Published in Real Clear Politics
Many of Donald Trump’s comments on foreign relations have left experts and former policymakers scratching their heads, and, in some cases, hostile to his candidacy for president.
Case in point are the 50 former foreign policy officials from Republican administrations who last month announced they wouldn’t vote for Trump because he has “demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding of America’s vital national interests.”
Their position is not surprising. Trump’s perspective on foreign policy sees a continuing decline of American power and influence in the world. Most foreign policy experts don’t question the United States’ dominant role on the world stage. America has been a superpower for as long as they can remember — to think otherwise is almost heresy.
But basic economic statistics tell a different story.
In a period of about 15 years, America’s share of global manufacturing has dropped from 28 percent to roughly 17 percent. The trade deficit has increased 38 percent over the same time period — from $360 billion to $500 billion. Meanwhile, average economic growth has slowed from over 3 percent to a meager 2 percent, and the federal debt has skyrocketed to an unsustainable 100 percent of gross domestic product.
In Trump’s assessment, America’s power flows directly from its economic strength. The ability of the United States to influence other nations is a result of the competitive advantage held by its industries.
Therefore, growth in the trade deficit is a clear indicator of American decline, especially when Chinese exports are increasing. The manufacturing and technology sectors are incredibly important industries to U.S. power and prestige in Trump’s view. Regaining America’s place as a heavy manufacturing leader is paramount for Trump. Renegotiating trade deals or effectively enforcing them to protect American competitiveness is necessary to reversing the relative decline of U.S. industry and the leakage of jobs overseas. Perhaps more important are Trump’s calls for the reform of a burdensome bureaucratic federal state that cost the economy more than $2 trillion in 2012, according to a study commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers. Trump also wants to see the reform of our antiquated tax system, which automatically puts American companies at a competitive disadvantage.
Trump views growing the economy as crucial to rebuilding a military capable of meeting the challenges America will face in coming decades — particularly from a resurgent and expansionist China.
Trump believes that the United States must be realistic in its approach to foreign policymaking. It should avoid nation-building, recognizing that attempts to force Western-style democracy on societies that reject or are not prepared for it are futile, wastes resources that should be spent on domestic needs, and results in the needless deaths of countless Americans and foreign nationals. Trump views the Iraq War and the subsequent military intervention in Libya as disasters that only destabilized the Middle East and further fanned the flames of terrorism.
There’s no question that Trump sees Islamist terror as the most immediate threat to America. Trump made this clear in a recent speech where he said that “all actions should be oriented around this goal, and any country which shares this goal will be our ally.”
It’s through the same lens that he views Russia. For Trump, the enemy of our enemy is our friend — at least until our mutual enemy is destroyed.
Trump takes a similarly cautious approach to China. Trump has called for better relations with Beijing on multiple occasions, but he understands that China’s increasing economic power is translating into greater military capabilities in the region. Trump is aware of the importance of keeping Russia as a counterbalance to China’s growing dominance. “Don’t ever let China and Russia get together,” Trump has said. He’s right.
The Trump Doctrine appears uninformed only to those who fail to see that the competitiveness of U.S. industry is key to America’s ability to project power, and that the challenges of Islamist terror and the rise of China require a review of our strategic alliances and policies, which were largely shaped by the Cold War.
While these factors may not be apparent to the foreign policy establishment now, Trump will likely be proven right with time. We can only hope that the next president will be someone who understands the need to adapt to a changing world before it’s too late.