This article reviews Trump's foreign policy views. If he becomes president....God Help Us All.
A Thoughtful Response to Trump?
Editor's Note: The Global Affairs column is curated by Stratfor's editorial board, a diverse group of thinkers whose expertise inspires rigorous and innovative thought in our analyses. Though their opinions are their own, they inform and sometimes even challenge our beliefs. We welcome that challenge, and we hope our readers do too.
By Ian Morris
No one, it seems, has a nice word to say about Donald Trump's foreign policy thinking.
Nearly every pundit on the planet has taken a swing at his confused and alarming pronouncements. More measured than most, The New York Times began cautiously suggesting that Trump's views "reflect little consideration for potential consequences," but soon hardened its line to denounce Trump's "completely unhinged view of international engagement" as "contradictory and shockingly ignorant." The Atlantic magazine agreed that Trump had "no understanding of the post-war international order," and The Washington Post joined the chorus, concluding that "Donald Trump's ignorance of government policy, both foreign and domestic, is breathtaking." NBC called Trump "completely uneducated about any part of the world," while CNN described him as "wholly unqualified to handle the real issues facing America." Newsweek magazine neatly summed up the consensus: "When it comes to foreign policy, Donald Trump, he's just saying stuff."
At least, this is the kind of thing the foreign policy crowd was saying until recently, but one consequence of this unusual unanimity among the talking heads was that it quickly became difficult for a journalist to get noticed merely by thinking up new ways to denigrate the Donald. Instead, a new attention-grabbing strategy emerged this month: Columnists began pretending to think they had found a method in Trump's madness. In her recent column in beer Foreign Policy, for instance, Rosa Brooks — while hardly pouring praise on Trump — suggested that beneath the surface bluster, "Trump is, to a great extent, nonetheless articulating a coherent vision of international relations and America's role in the world." CNN, flip-flopping on its earlier criticisms, has gone further, saying that "his opinions also reflect basic common sense."
Trump's rationalizers claim he is simply a foreign policy realist. Back in 1848, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston famously said, "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual friends … [only] our interests are eternal and perpetual." Similarly, the neo-Trumpians argue, the billionaire businessman is just taking a cold, hard look at the geopolitical facts — much as Stratfor tries to do — and consistently putting American interests first.
Of all the stuff Trump is just saying, the revisionists seem most impressed by his views on America's system of overseas alliances. "To Trump," Brooks concludes, "U.S. alliances, like potential business partners in a real-estate transaction, should always be asked: 'What have you done for me lately?'" If an old ally such as Saudi Arabia has no satisfactory answer, Trump proposes, the United States should stop buying its oil. Or if Japan will not pay more toward the costs of American forces in the Western Pacific, those forces should withdraw.
"The old cliches roll easily off the tongue: U.S. alliances and partnerships are vital … And so on," says Brooks; "But this is pure intellectual and ideological laziness." Brooks does not, however, join Fox News in concluding that "Donald Trump is 100 percent correct to insist that our allies should share the burden of collective defense." (They do, of course, already share the burden; Fox News presumably means they should pick up more of the burden.) Nor does she follow CNN's new line that "Washington should stop defending its prosperous, populous allies." Rather, she more thoughtfully observes, "Trump's vision of the world demands a serious, thoughtful and nondefensive response."
The Cost of Abandoning Allies
I want to try my hand at such a response. To my mind, Trump looks less like a realist than like a caricature of a realist, claiming to offer completely transactional international relations, stripped of conventional policymakers' wooly thinking. Realism, though, is not simply a matter of being unsentimental. It is about knowing when an appeal to tradition, values and loyalty will advance a nation's interests and when it will not.
In an earlier Global Affairs column, I mused that "Even the most Kissingerian of geopoliticians tend to recognize that values have a place in strategy (a good subject for a future column, perhaps) and that it is usually a mistake to sell out allies or walk away from deeply held beliefs to win a small advantage." These may be obvious points to make, but the friendships that the United States has built in the 70 years since the end of World War II are worth much more than their weight in gold, and few things will undermine American security quite so quickly as throwing them over for the sake of short-term gains.
Signaling to former allies that past favors, shared values or common struggles no longer count for anything, and that every interaction will now be weighed on the "What have you done for me lately?" scale, is a surefire method for raising the cost of doing business (something a businessman such as Trump presumably wants to avoid). Perhaps Washington can bully Saudi Arabia into doing more against the self-styled Islamic State; but will the gains from that deal offset the costs if the Saudis conclude they can no longer trust America to take the lead against rivals such as Iran?
