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Rethinking Trump’s foreign policy views: Maybe he’s a conviction politician

REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
Donald Trump speaking during a campaign rally in Fort Wayne, Ind., on May 1.

Is Donald Trump a phony, inventing his tough-talking blowhard persona on the fly, telling audiences what he thinks will make them want to make him president? Or, personality aside, is he more of a conviction politician, expressing deeply held beliefs about what would make America better?

For me, this seemed an easy question. Phony. Blowhard. Egomaniac whose knack for marketing had enabled him to invent a character that might actually make him president. Taking his policy positions seriously is difficult because many of them seem so incoherent, the screams of an angry id or perhaps the screams of a crafty carnival barker, designed to reach the angry ids of potential customer/voters.

All of a sudden, after Trump’s foreign policy speech of last week and some of my weekend reading, I’m having a bit of a rethink. It turns out that many things Trump said in that speech closely track arguments he has been making for years, long before anyone was thinking about him for commander-in-chief.

I’m indebted for this new understanding to Thomas Wright, a foreign policy analyst at Brookings, for his piece analyzing the Trump speech and for an older piece that Wright wrote for Politico. From these, I learn that Trump has consistently — for more than 20 years, which dates back well into the period when he was a Democrat — been sounding some of the same notes on foreign and military policy that he is trumpeting nowadays.

Here is an example from a 1990 Playboy write-up of an interview with Trump, when he was asked what foreign/military policy would be under a hypothetical President Trump. The Donald, describing himself in the third person as the future President Trump, replied thus:

“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.”

Same themes

Do the math, folks. That’s 1990. He was 44 years old and still a fairly liberal, pro-choice Democrat, but he was already obsessed with increasing U.S. military power (already, then, of course, as it still is today, by far the most powerful military in the solar system). He was also obsessed with the many wealthy deadbeat nations that were freeloading (in his view) off the U.S. military for their security.

Japan, which he specifically mentioned, one might argue is a special case. After World War II, its constitution, substantially written under U.S. supervision, renounced war as an element of national policy (as did the post-war constitutions of the other leading Axis powers, Germany and Italy) and Japan went further to constitutionally repudiate Japan’s maintenance of “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.”

I don’t know how Trump felt about that part of the issue. Perhaps he would have been happy to leave Japan without much of a military, but felt they should be paying the United States more for maintaining bases and other assets in Japan. But his complaint wasn’t limited just to Japan or just to the Axis powers. In the same Playboy article, he added:

“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.”

So he said that in 1990 and that theme, at least, has certainly carried over into his presidential campaign and was featured in his speech last week. Trump proposes that as president, he will require allies to pay more of the cost of defending themselves. He isn’t super specific about whether he would prefer to have them actually defending themselves or pay the United States for some of the protection they get from being in U.S.-dominated alliances, especially the European allies in NATO. He has suggested that if they don’t, the United States will just stop defending them.

Wright makes the point that United States maintains bases and other military assets around the world not just to help the countries in which the bases sit. The bases represent the perimeter of the U.S. defense scheme, and the United States presumably benefits from having those bases as well. Perhaps this all made more sense in the Cold War than it does now.

It is true, by the way, as Trump’s rants imply, that the United States is paying much more for military power than any other country in the world. (To me, but I gather not to Trump, this is the beginning of an inquiry into whether we could spend less on military, or at least that having a ginormous military is the best way to make our nation safe.)

Military spending gap

Measured in actual dollars, the gap between U.S. military spending and the rest of the world is staggering. But, of course, the United States also — despite the recent spate of poor-mouthing by Trump and others — has by far the biggest economy in the world.

But if you measure military spending as a percentage of GDP, which is the sensible thing to do, the United States spends 3.5 percent of GDP annually on military expenses, which ranks fourth in the world, according to data maintained by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The three countries that spend more are Saudi Arabia (10.4 percent), Israel (5.2 percent) and Russia (4.5 percent). Of course, the United States still spends far more than any of them in absolute dollars, but not as a percent of GDP. You’ll note that none of the others are NATO allies of the United States, although two of them are allies.

I’ve said before and still say that it doesn’t bother me that Trump might want to renegotiate the cost-sharing with some of those allies so the United States does less or pays less. His suggestion that he will kick them out of NATO if they don’t pay up to his demands seems extreme, but perhaps it’s just a negotiating tactic. Certainly, if he wants us to take it seriously, he has to explain more clearly than he ever has how kicking some of our allies out of the alliance will make the United States safer.

Anyway, Wright takes Trump’s statements pretty seriously, more seriously than a lot of people do, and perhaps because he realizes that rather than putting on a caveman act to impress the primary electorate, Trump is saying things he has been saying for years and about which he feels strongly.

