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.”
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.