What will the new Trump foreign policy look like?

The former president came into office as an agent of chaos, but his foreign policy ended up relatively stable. Will that change in a second term?

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From our March 2024 issue

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A month after the election shock of 2016, CBS’s John Dickerson sat down with the ninety-three-year-old Henry Kissinger to get his assessment of the incoming president. “Donald Trump is a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen,” Kissinger pronounced, noting that many nations would have to weigh “their perception that [Barack Obama] basically withdrew America from international politics, so that they had to make their own assessment of their necessities,” along with “a new president who is asking a lot of unfamiliar questions.” Given “the combination of the partial vacuum and the new questions, one could…

A month after the election shock of 2016, CBS’s John Dickerson sat down with the ninety-three-year-old Henry Kissinger to get his assessment of the incoming president. “Donald Trump is a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen,” Kissinger pronounced, noting that many nations would have to weigh “their perception that [Barack Obama] basically withdrew America from international politics, so that they had to make their own assessment of their necessities,” along with “a new president who is asking a lot of unfamiliar questions.” Given “the combination of the partial vacuum and the new questions, one could imagine that something remarkable and new emerges out of it,” Kissinger added. “I’m not saying it will. I’m saying it’s an extraordinary opportunity.”

Extraordinary is one word for what followed — others could include chaotic, spastic, unnerving, nail-biting — a heart-attack inducing roller coaster of tweets that prompted Americans to fear for their lives. A Washington Post/ABC poll two years later found a majority of Americans fearful that Trump’s tweets would lead to a nuclear attack from North Korea. In the days after Trump’s infamous January 2, 2018 tweet — “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” — fearful Americans jumped online to Nukepills.com to order massive doses of potassium iodide, with some suppliers selling out within forty-eight hours. Yet there’s another word for Trump’s foreign policy, bizarre as it may seem from the perspective of average Americans: stable. For all the loud noises on the Twitter front, echoed at length in hair-on-fire intonations by CNN, Trump started no new wars and didn’t get sucked into maelstroms that had any impact on American households. Much as the saber-rattling toward China and Iran increased, the tone in the Middle East was surprisingly conciliatory, as Jared Kushner’s Abraham Accords project bore fruit.

The world kept on spinning, and prior to the global pandemic, the unexpected degree of stability led many in Republican circles to espouse the president’s leadership on the global stage. Even anti-Trump Republican megadonor Ken Griffin, who gave $5 million to a super PAC supporting former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley’s long-shot bid this January, acknowledged as much: “I know many of us, me included, struggle with some of Trump’s behaviors,” he said in a CNBC appearance. “But there was a dimension of greater global security with him as president.”

In Trump’s final State of the Union speech, he said nothing about Little Rocket Man, or Vladimir Putin, or Volodymyr Zelensky — he didn’t need to. Instead, his foreign policy comments focused on China, where he touted trade deals, and Iran, where he displayed pride in his decision to kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Qasem Soleimani. It allowed him to return to the comfort of Jacksonian toughness. “America’s enemies are on the run,” he announced.

In 2024, Trump’s foreign policy critique of Joe Biden is built on the charge that the current president is doing the opposite. Beginning with the disastrous botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, followed by the failure to deter Putin from taking Ukraine and continuing with the intelligence failures in both the Gaza attack and terror watchlist members getting across America’s southern border, it takes the form of a traditional Republican critique. It’s one that we’ve heard from any number of GOP candidates in recent years: weakness begets danger, Democrats make for weaker militaries and naive diplomacy and Biden has done all of this repeatedly, leaving us feeble where Trump left us strong.

What stands out is how much this represents a break from Trump’s past approach to foreign policy. In 2015 he was an agent of chaos because of his backwards-looking criticism of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and the group of neoconservatives who got us into wars all around the world. This time around, Trump doesn’t seem to be saying anything that wouldn’t be said by Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio or his best buddy and early endorser Lindsey Graham. Just as his approach to foreign policy marked a return to Republican Party traditionalism, and a step back from Bible-quoting Wilsonianism, Trump’s foreign-policy rhetoric shocks by being extremely normal.

Yet there’s one area where we can see a major disagreement likely to crop up in the early days of a second Trump term. Much of the focus today concerns disagreements on the right about Ukraine funding, or arming Taiwan, or a stepped-up military response to Mexican cartels — favored by many once and future Trump officials, including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, but opposed by the likes of Tucker Carlson and much of the very-online New Right. But the biggest area where Trump 1.0 could conflict with Trump 2.0 is on the continued support for one particular entity: NATO.

On Capitol Hill, the issue is ubiquitous. The same week in January Rubio endorsed the former president, he was also shepherding through the Senate a national defense bill that included a pointed, unsubtle anticipation of Trump’s return to power: an amendment, co-sponsored with Democratic senator Tim Kaine, requiring a president to consult Congress before withdrawing from NATO. So even as Rubio bent the knee to his 2016 foe and called on his old pal Nikki Haley to drop out, he was pushing through a bill which would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate to get out of NATO, designed to prevent Trump from following his natural instincts. That tells you how seriously foreign policy-minded Republicans are taking the risk of Trump’s promises.

