Donald Trump doesn’t understand foreign affairs. He is unfamiliar with the traditions of American global leadership and the workings of international diplomacy. He views the entire word as one giant balance sheet — in which the value of US allies can be measured by not by how they further US interests and power, but by how much they’ve reimbursed America for providing them security.
These are words that I could have written anytime over the last 13 months of Trump’s campaign for president. But Wednesday night in an interview with the New York Times, Trump displayed a lack of foreign policy knowledge that went even further. It should disqualify him from the presidency. But it also undermines practically every foreign policy criticism Republicans have made of President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Because Trump lacks a keen grasp of even the most rudimentary elements of American foreign policy, he says lots of foolish things. Check that: He says incredibly foolish things that have the potential to start wars and plunge the world into global conflict.
This is not hyperbole. Trump has no grasp of the responsibility and commitment to act that comes with America being a member of a military alliance. He seems not to care or appreciate the implications of his comments that make US support for NATO allies conditional.
If Russia attacked its Baltic neighbors, Trump says, he would decide to come to their aid only if they “have fulfilled their obligations to us” — and by that he means financial obligations to the United States.
Is this saber-rattling as Trump plays to his base, or is it a preview of a foreign policy predicated on ignorance and hubris, one that seems destined to destabilize important alliances in an increasingly dangerous world? Who can say for sure. But what we do know is that Trump has basically issued an open invitation for Russia to actively seek to destabilize – even invade – its Eastern European neighbors. It is one of the most dangerous statements ever made by a presidential candidate.
Beyond the open invitation to Russia to reassert itself militarily in Eastern Europe, Trump also blithely turned his back on nearly 70 years of postwar American foreign policy. What about the concept that the United States is an exceptional nation, a global leader, “A shining city on the hill” as Ronald Reagan used to say. Donald Trump disagrees. “When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger,” he said.
That is the kind of argument that America’s enemies used to make during the Cold War — that the United States had no right to lecture the rest of the world when it couldn’t get its own house in order. It’s also the kind of argument that Republican leaders used to make about Democrats and their foreign policy views.
It should hardly come as a surprise that Trump doesn’t want the United States in the business of lecturing other nations about pesky things like democracy and the rule of law — he seems to love authoritarianism.
This is the same man who has regularly praised Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and had his aides take out language in the party platform that was viewed as hostile to Russia. He has applauded the Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen Square and said complimentary things about the totalitarian leader of North Korea. On Wednesday, he had praise for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is in the process of rounding up and imprisoning tens of thousands of his political rivals after a coup attempt in what many see as a systematic effort to undermine the country’s democratic institutions. “I give great credit to him for being able to turn that around,” said Trump. Any commitment to long-standing US support for human rihts and the rule of law is hard to identify when Trump basically adopts the position of, “Hey, who are we to point fingers.”
What makes this all the more surreal is that Trump’s comments came during a Republican convention in which speaker after speaker has complained that the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton have weakened America in the eyes of the world, ignored America’s allies, and undermined US leadership in the world.
How does one square Trump’s words with retired Lt. General Mike Flynn’s assertion that “Donald Trump’s leadership, decision-making and problem-solving abilities will restore America’s role as the undeniable and unquestioned world leader. He will lead from the front, not from behind. He will lead with courage, never vacillating when facing our enemies or our competitors.”
Or Iowa Senator Joni Ernst declaring, “There’s a void in the world: a deficit that cannot be filled by others … Our allies see us shrinking from our place as a leader in the world as we have failed time and again to address threats. They are looking for American leaders who are willing to stand up and say ‘enough is enough.’”
Or Congressman Mike McCaul saying, “Our allies no longer trust us. Our adversaries no longer fear us. And our enemies are plotting against us.” Was Trump’s assertion on Wednesday that we “are going to take care of this country first before we worry about everyone else in the world” what McCaul had in mind as the antidote?
It’s not just that Republicans have nominated a man for president who directly contradicts their own foreign policy rhetoric, but that they are very much putting US national security – and global stability – at risk.
That so many Republicans – people like John McCain, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Paul Ryan, who have all spent years bashing Obama’s foreign policy — are willing to endorse Trump for president is one of the greatest imaginable indictments of the modern Republican Party.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.