Some of the best pushback I got on my election post yesterday was from people who thought Trump was a safer choice than Clinton because of the former’s isolationism and the latter’s interventionism. Since I glossed over that point yesterday, I want to explain why I don’t agree.
Trump has earned a reputation as an isolationist by criticizing the Iraq War. I don’t think that reputation is deserved. He’s said a lot of things which suggest he would go to war at the drop of a hat.
— He says he will “bomb the s#!t out of ISIS” and calls for sending 30,000 troops to destroy them. His campaign website says he will “pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS”.
— He is ambiguous about whether Obama should have intervened in Syria to depose dictator Bashar Assad. He complained “there is something missing from our president. Had he crossed the line and really gone in with force, done something to Assad – if he had gone in with tremendous force, you wouldn’t have millions of people displaced all over the world. ”
— Back during the rebellion in Libya, Trump seems to have been in favor of even more dramatic intervention than Obama eventually allowed. He said on his video blog “I can’t believe what our country is doing. Qaddafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around we have soldiers all have the Middle East, and we’re not bringing them in to stop this horrible carnage and that’s what it is: It’s a carnage. You talk about things that have happened in history; this could be one of the worst. Now we should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it, and save these lives. This is absolutely nuts. We don’t want to get involved and you’re gonna end up with something like you’ve never seen before. But we have go in to save these lives; these people are being slaughtered like animals. It’s horrible what’s going on; it has to be stopped. We should do on a humanitarian basis, immediately go into Libya, knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically, very effectively, and save the lives.”
— He thinks we should have “kept” Iraq’s oil. When pressed on how exactly one keeps billions of barrels of petroleum buried underneath a foreign country, he said he would get US troops to circle and defend the areas with the oil. The “areas with the oil” are about half of the country. This sounds a lot like he wants US troops to remain in Iraq indefinitely.
— He also wants to to keep Libya’s oil. As per National Review: “I would go in and take the oil — I would just go in and take the oil. We don’t know who the rebels are, we hear they come from Iran, we hear they’re influenced by Iran or al-Qaeda, and, frankly I would go in, I would take the oil — and stop this baby stuff.”
— He suggests declaring war on Iran as a response to them harassing US ships. During the debate, he said he would “shoot their ships out of the water.”
— In 2007, he he suggested “knocking the hell out of [Iran] and keeping their oil”, though in his (sort of) defense he might have been confusing them with ISIS at the time.
— In his 2000 book The America We Deserve he suggested a preemptive strike on North Korea: “[If I were President], North Korea would suddenly discover that its worthless promises of civilized behavior would cut no ice. I would let Pyongyang know in no uncertain terms that it can either get out of the nuclear arms race or expect a rebuke similar to the one Ronald Reagan delivered to Ghadhafi in 1986. [Reagan bombed Libya]. I don’t think anybody is going to accuse me of tiptoeing through the issues or tap-dancing around them either. Who else in public life has called for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea?”
— During a town hall meeting, when host Chris Matthews asked Trump when he would use nuclear weapons, he answered “Somebody hits us within ISIS — you wouldn`t fight back with a nuke?” When Matthews reminded him that most people try to avoid ever using nuclear weapons, he answered “Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?”
Some writers have called the period since World War II the “Pax Americana”. Although there have been some deadly local wars, there’s been relative peace between great powers. A big part of this is America’s promise to defend its allies. This both prevents other countries from attacking America’s allies and prevents America’s allies from building big militaries and launching attacks of their own. The whole system is cemented by America-centric trade organizations which make war unprofitable and incentivize countries to stay in America’s orbit.
Trump wants to destroy this system because it costs money, even though it doesn’t really cost that much money compared to anything else we do and Trump intends to increase the defense budget anyway. It’s possible a post-Trump world might find some other way to maintain peace. It’s also possible that it wouldn’t, or that the process of finding that alternative way would be really bloody.
— In March, Trump said “I think NATO may be obsolete. NATO was set up a long time ago — many, many years ago when things were different. Things are different now. We were a rich nation then. We had nothing but money. We had nothing but power. And you know, far more than we have today, in a true sense. And I think NATO — you have to really examine NATO. And it doesn’t really help us, it’s helping other countries. And I don’t think those other countries appreciate what we’re doing.” Although this isn’t the worst opinion, most foreign policy scholars think that our policy of defending our allies is necessary to prevent global arms races and random regional wars.
— In July, he publicly admitted he wasn’t sure he would protect the Baltic states if Russia attacked, something we’re currently obligated to do. The Atlantic calls this “a marked departure from the security policy of every presidential nominee from either of the two major parties since NATO’s founding in 1949”. It’s especially worrying because even if you’re not going to protect the Baltic states from Russia, you shouldn’t openly say so where Russians can hear you!
— And throughout the race, Trump has campaigned on a platform that would effectively end American participation in the World Trade Organization. Trump understands that this would probably start a global trade war, but asks “who the hell cares if there’s a trade war?” I care for two reasons. First, because free trade has produced decades of sustained economic growth and the most successful poverty alleviation in human history. Second, this would probably crash the world economy, creating exactly the sort of depression that tends to produce instability (most famously Hitler’s rise during Germany’s interwar stagnation) or which drives countries toward regional hegemons willing to trade with them or just plain bribe them.