The truth is that for all of Trump’s railing about NATO failing to pay its fair share, the war in Ukraine has forced the European nations to stand up. Thierry Breton, a French European commissioner, has claimed that Trump had promised to leave the alliance back in 2020. According to Breton, Trump told European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, “You need to understand that if Europe is under attack we will never come to help you and to support you.” Trump apparently followed up by saying: “By the way, NATO is dead, and we will leave, we will quit NATO.”

Breton called the remarks “a big wake-up call” — and if they were intended as such, they worked. According to a January 2024 report by the conservative Forum for American Leadership, “In 2022, Europe spent an aggregate of $260 billion on defense, which marked a 6 percent increase over the previous year. This represents the largest increase for Europe in the post-Cold War period… In 2023, twenty-eight out of thirty-one NATO members increased their defense spending.” If it was a sign of past presidential weakness that NATO partners got away with free-loading on defense spending, Trump might be credited for the success of his “diplomat as chaotic neutral” approach to negotiating. Leaving NATO after such a victory would be like declaring diplomatic bankruptcy.

That hasn’t stopped the people likely to staff any incoming Trump team from suggesting repeatedly that they remain dedicated to exiting the alliance. Russ Vought, a longtime conservative staffer and the director of the Office of Management and Budget who presided over holding back funds from Ukraine during those tense moments that led to Trump’s first impeachment, has taken on a key outside role in charting the policy path for a second term. He’s a notable critic of any further funding for Ukraine and continued participation in NATO, even to the point of arguing that the president can openly defy Congress — and requirements like Rubio’s — on both matters. “What is the right trying to conserve? Are we trying to conserve the woke and weaponized bureaucracy and globalized system? I want to break that,” he told the Wall Street Journal in January. “I think Donald Trump wants to smash that. Trump has forced a new conversation on the right about what it means to be conservative.”

It’s understandable that a backbench bomb-thrower like Vought would be interested in such a question. But there’s precious little evidence to suggest that’s a conversation Donald Trump is personally invested in, even to the slightest degree. His interest is achieving big things for America and taking all the credit for them, or at least making the citizenry believe both that the achievement exists and that credit is due him.

Some might argue it’s possible to get all the upside of NATO without paying anything. They think that if Russia comes marching through Poland all of Europe will beg us for help, and conversely that if we “need” European allies the next time America’s interests are threatened, we have plenty of leverage to force them to our side. But that brutalist logic ignores the extremely risky downsides of such an exit — and the reality that taking this posture will erode the chances of its working over time.

As a practical matter, the anti-NATO forces within the GOP have little ground to stand on. History informs us time and again of the importance of having allies where you have interests, and that the United States should prefer to have allies who are reliable, and whose values and interests are close to ours. NATO satisfies this and helps to insure our enormous strategic interests in Europe and beyond. Even Turkey, the most troublesome NATO case, is closer to us in values and interests than the alternatives. In the past two decades, NATO countries have sent their soldiers to die in American wars of choice. And if you want a preview of what greater Europe looks like without NATO, look no further than the chaotic effort to protect the Red Sea shipping lanes, which devolved from a coalition operation to every-man-for-himself.

As America becomes a less dependable ally, the calculus of these countries will change and they will seek to balance their risk elsewhere. Their internal debates tip in favor of Russia and China without the existing infrastructure of NATO. How far will they tip in the absence of US commitment? That lesson will not be isolated from the rest of the world, where our allies might entertain the real possibility of reaching a separate peace with Beijing rather than risking total destruction.

Of course, these are hypotheticals. Reality informs us that the major historical beneficiary of NATO has not been Europe, but the United States. NATO’s major military actions have been participating in an American-led war of choice against Serbia, participating in securing American skies after 9/11 (the first time Article 5 came into play), and participating in America’s wars of necessity and choice in Afghanistan. The very point of NATO is to guarantee American hegemony, ending the cycle of conflict that dragged America into major European wars five times from 1775 to 1945. As a guarantor of American prosperity at home, it has without question succeeded.

For the anti-NATO conservatives, none of this apparently matters. Instead, they find themselves in the awkward position of arguing against their once and future champion Donald Trump, and arguing for the policy preferences of the Biden administration which, having enacted their stated policy goal in Afghanistan no matter the cost, is at this moment pursuing a policy of benign restraint around the world, with predictable results.

The bad news for foreign policy traditionalists in the Republican Party is that they will have to fight for their priorities against a Trump 2.0 team run by fanciful people who wish to play innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent. The good news is that Trump himself gives little indication that he is on this team, or cares for a moment about what it has to say. And traditionalists can take solace in this: should Trump make it back to the Oval Office, he’ll have a long list of things to smash before he gets to NATO.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2024 World edition.

Ben Domenech is an editor-at-large of The Spectator World. He is also a Fox News contributor and writes the Transom newsletter on Substack.

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