Trump’s 19th Century Foreign Policy
His views aren’t as confused as they seem. In fact, they’re remarkably consistent—and they have a
One of the most common misconceptions about Donald Trump is that he is opportunistic and makes up his views as he goes along. But a careful reading of some of Trump’s statements over three decades shows that he has a remarkably coherent and consistent worldview, one that is unlikely to change much if he’s elected president. It is also a worldview that makes a great leap backward in history, embracing antiquated notions of power that haven’t been prevalent since prior to World War II.
It is easy to poke fun at many of Trump’s foreign-policy notions—the promises to “take” Iraq’s oil, to extract a kind of imperial “tribute” from U.S. military allies like South Korea, his eagerness to emulate the Great Wall of China along the border with Mexico, and his embrace of old-style strongmen like Vladimir Putin. But many of these views would have found favor in pre-World War II—and even, in some cases, 19th century—America.
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.
Trump has been airing such views on U.S. foreign policy for some time. He even spent $100,000 on a full-page ad in the New York Times in 1987 that had a message remarkably similar to what he is saying today.
With his background and personality, Trump is so obviously sui generis that it is tempting to say his views are alien to the American foreign policy tradition. They aren’t; it is just that this strain of thinking has been dormant for some time. There are particular echoes of Sen. Robert Taft, who unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination in 1940, 1948 and 1952, and was widely seen as the leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Taft was a staunch isolationist and mercantilist who opposed U.S. aid for Britain before 1941. After the war, he opposed President Harry Truman’s efforts to expand trade. Despite being an anti-communist, he opposed containment of the Soviet Union, believing that the United States had few interests in Western Europe. He opposed the creation of NATO as overly provocative. Taft’s speeches are the last time a major American politician has offered a substantive and comprehensive critique of America’s alliances.
Trump’s populism, divisiveness and friendliness toward dictators is also reminiscent of Charles Lindbergh, once an American hero, who led the isolationist America First movement. In some areas, Trump’s views go back even further, to 19th-century high-tariff protectionism and every-country-for-itself mercantilism. He even invokes ancient Chinese history, telling Bill O’Reilly last August that his idea for a wall across the U.S.-Mexican border is feasible because “you know, the Great Wall of China, built a long time ago, is 13,000 miles. I mean, you're talking about big stuff.”
Trump’s starting point and defining emotion on foreign policy is anger—not at America’s enemies, but at its friends. In a lengthy interview with Playboy magazine in 1990, Trump was asked what would a President Trump’s foreign policy be like. He answered: “He would believe very strongly in extreme military strength. He wouldn’t trust anyone. He wouldn’t trust the Russians; he wouldn’t trust our allies; he’d have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it. Part of the problem is that we’re defending some of the wealthiest countries in the world for nothing. ... We’re being laughed at around the world, defending Japan.”
He then elaborated on his skepticism of allies. “We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing a hundred and fifty billion dollars year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about 15 minutes if it weren’t for us. Our ‘allies’ are making billions screwing us.”
Trump has long believed the United States is being taken advantage of by its allies. He would prefer that the United States not have to defend other nations, but, if it does, he wants to get paid as much as possible for it. No nation has come in for quite as much criticism from Trump as Japan. “It’s time for us to end our vast deficits by making Japan and others who can afford it pay,” Trump said in an open letter to the American people in 1987. “Our world protection is worth hundreds of billions of dollars to these countries and their stake in their protection is far greater than ours.”
In the intervening years, he found new targets but he never let go of his antagonism toward the Japanese. On the campaign trail recently, he took the unusual step of promising to renegotiate the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty. “If somebody attacks Japan,” he said, “we have to immediately go and start World War III, OK? If we get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so fair. Does that sound good?”
He has also criticized other allies. In 2013, he said, “How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment? When will they start to pay us?” He has made the point again on the campaign trail. In an interview with NBC, he said, “We have 28,000 soldiers on the line in South Korea between the madman and them. We get practically nothing compared to the cost of this.”
Trump doesn’t let Europe off the hook, either. Several years ago, he wrote, “Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous. And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.” On the campaign trail, he complained that Germany is not carrying more of the burden of NATO and asked why the United States should lead on European security.
The truth is very different. America’s allies do pay for a proportion of U.S. bases. But they do not pay the full cost. This is largely because those alliances also work to America’s benefit by providing it with prepositioned forces and regional stability. It would actually cost more to station troops in the United States and have to deploy them overseas in a crisis. But this rings hollow for Trump because he is not convinced that the United States should be doing it at all.