Behind The Freak Show Lunacy Trump Offers A Vague and Confused Foreign Policy
The bigoted bilge that pours out of Donald Trump’s mouth provides plenty of reasons for the world to worry about him winning the US Presidential election. But his (relatively) more sober recent statements on international relations lack the freak show lunacy we have come to expect from his pronouncements. Whilst still vague and riddled with contradictions, they do offer some mildly reassuring clues about his foreign policy positions.
The basic thrust of Trump’s nascent foreign policy is consistent with his nativist domestic pitch: “‘America First’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration”. He might express it crudely but there is nothing too outlandish about that. Most democratic world leaders pursue foreign policies that put their countries interests first too.
Trump’s other comments also suggest that his “America First” proposals relate mostly to economic protectionism and immigration. That might be bad news for the world economy, for many existing US residents and others hoping to emigrate there. But at least it suggests that we might not need to don our tin hats in anticipation of an American military onslaught after all.
Trump has repeatedly advocated wide-ranging human rights abuses and war crimes against suspected terrorists, their families and anyone who gets in America’s way. Surprisingly, then, one of the most striking elements of his recent foreign policy utterances is a focus on global peace, rather than asserting America’s will through force. Trump says “our goal is peace and prosperity, not war and destruction” and that “a superpower understands that caution and restraint are signs of strength”. Indeed, under his administration “America will continually play the role of peacemaker”.
Trump does plan to increase US defence spending and the size of the armed forces. This, though, could be interpreted as appealing for the votes of the substantial numbers of Americans serving in the military or working in the military-industrial complex, a factor often lost on foreign observers. Whilst leaving no doubt that he will wield the spectre of America’s military might to get his way in negotiations, Trump emphasises his preference for economic pressure and sanctions as tools for foreign policy persuasion.
Trump’s foreign policy proposals are a mish-mash of vagueness and contradictions
On specific international issues, the devil will, as always, be in the detail. One of the few areas in which this has already been forthcoming is Trump’s demand that America’s allies commit more resources to their own defence. This suggestion is hard to argue with. It is remarkable that the Americans have been so patient for so long with the propensity of Europeans, in particular, to whinge about US imperialism and interference, whilst simultaneously relying on it for their own protection.
Trump also places naive faith in his negotiating ability and has offered direct talks on the nuclear weapons issue with North Korean President Kim Jong-un. No previous US president has been willing to consider this step because it would be exploited as a propaganda coup by the North Koreans and be very unlikely to produce any practical results.
Elsewhere, Trump’s foreign policy proposals are a mish-mash of vagueness and contradictions that highlight his lack of preparedness for handling international crises.
One of the central planks of Trump’s candidacy is standing up to China and challenging its perceived trade dominance. It is not clear how this can be achieved whilst scaling back the US’s military cooperation with its East Asian allies. These are the countries most threatened by Chinese aggression and best placed to help counter China’s attempts to seize control of the region’s trade routes through maritime territorial expansion.
Trump’s “simple message” for ISIS is that “their days are numbered”. This puts too much emphasis on the “simple” and “I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how” is a blatant cop-out that needs elaboration before it qualifies as a policy.
More widely in the Middle East, Trump plans are contradictory. He aims to increase regional stability by reducing America’s direct involvement and offering unquestioning support to US-friendly Arab despots. But it is hard to see how his commitment to undermine the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran will increase, rather than damage, stability. Nor will the chances of defeating the terrorism of “radical Islam” be enhanced by backing the dictators who do much to drive terrorist recruitment in the region in the first place.
On Russia, Trump falls into a predictable trap. Perhaps sensing a kindred spirit in Putin, he essentially proposes another “reset” in relations that recognises Russia’s national interests. But that strategy has already failed under Obama because it is based on the mistaken premise that Russia’s foreign policy decisions are driven purely by national interests rather than regime survival.
From a British perspective, Trump has already said that he does not expect to have a great relationship with David Cameron. In common with most world leaders, Cameron will be hoping that the presidential election eliminates the need to have any kind of relationship with Trump. He will, of course, get his wish earlier if next month’s EU referendum is lost and leads to his resignation. So will his successor because, as the current incumbent Obama has made clear, the “special relationship” will become a marginal one for the US if the UK leaves the EU, regardless of who is the President.
Either way, the Foreign Office (FCO) will currently be doing what it has always done when alarming potential US presidents emerge, such as Ronald “let’s bomb Russia” Reagan and George W. Bush: planning to limit the global damage by finding areas of common ground and ways to influence the incoming administration.
Despite Trump’s increasing attempts at reasonableness, the FCO will have its work cut out if he is elected. His record of changing his message to suit the audience and outright lying means that nothing he says can be taken at face value. Perhaps the most alarming of his recent foreign policy statements was “we must, as a nation, be more unpredictable”. There are few qualities more disturbing and dangerous in a superpower than that.
About the author
Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.
He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.
All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.
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