Donald Trump’s Farcical Foreign Policy

Trump is less a commander-in-chief than an emperor with no clothes.

The “Trump Doctrine” – Is there one? What is the leading Republican contender’s worldview? What would be his national security strategy if elected president? What do his foreign policy advisors say about ISIS, the Western alliance, military doctrine, intelligence collection, trade policies? This ex-diplomat took a romp into Trumpland in search of these mysteries and came out dazed and confused.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with Establishment Republicans. As on Trump’s domestic agenda, they are tearing their hair out over The Donald’s national security stances.

Former 9/11 Commission executive director and State Department counselor Philip Zelikow bemoaned Trump’s foreign policy ideas as “a waste of time for outsiders to think about.” He told me that “Trump’s appeal is social and cultural. It is not ideological. So positions on ‘issues’ are just vehicles for communicating an attitude.” Zelikow asserted that “there is actually no way of knowing what Trump would really do about any particular issue as president. He doesn’t know himself.”

Eliot Cohen, a senior official at the State Department and the Pentagon in two Republican administrations, recently circulated an open letter among Republican national security luminaries declaring, “We commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.” He described Trump’s worldview as “chaotic, uninformed and populist.” He lamented to me, however, that he doubted the letter, now with over 120 signatories, would have much of an impact on the campaign. But it “represents the sentiment of a broad spectrum among Republicans.”

And Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop musings on the world are not being looked upon favorably overseas either. In an op-ed, China’s Global Times, which reflects the views of the PRC leadership, stated, “The rise of a racist in the U.S. political arena worries the whole world.” Germany’s Der Spiegel wrote, “Nothing would be more harmful to the idea of the West and world peace than if Donald Trump were to be elected president.” After debating over three hours on whether to slap an entry ban on Trump, Britain’s House of Commons settled on denouncing him as a “buffoon, demagogue and wazzock.” Trump, in turn, threatened to withhold investment in Scotland, his mother’s birthplace.

Why all the hue and cry? Following is a sampling of Mr. Trump’s recent statements on foreign policy:

NATO, Trump told the New York Times, is an “obsolete” and costly alliance from which the U.S. should consider withdrawing. Such an act would send to the dust bin of history the lynchpin of Western security since World War II. NATO has kept Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions in check during four decades of the Cold War and now in the post-Soviet period. In an earlier interview with other journalists, Trump described Vladimir Putin to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough as “a strong leader,” one he would “get along very well with.” Putin, in turn, said Trump was “an outstanding and talented personality.” Trump’s cozying up to Putin is a logical follow-on for encouraging Russian aggression.

“We need unpredictability,” Trump touted when asked about when the U.S. should use military force. But he was clear on one scenario: using American troops to seize Iraqi oil fields and “keep the oil.” (“Many very smart scholars and military scholars said that’d be a great thing to do,” Trump said.) “Unpredictability” as a hallmark on defense policy invites potential for chaos. And grabbing another country’s natural resources through force is a throwback to 19th century European imperialism.

Trump has called for using interrogation techniques that are “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” He has also said that American troops would not disobey him if he issued them illegal orders, an assertion from which he has since walked back.

Trump would throw nuclear nonproliferation out the window, stating that Japan’s and South Korea’s gaining nuclear weapons would be okay with him. The “Japanese are going to want to have that anyway,” he said to the New York Times. Trump stated he would yank American forces from Japan and South Korea if they failed to cough up more money to support U.S. troop presence. He seemed taken aback when informed that Japan and South Korea already foot fifty percent of the bill. He then countered that it should be 100 percent. “Our country’s a poor country” is a recurrent refrain in his interviews. “I have great relationships with South Korea. I have buildings in South Korea,” he said.

His meandering non sequiturs on China and the Middle East leave one breathless:

“When I deal with China, you know, I have the Bank of America building, I’ve done some great deals with China. I do deals with them all the time on, you know, selling apartments.”

On a two-state Israel-Palestine solution: “What I’m going to do is, you know, I specifically don’t want to address the issue because I would love to see if a deal could be made.” Huh?

Syria: “I thought the approach of fighting Assad and ISIS simultaneously was madness, and idiocy. They’re fighting each other and yet we’re fighting both of them.” (The U.S. has not deployed force against Syrian government forces.)

Iran: The nuclear agreement is a “bad deal” and “I would never have given them back the $150 billion under any circumstances… and did you notice they’re buying (airplanes) from everybody but the United States?” (In fact, U.S. law prohibits sales of aircraft to Iran.)

