The cliché is that Donald Trump says what people think. On foreign policy, that cliché is actually true. Trump’s phone interview with the New York Times has been roundly mocked by political observers. In the transcript, he comes across more like a belligerent drunk than a potential president, but the mockery is missing some important points. Trump, in all his stumbling and self-contradiction, is asking some reasonable questions about American foreign policy. Trump doesn't have the right answers, but if our political class ignores the questions Trump is raising, we could be in for an even bigger revolt down the line.
Trump muses that the US should be “reimbursed” for providing security services to other countries. Some critics have mocked this as a “mafia” foreign policy, while others like Jeffrey Goldberg have condemned Trump for having “no understanding of the post-war international order.”
All that might even be true, but there are some real points under Trump's ramblings. A reasonable layman would ask why wealthy democracies like Japan and Germany don't pay a larger share of their income toward defense. People who are more intelligent and better informed than Trump have repeatedly pointed out that the refusal of American allies to invest in their own defense establishments threatens both their alliance with the US and the peace of the world.
Goldberg mocking Trump for not understanding the post-war world is particularly weak because many Trump supporters (and not merely Trump supporters) might reasonably wonder why the alliances that date (formally or informally) to the Cold War still make sense today.
As it happens, I believe that maintaining something like our current alliance system makes sense. The withdrawal of American involvement would embolden China, Russia, and Iran while sending the neighbors of those countries scrambling to arm themselves and use all means to check the threats from the local authoritarian threat. A world without our alliances would see multiple local nuclear arms races, proxy wars, and stateless regions that could become havens for terrorist groups, and refugee migrations. It would be a recipe for more Syrias, more Ukraines, more nuclear states, and more ISIS statelets.
But it isn't self-evident. Responsible politicians need to make the case for why American alliances make sense in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. To the extent that Trump is getting traction with his foreign policy views, it is because America's responsible politicians have failed to reach the public with comprehensible arguments. Making fun of people who have questions about the value of America's alliances is counterproductive.
Trump has also been mocked for suggesting that we should have stolen Iraq's oil and his recent flip-flop (when it was pointed out that stealing Iraq's oil would require a major commitment of ground troops) that we should destroy Iraq's oil reserves.
Once again, there are counterarguments, but they need to be made. The first is the obvious moral argument that Iraq's oil never belonged to the United States and, upon the toppling of the Hussein regime, belonged to the Iraqi people. There is also the realpolitik argument that, since we were never going to depopulate Iraq, we needed a stable and legitimate Iraqi government, and this included a government that controlled oil revenues. Stealing Iraq's oil would have increased the size and expense of the American occupation even as it made it more difficult to transition to local government. Also, unless we plan to use nukes, there is no destroying the oil under the control of ISIS. There is only destroying the existing oil extraction and transportation facilities.
The tragic irony is that it is difficult for our current political elites (of either party) to make these prudential arguments against Trump. The arguments about why it would be imprudent to try to steal Iraq's oil illuminate the imprudence of the smashing of Iraq's Baathist state (ordered by the Bush administration) and the hideously mismanaged occupation of 2003-2006 that led to the rise of al-Qaeda-in-Iraq (the predecessor organization to ISIS.) The argument from prudence highlights, too, the petulance and irresponsibility of the Obama administration's withdrawal from Iraq, which led to al-Qaeda-in-Iraq's transformation from a defeated and marginalized entity into an Islamic State that commands territory across two countries and is able to direct or inspire attacks from Beirut to Paris to California.
It isn't easy to make the case for the American alliance system. It is even more difficult to make the case in 60 seconds with twelve other candidates on the stage. It is especially difficult when the last two administrations have been so flagrantly imprudent, and when each party's elites are dependent on self-exculpating myths about Iraq. These difficulties don't make it any less important to speak for foreign policy prudence, and things might be even worse than they seem.
Trump has gotten less than 40 percent of the vote among Republican voters. That is a plurality within a divided field, but that might understate the potential support for Trumpian questioning of the American alliance system. Trump is repellant to segments of the population for reasons that have nothing to do with his foreign policy views. Many people see him as the candidate of identity politics for elderly white people, but many of those same Trump despisers have grown up in the post-Cold War world. Those Trump haters could wonder, just as easily as Trump supporters do, how we occupied oil-rich Iraq for the better part of a decade and lost money as well as lives. They wonder why we should care about protecting Poland from Russia, Japan from China, and the Gulf States from Iran and ISIS. For all our sakes, these skeptics deserve respectful answers from our political class, or else our alliances might be smashed by someone with wider appeal than The Donald.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.