Donald Trump has never been a foreign policy thinker. Never having been in government his knowledge of the complexities of foreign policy is, at best, lacking.
And yet, he has presented a vision of a future American foreign policy. He has not fleshed out the vision. And he is not very good at providing a persuasive rationale for the new direction. Since Trump’s vision departs radically from much of the conventional foreign policy wisdom, his detractors have taxed him with incoherence and madness.
Now, George Friedman has examined the Trump vision to see whether it makes sense. (via Maggie’s Farm) Friedman was the founder of the Stratfor think tank and foreign policy shop. He is currently the proprietor of the Geopolitical Futures site. He is widely recognized as a non-partisan student of the field. He provides objective and fact-based analysis. Truth be told, he’s the only Friedman I read.
One understands that Friedman is not offering his own views or his own foreign policy vision. He is looking for the coherence behind Trump’s views. He does not just seek, as Picasso said, he finds.
In Friedman’s terms:
Trump’s core strategic argument is that the United States is overextended. The core reason for this overextension is that the United States has substituted a system of multilateral relationships for a careful analysis of the national interest. In this reading, Washington is entangled in complex relationships that place risks and burdens on the United States to come to the aid of some countries. However, its commitments are not matched by those countries in capability, nor in intent.
American foreign policy has allowed American interests to be shortchanged. The relationships have been one-sided. America gives more than it receives in return.
Friedman says that Trump sees the NATO alliance as one-sided:
The United States has been involved in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Islamic world. NATO has not provided decisive strategic support to these efforts. Many have provided what support they could or what support they wanted, but that level of support was far below the abilities of NATO members.
NATO members have allowed Washington to bear the brunt of the military burden, while refusing to aid America in its wars against Islamic terrorism. It is their right, by treaty, not to come to America’s aid. From that Trump has concluded that our best interests have not been served by the treaty in its current form.
Europe is well beyond where it was when NATO was founded, when it was incapable of collective defense without the United States. NATO members have taken for granted that Washington will bear the primary burden for defense, measured not only in terms of dollars spent, but also in the development of military capabilities.
Their reasonable argument that the 28-member alliance makes no commitment to out-of-area engagements not undertaken under Article 5 raises the question of what, then, NATO’s value is to the United States. In sum, NATO lacks significant strategic capabilities, and the alliance is defined in such a way that its members can and do elect to avoid those conflicts that matter most to America.
Is America being exploited and used by European nations? Friedman suggests that one might well draw such a conclusion:
The United States is liable for the defense of Europe. Europe is not liable for defending American interests, which today lie outside of Europe. Trump believes this relationship must be mutually renegotiated. If the Europeans are unwilling to renegotiate, the United States should exit NATO and develop bilateral relations with countries that are capable and are prepared to work with the United States in areas of its national interest in return for guarantees from Washington.
As for free trade, Friedman argues that it cannot merely be defended as an abstract ideal. It needs to serve the best interests of the United States. It’s one thing to say that we believe in free trade. It’s quite another to say that we have not negotiated our trade deals well, in our national interest. Free trade cannot be the mask for a welfare program.
Friedman summarizes the Trump vision:
It is not clear that the current international trade regime has benefited the United States. International trade is not an end in itself; it must serve the interests of each party. At this point in history, the primary economic need in the United States is to create trade relations that build jobs in the United States. The previous goal of aggregate growth of an economy without regard to societal consequences is no longer acceptable. The terms under which most international trade agreements have been structured are now therefore unacceptable….
Large multilateral free-trade agreements are therefore far too complex to fine-tune to the American interest. They need to be avoided in favor of bilateral treaties, or of smaller ones such as NAFTA, that can be reshaped to serve the current American interest. In these negotiations, the United States, producing about 25 percent of the world’s GDP, holds the strong hand. The United States’ primary concern must be the same as that of other countries: trade relations that are beneficial to it, and not an abstract commitment to free trade.
This is not quite the same thing as being against free trade. Friedman does not envision what would happen if we entered into a trade war. One assumes that he believes that Trump would never enter into such self-defeating actions.
And, Trump takes Islamic terrorism seriously. Friedman analyzes Trump’s position:
ISIS poses a terrorist threat that has been minimized by some but is regarded by Trump as an intolerable menace for two reasons. First, as 9/11 demonstrated, attacks can be escalated. Second, the psychological burden of terrorism is enormous. The terrorist threat cannot be defeated without overwhelming power being brought to bear on the Middle East. Living with terrorism indefinitely is not an option. Therefore, the United States and its allies must bring overwhelming force to bear.
Echoing the views of Stephen Cohen and Henry Kissinger and rejecting the rants of the new Russia hawks—the senator who called Vladimir Putin a war criminal comes to mind-- Friedman suggests that there is room for cooperation between the United States and Russia, on several fronts:
Trump sees U.S. and Russian interests as coinciding. Washington and Moscow could agree on the neutralization of Ukraine: Kyiv would have economic and political ties with the West, but Ukraine would not be part of any alliance system, nor would it be a base for Western forces. The United States wants a buffer to protect allies in Eastern Europe, but beyond that it has no overriding interest in Ukraine. Russia wants a degree of autonomy in Eastern Ukraine and retention of its interests in Crimea, where it has treaty rights in Sevastopol anyway. The Ukrainian issue can be managed in the context of joint anti-Islamist operations. Trump is of course aware of economic problems in Russia, and he sees therein a lever to achieve his goal.
Friedman notes that if NATO members are unwilling to commit to the fight against ISIS and other Islamic terrorists, Trump will try to form alliances with other nations, like Russia.
Trump is proposing a redefinition of U.S. foreign policies based on current realities, not those of 40 years ago. It is a foreign policy in which American strength is maximized in order to achieve American ends.
Whether he will pursue this once in office, or whether it is a good policy, is not the key point; that there is a very real policy embedded in his statements is. It is also not a foolish one. U.S. policy has been reflexively committed to arrangements that are three-quarters of a century old. The world has changed, but the shape of U.S. policy has not. Translating this into reality will be, for Trump, another matter.