Donald Trump’s worldview is distinct, consistent and, as critics have noted, similar to a 19th century form of isolationism. The foreign policy team he is assembling also has a worldview that includes a strong military, a preference for allies who share the security burden, and an enemy list topped by the Islamic State and China. US foreign policy under Trump will be a mishmash of these two similar but separate schools of thinking.
An article in Politico carefully perused everything Trump had said about the world in the past three decades and found “he has a remarkably coherent and consistent worldview.”
Trumpism has three core tenets. One, the US’s allies benefit from the security it provides but leave the bills to Uncle Sam. “We are laughed at around the world…for defending wealthy nations for nothing. Our allies are making billions screwing us,” he once said.
Two, Trump believes the US is getting a raw deal from the global economy. He had opposed “every trade agreement in living history.”
All this would have resonated with a 19th century Republican voter: this was mainstream thinking until the world wars.
His foreign policy team has similar views, but rather than isolationists, they can be called minimalists. They want other countries to stop freeloading, feel America shouldn’t slay demons in far-off lands, and are much more transactional in areas like trade. Their positions align with Trump’s on ‘America First’, the overriding theme of his administration .
Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund says Trump will “take a tougher line than Barack Obama on both China and Pakistan, be more pro-Israel and will fight the IS.” These would accord with Indian interests, he argues.
Past statements and writings of team Trump make it clear that the US will not turn its back on an aggressive China or psychopathic IS. But it will mean the US will seek to counter both threats only if others contribute their blood and treasure. Thus the possibility of deals, like the US lifting sanctions against Russia in return for help in tackling the greater threat of Islamic State.
Trump’s vision of the “pivot to Asia” is big on warships but hostile to the use of trade to constrain China. His advisors write of adding 100 warships to the US navy, urging Japan and even Taiwan to increase military spending, but abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But it wants its Asian allies to foot a lot more of the bills. As one wrote, “it’s only fair –and long past time—for each country to step up to the full cost-sharing plate.”
The Islamic State is rated enemy number one. Many Trump advisors believe they need to resuscitate ties with key West Asian countries and Russia to wipe out IS. Again, the US will pursue a hardline approach but wants others to share the cost. However, the nuclear deal with Iran does not find much favour with the new dispensation.
A Trump administration foreign policy seems set to reverse many of the policies carried out by Obama. Russia, Mexico, China and Iran have been issues during the elections, says Richard Fontaine, president of the Centre for a New American Security. “They are areas of great dispute rather than consensus.” India, he notes, hasn’t been much of an election issue because “there is a basic bipartisan consensus on closer ties with India and this will carry over into a Trump administration.”
But Trump echoes, in a rough and ready way, many of the broad brushstrokes of his predecessor. Obama also complained about “freeloading” allies and felt the US should avoid military quagmires.
One area where the two differ strongly, however, is on the type of world leaders they admire. Academics of few words, like Manmohan Singh, were Obama’s favourites. The Politico article shows Trump to have a long-standing admiration for big sticks and strongmen.
Speaking of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he once said of the Chinese government, “they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
Noticeably, Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi were among the few world leaders who got a thumbs up from Trump during his campaign.