Donald Trump’s March 21st meeting with the editorial board of the Washington Post demonstrates authoritatively he has repudiated the legacy of muscular internationalism Ronald Reagan epitomized. Trump’s foreign policy views more closely resemble President Obama’s dangerous doctrine volitionally diminishing American power while downplaying the virtues of American values — demoralizing democratic friends, emboldening repressive foes, and lowered the barriers to aggression everywhere. Trump’s insistence that the United States must turn its attention inward because the country “is in really bad shape” sounds ominously, too, like the isolationist America Firsters who fecklessly opposed American intervention in World War II.
In response to a question from Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, Trump rejected the idea “associated with the foreign policy of Reagan” that the United States should continue to devote considerable attention to defending and extending the democratic zone of peace overseas. Trump pronounced as “proven not to work” nation building and a policy of promoting democracy — obstinately unaware of the vital role the United States played in facilitating conditions conducive to the spread and defense of freedom throughout Eastern and Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Israel, and much of Latin America.
Contrast Trump’s Obama-like flirtation with moral equivalence with Ronald Reagan’s assessment of his own success compared with the failures of his predecessors. The United States must never forget, “the greatest weapon that democracies have in their struggle is public candor: the truth. We must never do this again. It is not an act of belligerence to speak of the fundamental differences between totalitarianism and democracy; it is a moral imperative.”
Alas, Trump harbors many such illusions. He flaunted to the editors of the Washington Post his wanton disregard for the benefits of the American democratic alliances system Ronald Reagan deemed prudent to vindicate America’s ideals and self-interest, rightly understood. Like President Obama, Trump advocates reducing the size and scope of American commitments to allies he believes have become free riders. Trump has denigrated NATO, a democratic alliance system Reagan staunchly defended as vital even if the assumed a greater burden than our allies to sustain it. Since World War II, virtually every Republican Presidential nominee has rightly recognized that NATO well serves our vital moral and practical interests: NATO keeps the United States “involved in the long term in Europe, to promote a balance of power in the region so we wouldn’t have a repeat of World War I and World War II,” effectively deterring the Soviet Union during the Cold War and necessary today as a counter to Putin’s Imperial ambitions to reverse that outcome. Undaunted, Trump would leave Western Europe to fend for itself dealing with relentless Russian attempts to dismantle Ukraine. He proposes that “those countries right next door to the Ukraine,” particularly Germany, should bear “the biggest brunt” of any response rather than the United States.
Trump’s paranoid neo-isolationism ignores a century of historical experience demolishing his sanguine expectations that European states possess the fortitude and foresight to balance effectively against hegemonic threats. Without American intervention, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany would have won the First World War, imposing an authoritarian autarchic empire on the European continent gravely menacing to American security, prosperity, and the vitality of American political institutions. Without American intervention in World War II, Hitler would have won the Second World War, imposing Dante’s 9th chamber of hell on Europe and eventually on us — perhaps for centuries. Without the preponderance of American power and the will to use it, the evil empire of the Soviet Union would have won the Cold War, with equally baleful consequences for freedom, including our own. Without a credible American security guarantee today, Europe will likely appease vainly rather than resist successfully Putin’s Russia and the threat of radical Islam existentially threatening to Europe’s social cohesion. Contrary to what Donald Trump argues, an American led NATO constitutes a small price to pay for freedom insurance.
Trump’s unsavory mixture of rhetorical bluster and neo-isolationism will unleash even graver dangers in Asia, where he also denies the obvious: namely, that the United States gains significantly from being the indispensable default power keeping the peace in the Pacific. He insists preposterously that the United States derives no benefits from its bases in Germany and Japan, while railing simultaneously about an increasingly authoritarian, aggressive, and predatory China’s swelling assertiveness. Yet his obsession with devolving America’s global responsibilities will emasculate the credibility of a robust American-led democratic alliance system capable of thwarting China’s determination to dominate the world’s most important geopolitical region of the 21st century.
Trump seems invincibly ignorant of the reality that the Asian power collectively cannot effectively deter China unless the United States underwrites a democratic alliance system in the region, with Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand serving the democratic lynchpins of it. Like President Obama’s rhetorical but counterfeit Asian Pivot, Trump assumes that bluster can substitute for the precipitous deterioration in America’s position in the region thanks to the insidious combination of Obama slashing defense spending while China intensifies twenty year military buildup. China now possesses formidable and growing anti-access capability boding ill for the ability of the United States Navy and Air Force to project power across the Western Pacific, imperiling our most important regional allies.
A Trump presidency would compound with interest the massive damage that eight years of President Obama has inflicted on American power and prestige. For all his shortcomings, Ted Cruz is the best practicable alternative among the remaining candidates. He at least understands that the greatest dangers to the national interest arise when the United States abandons its principles, leads from behind, retreats into isolation, neglects its military, and leaves its decent democratic allies prey to the devils always lurking around the corner in international relations. Reaganites who support Donald Trump know not what they do.