On the campaign trail, Donald Trump’s foreign policy smacks of bluster and bellicosity. He is, as he often says, ready to “knock the hell out of ISIS.” But that kind of rhetoric appears to mask a far different philosophy, that of an inward-looking politician whose views represent a dramatic break with years of Republican Party orthodoxy.
From the Middle East to Europe to Asia, Trump’s instincts appear shaped by his belief that too much has been asked of the United States and that it’s time for other nations to shoulder a far bigger share of the financial and other burdens of dealing with a world of dangerous terrorists and aggressive states such as Russia and China.
Trump met Monday morning with members of The Washington Post’s editorial board. An audio recording of the hour-long interview was shared with reporters and editors in the newsroom. In perhaps the most extensive questioning he has faced on foreign policy issues, the Republican front-runner sounded more isolationist than interventionist, more interested in rebuilding the United States than nation-building overseas.
“I don’t think we should be doing nation-building anymore,” he said when he was asked about the values and policies of previous presidents such as Ronald Reagan. “I think it’s proven not to work. . . . I just think we have to rebuild our country. . . . There are values in our country that we have to promote. We have a country that’s in bad shape.”
He fretted that the United States is spending billions and billions of dollars to support countries such as Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea. “We spent billions of dollars on Saudi Arabia and they have nothing but money, and I say, ‘Why?’ ” Trump said. “I would structure a much different deal with them, and it would be a much better deal.”
At another point, Trump complained about the costs of defending South Korea and protecting the Pacific. He asked why the United States isn’t fully reimbursed for the costs of such endeavors.
When asked whether he thought, apart from the financial obligations, the United States gained something of value from having bases in such areas and by implication projecting power around the world, he replied, “I personally don’t think so.”
“So you don’t think the U.S. gains by being the force that helps keep peace in the Pacific?” he was asked.
“I think that we are not in the position we used to be,” he replied. “I think we were a very powerful, very wealthy country. And we’re a poor country now. We’re a debtor nation.”
The Trump worldview that emerged Monday draws heavily from his theme that America loses more often than it wins, that the United States has been played for a sucker for far too long, that nations that once needed U.S. assistance are now wealthy enough to take care of themselves, while this country suffers from economic decline, a lack of good jobs at home and rising national debt.
Take his view of the U.S. role in Europe. “NATO was set up at a different time,” he said. “NATO was set up when we were a richer country. . . . NATO is costing us a fortune, and yes, we’re protecting Europe with NATO, but we’re spending a lot of money. . . . I think NATO as a concept is good, but it’s not as good as it was when it first evolved.”
This Trump philosophy represents a significant departure from the foreign policies enunciated by the past three Republican presidents — Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — and from the kind of muscular U.S. national security policy long embraced by their party. Reagan governed as a Cold War president when the world looked to the United States to check the Soviets. He confronted the Soviet Union, spending heavily on a military buildup that the other side couldn’t match, then negotiated deep cuts in nuclear arms. He funneled money to anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan and engaged in other proxy wars around the world.
George H.W. Bush governed in a time of transition to a world where the Soviet Union broke apart, a world in which the United States would become the lone superpower. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, he assembled an international coalition to repel the Iraqi forces, using U.S. military air power and a huge ground army to drive them back, a war financed heavily with the bankrolls of U.S. allies.
George W. Bush led the United States into Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and, later, into what became a disastrous war in Iraq. In his second inaugural address, in the midst of the Iraq adventure, he offered an expansive vision for the United States around the globe, setting out a goal of ending tyranny by helping to spread democracy into parts of the world where it had never taken root.
The views Trump laid out Monday echo the sentiments of a minority faction of the Republican Party that prefers to draw inward. His views, like those of others in this group, stem in part from the experience in Iraq, which Trump has consistently described as a major foreign policy blunder. But they are heightened by his focus on what he sees as the damaging effects of international trade on the financial standing and prestige of the United States.
He twice made a point of saying he was not prepared to trigger a third world war, first in reference to Russia and Ukraine, a second time in a discussion about China’s moves in the South China Sea. He said he would “find it very, very hard” to approve sending tens of thousands of U.S. troops to fight the Islamic State, even if the generals at the Pentagon recommended it. “I would put tremendous pressure on other countries that are over there to use their troops, and I would give them tremendous air support . . . because we have to get rid of ISIS.”
He returned to the Middle East later in the interview, using the kind of rhetoric he projects on the campaign trail. Asked whether he would consider using battlefield nuclear weapons in such a conflict, he said: “I would knock the hell out of ISIS in some form. I’d rather not do it with our troops.” In that case, he was asked, would he consider using battlefield nuclear weapons rather than putting U.S. troops at risk? “I don’t want to start the process of nuclear,” he said. “Remember one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counterpuncher.”