obstacle in the relations: NATO.
Both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists had long consider that now there is basically a new Cold War with Russia. United States representing a form of liberal democracy and Russia as an authoritarian vision of right-wing populism. Is not surprise that neoconservatives like William Kristol is so adamantly an opponent of Trump, some neoconservatives like Robert Kagan are backing Clinton whose own hawkish views had been reinforced by her advisors coming the liberal interventionist wing of the Democratic Party. There is where NATO enters the conversation. Some consider that after the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO should had disappear. But it didn’t and the relatively bad relation between America and Russia are in great part due to NATO expansion in former communists countries which Moscow consider part of their area of influence. The annexation of Crimea is maybe the greatest point in this chess played by Putin as a form of counter the influence of America and Europe in Ukraine.
Trump own visions of NATO probably are the most revealing aspect of his unorthodox foreign policy. He initially went as far as suggesting that the US should withdraw from NATO. Those who accuse Trump of being just a demagogue that would do anything to appease the Republican base never knew how to answer while someone who is running as a Republican would make such a polemic statement, considering that while respected by part of the conservative base both Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul where defeated in the primaries. Not only that, while he now maintains that he is saying that he wants NATO members to pay their fair share to be defended by the US, he could easily had say that he was misunderstood like when early in his campaign he was in favor of Syrian refugees but then he wanted to deport them. However the level of criticism of NATO for GOP and Democratic insiders always consider any question about unforgeable especially after its latest comments doubting if the US would defend its Eastern European allies against a threat from Russia. To the point that even some Democrats think that Trump is a Manchurian candidate of Moscow, the campaign manager of the Clinton, Robby Mook goes as far to suggesting the Russian government was involve in the DNCleaks which goal was to help elect Donald Trump even if until now there is not tangible evidence of that.
One recurrent topic in his campaign is the America First slogan. While used by isolationists in the past and most recently revived by the campaigns of Pat Buchanan. Jesse Walker of Reason had pointed out referring to his foreign policy speech that Trump is an instinctive nationalist which explains why he could sound hawkish at times when talking of the Middle East and dovish when talking of Eastern Europe. While some think that here was a hint of Buchanism in his acceptance speech at the convention when he goes as far as saying that this election was “Americanism over globalism”, an important point to be made is that Trump started his political career considering running against Buchanan in the Reform Party primaries and while Buchanan endorsed him early on the campaign, Trump doesn’t speak of Pat and neither invite him to convention despite the lack of prominent speakers. The populist nationalism of Trump is right-wing like Buchanan but is not anti-imperialist. Buchanan thought that after the end of the Cold War, the tradition of Old Right anti-interventionism should be revived. That’s why Buchanism and Trumpism collide especially in the Middle East where Trump still wants an active presence.
There are several accusations by liberals that Trump is a fascist but other point that is made is that if elected he would be closer to Berlusconi. Is funny that beside that phrase there had been not much insight because while the political party of Berlusconi, Forza Italia, was somehow in the right it was ideologically broadly enough to include socialdemocrats which the GOP consider an anathema to conservativism. But Berlusconi was close to both Russia and Israel, two of the main alleged future allies of Trump. But I really doubt that beyond of that they would had that much in common.
Israel is an open question. Trump initially sounded neutral. He then was backed by longtime supporters of Israel like Sheldon Adelson who may explain why his visions had started to shift and his relation with a pro- Israel businessman like his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Now he started he sounds as hawkish on the issue as any neocon. Trump was proud of the Republican platform which he considers: “the most pro-Israel of all time”. Some consider that his supporters are anti-Semites and that Trump itself is anti-Semite despite having a Jewish daughter but that hasn’t weak the support among some Israel hardliners.
The Middle East in general looks more dubious because there is where he for moments sound hawkish but at the same time breaks with the neocon orthodoxy. He seems having no interest in democracy promotion while calling to fight against radical Islamic extremism. He’s against the Iran deal and doesn’t want to speak about Turkey. Saudi Arabia is a curious case while Trump is critic of Saudi Arabia at the same time he would not be like a president who would go to accuse continuously the country for its human rights abuses and maybe their share hate for Iran could make both work together on some issues.
While Trump talks about he wanted to be unpredictable and dealmaker with all the world, he started his campaign by railing against Mexican immigrants and accusing the Mexican government of sending criminals to America. Mexico has been a reliable American ally and alienate them in that form was a truly mistake. Trump would risk having bad relations with the broad Latin America. It wouldn’t surprise me that if elected, presidents of the region would try to avoid him. Even the Latin American right who generally is pro-American is deeply anger with Trump and his campaign.
On Asia, he wants to withdraw militarily while accusing China of currency manipulation. Wants Japan and South Korea to defend itself. He doesn’t sound to care about the destiny of Taiwan or Hong Kong and the Chinese influence in the region or any elaborate thoughts on the South China Sea controversy. East Asia is where strategic thought is needed but that is the area of which Trump knows nothing. Being the geographical region where the Obama seems to having being successful with important advances improving the relations with Southeast Asian countries which geopolitically could limit Chinese influence overseas.
In general we could say that Trump is neither an isolationist, anti-interventionist, realist, liberal interventionist nor neoconservative because is impossible to put Trump in a mold. But foreign policy is actually where he is not as unpredictable as in other policy areas. It would be difficult to find him speaking ill of Russia and Israel. The question of who is more hawkish Trump or Hillary is hard to answer since Clinton is more hawkish on Russia but on some issues like the Iran Deal she is able to take a realist position. However to credit of Trump he had taken some risks in being critical of NATO something not even Sanders did. Despite that if one reads the GOP platform the foreign policy in the Republican Party is still managed by the neoconservative wing of the party and his victory speech he basically accused all problems of America to Hillary Clinton despite that if something the GOP had been more active bad decisions overseas. Trump’s foreign policy is in the making and we could expect surprises on the way but I tend to suspect that while he is skeptic of globalism, once in office the GOP establishment could push him in a more mainstream hawkish line.