There is a saying in Chicago that an honest politician is one who, when you buy him, stays bought. A new president who walks away from America's "friends" — however slippery and self-serving she or he might think that some of them are — will run the risk of relearning another old Chicago lesson: that the costs of being seen as a dishonest politician can be fatal.
Appealing to values is certainly not an alternative to cold geopolitical calculation. In what is probably the clearest case of a struggle between right and wrong, Britain and the United States consistently took the moral high ground against Germany and Japan in World War II. Both Western allies were liberal democracies, and neither ever attacked a neutral country (although Britain did consider invading Norway in 1940), herded prisoners of war and members of what they considered lesser races into death camps (although the United States did intern Japanese-Americans), or committed genocide (although the English-speaking Allies did collaborate in killing more than a million German and Japanese civilians in air raids). Germany and Japan (and, of course, the Soviet Union) were totalitarian dictatorships and did all these bad things; and yet despite the stark contrasts, few countries voluntarily joined the Western Allies before 1945, by which time it was clear that Germany and Japan were going to lose.
The truth of the matter is that values and calculation are not alternative approaches to foreign policy; they are always inextricably mixed.
A Balanced Strategy
This simple fact has been hardwired into us by evolution, because people whose genes predispose them to combine ethics and cold calculation in just the right way are more likely to pass their genes on to the next generation than those whose genes predispose them to act differently. Across the seven or eight million years since the evolutionary branch that led toward humans split off from that which led toward the other great apes, people have developed what biologists call an evolutionarily stable strategy — or equilibrium — balancing morality and self-interest.
Even before seven million years ago, however, the last common ancestor shared by all five species of African great apes (eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, and humans) already had its own stable strategies, and modern humans' nearest genetic kin — chimpanzees and bonobos — see diplomacy in ways that are similar to, just less sophisticated than, our own.
In 1975, the primatologist Frans de Waal began a six-year study of politics among the chimpanzees of the Netherlands' Arnhem zoo, and since the 1980s numerous scientists have confirmed his findings among wild populations in Africa. Chimpanzees and bonobos both have steep dominance hierarchies in which a handful of alpha individuals (mostly males among chimps, mostly females among bonobos) lead a larger community; and in both species, alliances do more than use brute force to determine power. Primates have evolved to be extremely good at recognizing one another, remembering favors and insults, and calculating whom they can rely on when the chips are down. In fact, one of the most influential theories in physical anthropology holds that the whole reason primate brains more than tripled in size across the three million years separating Australopithecines from us was that apes that kept track of their allies were more likely to pass their genes on to the next generation than those that didn't.
De Waal documented in meticulous detail just how deadly serious this game is. In 1980, two of the Arnhem chimpanzees, Yeroen and Nikkie, manipulated friendships and rivalries to isolate the alpha male, Luit. Only then, when Luit was quite without allies, did Yeroen and Nikkie turn to hard power to dethrone him. In a vicious nighttime attack, they slashed Luit to pieces, biting off his fingers and toes and tearing out his testicles. He bled to death. Within days a new alliance system had formed, in which Nikkie was the top ape and Yeroen was the power behind the throne.
Biology seems to show that you should never turn your back on a friend — unless the gains from doing so clearly outweigh the reputational costs of being known as a dishonest politician. The secret of success lies in being able to judge the costs and benefits accurately.
On the whole, American leaders since 1945 have done a good job at balancing values and calculation. It is probably no coincidence that in addition to having the greatest military and economic dominance in history since 1989, the United States has also led the greatest network of allies in history. The only country that could possibly compare, mid-19th-century Britain, in fact did not even come close to American levels of dominance on either count.
At the end of the day, the brouhaha over Trump's incoherent policy pronouncements is no more than a colorful illustration of a small part of a larger debate over the place of values in international relations. The real argument is not between Trumpian transactionalism and establishment sentimentality, because even self-conscious realists always have to factor idealism into their calculations. (Historian Niall Ferguson was quite right to subtitle the first volume of his recent biography of Henry Kissinger "the Idealist.") What matters is the most old-fashioned virtue of all — good judgment — something that neither candidate Trump nor those who claim to see coherence in his statements have so far displayed. There's no need for us to sink to just saying stuff.
"A Thoughtful Response to Trump? is republished with permission of Stratfor."