Trump has also asserted that “Iran is the No. 1 trading partner of North Korea.” When informed China occupies that spot, Trump retorted, “I’ve heard that certainly, but I’ve also heard from other sources that it’s Iran.” In fact, Iran is not even among the top ten of Pyongyang’s trading partners.

Would he stop buying oil from Saudi Arabia should the latter refuse to send ground troops to combat ISIS? “The answer is, probably yes,” said Trump. Undermining Washington’s key Arab ally in such a fashion could bring about the collapse of its government, leaving that country vulnerable to a takeover by Islamic extremist groups.

On intelligence collecting, and specifically, on the U.S. having tapped into German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, Trump dissembled, making no sense at all: “Well you see, I don’t know that, you know, when I talk about unpredictability, I’m not sure that we should be talking about me – on the assumption that I’m doing well, which I am, and that I may be in that position…”

Trying to pin Trump down on his worldview, the New York Times’ David Sanger asked if he could list books or series of articles that have informed him. Again, Trump deflected and dissembled, referring vaguely to a “very big array of things from reading the media.” In earlier statements, Trump revealed that his top foreign policy adviser was himself, “because I have a very good brain, and I’ve said a lot of things.” He also said that he “watches the shows for advice.” 

In adopting “America First” as his foreign policy motto, Trump appears to be oblivious to its having been the name of a pre-World War II isolationist movement with anti-Semitic overtones. If Trump has a worldview, it is the transactional one of the businessman, based on “deals” as opposed to resolutions or agreements. The globe for Donald Trump is one vast real estate market. Yet from the evidence, he not only lacks a worldview, but also the foundation upon which to form one.

Almost as an afterthought, Trump recently announced the selection of a foreign policy advisory team to help him sort out his thinking on the weighty national security issues facing the nation. “We’re going to have a very substantial council of very good people,” he declared. The eight men lean heavily toward the military with four being retired flag officers and one an ex-DOD civilian official. None is considered A-team caliber, nor even B-team. While most all seem to have solid backgrounds in their respective disciplines, ranging from a special forces commander to two energy consultants, none is of the high stature from which leading presidential contenders usually recruit.

For example, Gen. Joseph Keith Kellogg is a retired Army lieutenant general who was chief operating officer of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, generally considered a failed venture. There is little publicly available information on military advisors Maj. Gen. Gary L. Harrell, Maj. Gen. Bert K. Mizusawa and Rear Adm. Charles R. Kubic.

Meanwhile, other advisors named by Trump have decidedly checkered records. Joseph Schmitz and Walid Phares have written dire warnings about a supposed sharia threat to America. Schmitz, son of a former head of the John Birch Society, resigned as the Pentagon’s watchdog inspector general during the Bush-II administration amid reports of ethics violations. Phares, a former Mitt Romney advisor and TV news commentator, reportedly was involved with a Christian militia responsible for massacres during the Lebanese civil war. Only Phares appears to have a significant body of published works providing a window into his thinking.

Civilian Carter Page whose background is in energy, has compared Obama’s National Security Strategy document to an 1850 one on how to manage slaves. George Papadopoulos is a London-based energy analyst and a former researcher at the Hudson Institute. Trump met with his national security team on March 31. It is not clear if he had met any of them beforehand.

I came up empty-handed in my efforts to contact any of these advisors. Either they didn’t respond to my messages or they lacked any contact info whatsoever. Other reporters have likewise come up dry. Trump’s campaign staff – senior policy advisor Sam Clovis and press spokeswoman Hope Hicks, as well as others – was likewise incommunicado. In early March, Trump announced that Alabama senator Jeff Sessions was the chairman of his national security advisory committee. Session’s office refused to comment, referring me back to the unresponsive Trump campaign.

The Trump “Make America Great Again!” campaign website is equally uninformative. There is no link to a press office. And the only foreign policy issue listed under “Positions” is “U.S.-China Trade Reform.” By contrast, the Kasich and Cruz campaign websites offer ways to connect to a media representative and offer a laundry list of each candidate’s positions on an array of national security issues.

It is hard to discern from his braggadocio and impromptu statements whether Donald Trump is even aware that he is profoundly out of his depth on foreign affairs, that he is abjectly unqualified to be commander-in-chief.

In his book, The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote, “You can’t con people, at least not for long…You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you can’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” By contrast, the great Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu, wrote in The Art of War, “A good commander is benevolent and unconcerned with fame.” The question is, when will the voters catch on?

[The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government.]

James Bruno

James Bruno is a writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.