By Alex Christensen for Global Risk Insights
Amid a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates, Donald Trump stands out as the one defining the storyline of the race so far. His firebrand personality and combativeness, which made him perfect for reality television, have attracted the interest of Republican primary voters and schadenfreude-seeking liberals alike.
Several recent polls show that Mr. Trump has sustained his lead among GOP candidates, which makes it worth considering what he would do with the presidency. Of course, the core of the Republican establishment will almost certainly do all in its power to prevent a Trump nomination, especially considering that he has doubled down on offensive remarks about women and Hispanics, the two most important categories of swing voters.
Mr. Trump’s business experience, in his supporters’ minds, would lend well to managing the economy. But the president’s power over economic policy is limited. Presidents have much more influence over foreign policy, so what would a Trump presidency’s foreign policy look like?
To begin with, Trump’s hallmark refusal to act diplomatically seems catastrophic for the lead diplomat of the United States.
How much of Trump’s agenda is empty rhetoric?
Mr. Trump’s bravado can be seen in any interview, but how much of that is he willing to follow through on? Is his style closer to Eisenhower’s maximum deterrence, or a vigilante Dr. Strangelove character in line with other Republican hawks?
Eisenhower’s strong rhetoric and perceived willingness to push the launch button on nuclear weapons against the Soviets was about building a credible threat, albeit one he did not intend to act on. On the other hand, the character General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove brazenly and unilaterally started wars because he thought it was the ‘right’ thing to do.
This philosophy is particularly pertinent in the recent Iran deal, which Mr. Trump has roundly criticized (in addition to his tone-deaf generalization that “Persians are great negotiators”). Mr. Trump has avoided calling on the US to attack Iran, and instead focused on the weakness of the Obama administration in negotiations.
In this way, he is able to sound strong on Iran policy, while in reality, he is not nearly the most hawkish Republican candidate on Iran. His tone on the Iran deal is a clue that he would be more in line with maximum deterrence than action. As contemporary critics of Eisenhower readily pointed out, however, maximum deterrence is a flimsy negotiating tactic if one is not willing to follow through.
Making enemies where there previously were none
In US foreign policy, balancing the needs of allies is difficult enough when one is on good terms, as the frustrating negotiating process of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is showing. When needlessly causing offense, things get much more uncomfortable, which is what Mr. Trump has spent much of his time speaking on foreign policy doing.
In an interview earlier this year on Fox News, Mr. Trump insinuated that the Japanese and Chinese are maliciously manipulating currencies and that the US must retaliate. Both these topics are politically sensitive, especially given Japan’s use of policy to counteract two decades of slumping economic performance. However, they resonate with a specific segment of voters likely to turn out in Republican primaries.
Much more tastelessly, Mr. Trump has repeatedly made accusations that Mexico is purposefully sending rapists and criminals over the border into the United States. Comments like these could throw any diplomatic relationship into question, or at least make allies less willing to accommodate favors the US asks. In this case, it has another domestic effect: alienating the fast-growing Hispanic population.
His outlook on Mexico, which also includes the theory that it is destroying domestic manufacturing, brings into question his views on trade deals. Based on his corporate background, one might think he is pro-free trade, but he has called NAFTA a bad trade deal and proposed tariffs on auto manufacturing that would violate it.
NAFTA is not the only trade deal Mr. Trump opposes. He also is on the record against TPP. Just like the Iran deal, he offers few specifics besides accusing the Obama administration of getting a ‘bad deal,’ with the exception that under TPP, the Japanese would be able to continue manipulating their currency.
Trump’s foreign policy agenda is a distillation of other GOP candidates’ platforms, but without a filter or appreciation for nuance. His foreign policy as president would unpredictably put relations with US allies on ice and be unlikely to produce détente with others. His insistence on tariffs, if implemented, would force the US to repeatedly face the World Trade Organization.
But since policy strategists in the Republican establishment know they cannot coach and rebrand Mr. Trump if he becomes the nominee, they will coalesce around someone like Jeb Bush, who they believe recognizes that the process of politics involves restraint.