Wright, in his piece for Brookings, listed five takeaways from Trump’s speech (all of which he treats as sincere statements of things Trump would likely do as president, although it seems to me he overstates them). The five are:

1. Trump will end U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia.

2. Trump has an isolationist mindset.

3. Trump wants to do a deal with Russia and China.

4. Trump’s audience was the Republican political establishment, not its foreign policy elite.

5. Trump views foreign policy very personally.

If you find any of those intriguing and want to read what Wright means, his full piece is here.

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 05/02/2016 - 09:46 am.


    Perhaps better than a “convicted” politician, yes? (Sorry, far to easy this day.)

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/02/2016 - 09:49 am.

    Military spending

    can be an economic weapon.
    The argument has been made that Reagan caused the collapse of the Soviet Union by trapping them in an arms race where they had to equal our military spending while their economy was much smaller, which was an economic disaster.
    It is possible that Putin has been sucked in the same way — only temporarily funded by Russian’s oil boom.
    If all this is (even partially) correct, Trump would be bailing out his buddy Putin if he cut military spending.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/02/2016 - 10:30 am.

      Reagan also walked away

      from the table at Reykjavík during his meeting with Gorbachev because he didn’t like the deal. Obama never walked away from any negotiation table and always ended up giving away the store.

      • Submitted by Doug Gray on 05/06/2016 - 10:20 am.

        when not to walk away

        You don’t walk away from an international negotiation after getting what you want. That’s not negotiation, it’s arrogance. Iran has no functional nuclear weapons program today and won’t for a long time, among other successes, because the Obama Administration understands what negotiation is.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/02/2016 - 09:56 am.

    Power Negotiations 101

    This is Power Negotiations 101.

    Democrats don’t buy it because:
    1) they have higher spending priorities and they see national defense as simply a budget line item,
    2) their personality profile is typically one of flight, not fight, so any discussion of military capability sounds too confrontational and otherwise mean-spirited.
    3) they refuse to see the threat even when the adversary is specifically coming for them (women, gays, infidels)
    4) they lack fundamental business sense since most work in government or the non-profit sector and so they never developed nor do they seem to understand the fundamentals of win-lose power negotiations tactics like:

    a. Negotiate from a position of power. never from a position of weakness
    b. Know when to say no and walk away from a bad deal
    c. Never let your adversary know your plans or your time table

    Obama and his minions have consistently violated these and other fundamental negotiation tactics, which drew Trump into the race i the first place. He could’t stand to watch the incompetence anymore.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/02/2016 - 03:22 pm.


      …insights into people with whom you disagree. Or, phrased differently, it’s a nice attempt to set up a whole series of straw men (and women) which can then be attacked. #1 is silly – name a nation-state that has not made military spending a budget item. #2 is amusing, unless you know of a peer-reviewed study that conclusively shows that Democrats would rather run than fight, my guess is that, for both Marines and Army troops in foxholes, political affiliation is not a driver of behavior. As for policy-makers, there are plenty of Democratic hawks to go with their Republican brethren. Many discussions of military capability are, shall we say, divorced from the real world.

      I’m interested in the “threat” statement (#3). Are you suggesting that women, gays and “infidels” are the threat, or that the adversary – unnamed, of course – will specifically be targeting those people during the coming apocalypse?

      The negotiation points presented might be of some use in the hypothetical, but don’t strike me as especially relevant in the 21st century, at least at the moment. It’s not much of a negotiation if the end result, or the only end result you’re willing to consider, is the imposition of your view / position upon the other party. Actual negotiation seems more likely to involve some tradeoffs rather than “my way or the highway.” Otherwise, it’s simply confrontation, which may or may not work to your advantage, especially in the (relatively) long term.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/02/2016 - 05:07 pm.

        And of course

        nations cannot simply declare bankruptcy and walk away when their deals don’t work out.
        Divorces between nations are also more difficult.

  4. Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 05/02/2016 - 10:14 am.

    Allies paying the cost of protection

    Trump should be reminded that Desert Storm (1991) was largely paid for by US allies. The U.S. Department of Defense estimated the cost of the Gulf War at $61 billion: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states covered $36 billion; Germany and Japan covered $16 billion.

    Had the US built a similar coalition before embarking on its (illegal) invasion of Iraq in 2003 … But, nah. Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld didn’t believe in coalitions.

  5. Submitted by Roy Everson on 05/02/2016 - 10:19 am.

    Consistent blowhard

    Surprised that Trump would parrot such an unbusinesslike vision. Doesn’t he who pays the rate carry the weight? Would he be willing to concede decision-making influence to allies in proportion to their increased military budgets? I doubt it.

    Whether that’s good or bad is worthy of debate, but Trump will never try to make the case to voters that America should continue to spend lavishly on defense and give up our clout at the same time. Or would he expect allies to pay more on defense with no additional influence (think of wall and who’s paying)? Being consistent is no guarantee you ain’t a blowhard.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/02/2016 - 10:34 am.