Hillary’s foreign policy isn’t great either, but it doesn’t seem as bad as some people are making it out to be.
— Hillary will probably continue US intervention in Syria; here she is more interventionist than Obama. But her intervention would probably be smaller-scale than Trump’s. She wants to arm “friendly” rebel groups and enforce a no-fly zone, but she has ruled out sending ground troops into Iraq or Syria, something Trump has promised to do. Likely she would focus on keeping enough of Syria safe to protect some civilians and prevent more refugees, then use indirect methods to make life miserable for Assad. This seems like as good a plan as any other.
— The main concern I’ve heard is that the no-fly zone might lead to conflict (war?) with Russia. Declaring a no-fly zone would mean a commitment to shoot down any plane that flies through the zone. Russia is currently flying planes through Syria, and if they tried to call Hillary’s bluff she would have to shoot down Russian planes or lose credibility; shooting down a foreign plane could obviously lead to war. Many different news sources make this point (1, 2, 3, etc). But the clearest description she’s given of what she wants suggests a no-fly zone with Russian cooperation and support. Last October, she said of her no-fly zone proposal that “I think it’s complicated and the Russians would have to be part of it, or it wouldn’t work.” There’s some good discussion of this on Reddit (see especially this comment) where most people end up agreeing that this is the heart of her plan – something like the US agreeing it won’t bomb Russian allies if Russia doesn’t bomb our allies.
— Hillary has said she will “treat cyberattacks just like any other attack”, which could mean that if Russia launches a cyberattack on the US (for example hacking the DNC’s emails) Hillary would treat it as an act of war. I think this requires a stretch. She did mention the possibility of a military response, but only in the context of possible “serious political, economic, and military responses”. My guess is we should interpret this in a non-crazy way – if Russia hacks our emails, we condemn them and maybe hack some of their stuff. If Iran hacks a dam and causes it to fail, then maybe we start thinking airstrikes. Shooting down an airliner is an act of war, but countries have shot down other countries’ airliners a bunch of times and usually people posture a bit and then let it slide. I don’t think it makes sense to think Hillary will treat cyber-attacks more seriously than that.
A lot of this has a lot of room for interpretation. I’m totally ready to believe that when Trump said he would shoot any Iranian ship that annoyed US vessels, he just meant generic macho posturing and expected everyone to hear it that way. He might even be cunningly pursuing a North Korean – style “mad dog” strategy where he tries to sound so dangerous and unpredictable that nobody dares call his bluff, and so his enemies never mess with him in any way.
Or he might mean everything he says. After all, a lot of it has been pretty consistent since long before he was running for president. There’s no point in saying things to send a game theoretic signal to Iran if you’re a random New York real estate developer and Iran isn’t listening. If he understood the theory behind sounding trigger-happy to intimidate our enemies, he probably wouldn’t have openly admitted he wouldn’t respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. And he does seem kind of 100% like a loose cannon in every way, to the point where trying to explain away loose-cannon-like statements as part of a deeper plan seems overly complex.
(Actually, I have a theory which I think explains a lot about Trump’s foreign policy positions: he doesn’t like losers. He supported the Iraq War and the Libya intervention when it looked like we would probably win. Then we lost, and he said they were stupid and bungled. He supports counterfactual invasions of Iraq and Libya where we “kept the oil” because that would have counted as winning. He supports invading ISIS because he expects to be in charge of the invasion and he expects to win. Under this theory, Trump’s retrospective non-support for failed wars doesn’t predict that he won’t start new ones.)
In the end it all comes back to the argument from variance. Maybe Trump is secretly a principled isolationist, and he’s only saying he’ll shoot at Iran and invade Libya and first-strike North Korea and steal oil from Iraq and send troops against ISIS and remove Assad in order to scare people into cooperating with him. Or maybe he’ll actually shoot at Iran and invade Libya and first-strike North Korea and steal oil from Iraq and send troops against ISIS and try to remove Assad. Who knows? He’s said a thousand times now that he’s totally different from the usual politicians, and I believe him. He could do pretty much anything.
(I’d like to think his advisors would rein him in before that point, but when asked which advisors he would consult before a major foreign policy decision, Trump could only think of one person, and he does not exactly inspire confidence.)
I am not qualified to judge Hillary’s work as Secretary of State, but I expect her to play by the book. I’m not sure if Hillary will be more aggressive or more peaceful than the last few presidents, but I don’t expect her to be a wild outlier totally beyond comparison to any previous president. I expect her to consult the foreign policy community on anything important she does, and take some advice relatively within their Overton Window. If she comes to the brink of nuclear war with Russia, I expect her to de-escalate for the same reason I expect Putin to de-escalate; they’re both rationally self-interested people who want to continue being alive and ruling their respective countries, and they value that more than any particular principle or any opportunity to prove their machismo.
I think she remains the low-variance choice for president.