Trump: neither isolationist nor interventionist

By Mitchell Blatt
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, January 12, 2017
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The discourse over whether Donald Trump is "anti-interventionist" or a militant warmonger is misguided. Trump is neither, and yet he's also both. Indeed, he has put forward arguments -- contradictory as this may sound -- for both ways of thinking.

The media and ideological analysts like narratives, and this has led them to seek to place Trump in one or other ideological camp. For instance, after he made noises that suggested he favored isolationism, many Americans on that side of the political spectrum considered Trump as one of their own.

A cohort of academics involved in international relations studies, including Professor Daniel Drezner of Tufts University, argued that Trump's self-proclaimed anti-interventionism should be understood as "realism;" meanwhile, most respected realist scholars, such as Harvard’s Steven Walt, argued Trump wasn't a realist at all.

The latest shot in the academic debate comes from George Washington University professor Henry Nau, who argued in The American Interest, just in time for Trump's inauguration, that his traditional nationalism represents a dire threat to the longstanding American policy of "nationalism of internationalism," which Nau defines as “intervention abroad to defend democratic allies, defeat terrorism, and trade freely.”

Embedded in his argument, however, some assumptions, derived from the view that Trump is an isolationist, simply don't stand up to scrutiny. America will fall apart, Nau argues, if it reverts to "fighting terrorism at home because the United States is no longer willing to fight it on the ground abroad." ("Fighting terrorism abroad" so Americans don't have to face it at home is a neo-conservative argument for sending troops to Iraq or Afghanistan to fight ISIS, al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups).

It's a misnomer, however, that Trump doesn't want to send American troops abroad to fight terrorist and insurgent groups. After all, he’s repeatedly said he wants to "bomb the shit" out of ISIS in Syria. In March, he even paid lip-service to the need to send in up to 30,000 ground troops.

In fact, he has continuously argued for invading Iraq and Syria and stealing their oil, using the proceeds for American causes. Even worse, he would torture those suspected of terrorism and kill their civilian family members. "I am the greatest hawk who ever lived... ...the most militant human being," he once declared.

That's why I've always been surprised when people say he would end American interference abroad, bringing home the troops. Where that narrative arises is that Trump gives a nod to pulling troops out of South Korea and Japan, and cozying up to Russia; however, even here, it’s unclear how serious he is in making such remarks. He could have just been using it as a campaign lie or a negotiating tactic. Besides, he said that even if America withdrew from Japan, he would have no problem with Japan and Korea developing nuclear weapons.

It would be fair to say Trump has consistently played down a Russian threat to the U.S. and expressed skepticism about defending the liberal world order. To that end, he might not be as active as his predecessors in pushing countries on human rights or intervening on the grounds of "responsibility to protect" civilians.

On the other hand, he may prove to be much more aggressive than Obama when confronted by terrorists or adversaries he sees as insulting American honor. As someone who takes any personal insult very deeply, he applies the same thin-skinned egotism to his country.

He has expressed the view that Obama has been a "weak" president for being relatively passive when confronting terrorism and crisis. For example, he and fellow Republicans say Obama didn't strike hard enough at Iran when the latter captured U.S. soldiers who drifted into Iranian waters. In fact, Obama got the soldiers released within 15 hours. Trump says he would have "shot Iran out of the water."

We can already see the broad forms of Trump foreign policy in effect from the amateur foreign policy program he pursued in the two months between winning the election and his swearing-in. Shortly after victory, he talked by phone with foreign leaders, including Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Taiwan's leader Tsai Ing-wen.

The conversation with Tsai was unprecedented as a U.S. president had never publicly communicated with a Taiwan leader since the opening of relations with the People's Republic of China in the 1970s. He poured fuel on the flames in Chinese eyes by then raising the possibility of formally recognizing Taiwan.

According to Duterte, Trump expressed support for the former’s extrajudicial program of killing suspected drug users and invited him to the White House.

Both incidents show Trump has radically changed course on human rights compared to Obama, who criticized Duterte's war on drugs and was called "a son of a bitch" in response.

Neither does Trump care about toppling Syrian leader Bashir Assad or putting a stop to Russia's bombing campaign in Syria that liberal interventionists claim is killing an unnecessarily large number of civilians. Yet, that doesn't mean Trump wants to be hands-off on Syria. It just means that he would be focused on fighting ISIS rather than the Syrian regime.

On the whole, Trump's policies of confrontation could cause more global instability than have Obama. The latter was keen to push perceived American interests where he felt it possible, but he did so usually with an understanding of the objections of other powers and balancing concerns. The nuclear deal with Iran is one example of where Obama was able to reach a settlement with an adversary with the help of other countries, including Russia and China.

Even where Obama intervened militarily, he often did so after achieving approval from the UN (as in Libya, flawed as that intervention was). Trump, on the other hand, has a unilateral streak, one of the reasons he wants to withdraw from the liberal world order and potentially tear up the Iran deal.

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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