      2% of GDP is not too much to ask

      Just five of 28 NATO members meet the defense spending goal.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/03/2016 - 11:11 am.

        Depends on what you get for it.

        Putin demonstrated in Ukraine that his interest in foreign adventures in Europe is limited to his borders.
        He’s not a threat to France or Germany, or even Poland, who dominate NATO.
        Putin’s Middle Eastern adventures are about as much a military threat to Europe as a Middle Earthian adventure would be. Russia’s economy rests on oil and gas, and Europe is its biggest market. That’s not going to change, and if it did, the answer would not be military.
        So right now, Europe’s main priority is resurrecting its economy.

  6. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 05/02/2016 - 10:40 am.

    A third article on Trump’s speech seems a bit like trying to squeeze blood from a turnip.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/02/2016 - 05:27 pm.

      Agree with you…

      Or—trying to squeeze out mileage on the turnpike. Eric did recently admit to his obsession, more or less. Is he fearful of picking on HRC here, the DFL favorite? Maybe he’ll change trains in Chicago after viewing Indiana.

      [I do believe mixed metaphor is appropriate to this topic.]

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/02/2016 - 01:10 pm.

    I’m inclined

    …to side with Roy Everson’s last sentence. Proof that Trump thought about these issues years ago, and that his current incoherent positions are the result of convictions developed in prior decades, doesn’t necessarily make the policy proposals he’s producing sensible ones. Sincerity of belief is no guarantee of truth.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/02/2016 - 01:29 pm.

      Right as usual

      Charles Manson has been in prison since 1972 for acting according to his sincere and consistent beliefs.

  8. Submitted by kevin terrell on 05/02/2016 - 01:33 pm.

    His book

    For those actually interested in seeing where Trump is coming from, I suggest you read “Art of the Deal” – as much as it may pain you. You’ll instantly recognize the guy who is now on the stage. It’s under $10 and a quick read. (Please note, this is not an endorsement of Trump – just advice on where you might learn more)

  9. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/02/2016 - 02:25 pm.

    A huge problem with Trump and any actual foreign policy he might have ( a policy has to be coherent; otherwise it’s just a bunch of disparate hunches he’s had for twenty years or so) is that it seems based on his managerial philosophy on “The Apprentice.” He told the minions gathered around him to do this or do that, ASAP, and if they didn’t, he shouted “You’re fired!” at them.

    It’s a dictatorial stance from the only guy in the room who thinks he’s the one who can declare bankruptcy over and over and have the other guys eat the loss. I wonder: Does that method work when you’re talking countries who are allies or enemies, and war and peace where other people’s children’s lives are at stake?

    Eric: There are other candidates out there. Particularly Hilary Clinton, who has coherent policies and can articulate them. We need to hear more about them. Don’t continue to play the Fox/CNN role of covering, for free, every breath Trump takes.

    • Submitted by C.S. Senne on 05/02/2016 - 05:26 pm.


      Thanks, Ms. Sullivan, for your welcome comment regarding Mrs. Clinton’s coherent policies; yes, we do need to cut through Trump’s bloviating demagoguery. Fox, CNN, MSNBC and most other oxygen-breathing news organizations follow disastrous Donald around like Uriah Heep minions. I vote for covering other points of view.

  10. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/02/2016 - 02:44 pm.

    Looking for a needle in a haystack

    Who wants their military the strongest in the world, capable of crushing all opposition? Mad men. The list of names and the track record of those who tried this is not good. They were all tyrants – and made countless enemies. We have already tried this unsuccessfully, and honestly where did it get us. We won two world wars working with allies, but when we have gone it alone against enemies who were not intent on world domination, it has cost us dearly. Trump’s thinking on this is not new – it is old and wrong-headed. He does not deserve Minnesota nice treatment – as very clearly, he thinks that nice is for losers.

  11. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/02/2016 - 09:05 pm.

    Food for thoughts

    Here is why investing in the military is smart in our insecure world: Unless people want Russia and/or China to call the shots in the world.

    Ms. Sullivan, will you please list Hillary Clinton’s foreign policies? What was accomplished with those policies? Disaster in Libya (and I do not mean Benghazi)?

    And we should all appreciate Mr. Blacks objectivity in this case…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/03/2016 - 11:19 am.

      So we’re back to

      the (fictional) ‘missile gap.
      Neither Russia nor China is a world power because of its military spending.
      Both of them are limited to their immediate vicinity (look at a map and see how far from Russia Syria is, compared to its distance from the United States).
      Their international impact is economic.
      And the picture in your link shows a 50 year old U.S. bomber (the B-52), since replaced by the B-1, the B-2 and the upcoming B-21.
      The fact that the ’52 is still in service shows how little a military threat we face in most of the world.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/03/2016 - 09:15 pm.

        The point is not that they are at our level but that they are trying to catch up and if America slows down, they will soon which will spell disaster for the world…

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