By Jonathan Cristol
The next American president will face a complicated and wide array of global security challenges: an increasingly authoritarian Turkey; the Islamic State and other extremist groups; the Syrian Civil War; the refugee crisis; Libyan chaos; the potential slow crumbling of the European Union; and America’s own crumbling infrastructure are just a few of these challenges, and not even the most important. The next president’s greatest challenge will be how to deal with revisionist states—China, Iran, North Korea, Russia—amid a perceived loss in American credibility.
Or at least that will be the greatest challenge for Hillary Clinton. Unprecedented global instability and realignment will be the greatest challenge for Donald J. Trump. Unfortunately, he will also be the source of that instability. A Trump presidency will shatter an increasingly tenuous global order, and his foreign policy is absolutely terrifying. His vision for the U.S. role in the world is a mafia protection racket, with Trump as Don(ald?) and the U.S. military as the enforcer.
Trump’s policy would hold hostage efforts to counter legitimate security threats and could potentially allow any of these threats to be realized. Worried about Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons? Pay up! Nervous about Russia violating your airspace? Pay up, chump! Chinese maritime claims got you anxious? My brown paper bag seems a little light this month. Do Iran’s actions in the Persian Gulf keep you up at night? WHERE IS MY MONEY!
It is extraordinarily difficult to choose which of Trump’s statements are the most ignorant and/or dangerous. But his most glaring oversight is his inability to see that all of these security challenges are linked; and that U.S.-Russia, or U.S.-China, or U.S.-anywhere relations do not exist in an ahistorical, acontextual vacuum. Trump has said, “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense … and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice.” Our NATO allies should increase their own defense budgets, but monetary contributions to the NATO budget itself are already equitable based on the size of members’ economies. The same dynamic applies in Japan and South Korea, though you’ll find fewer complaints about our East Asian allies not contributing their share.
If Russia threatens the Baltic states—beyond the airspace violations, cyberattacks, and kidnappings that are happening already—it is easy to imagine Trump thinking, “well, why would we go to war with Russia over Estonia? NATO is a bad deal anyway.” If China blockades the Filipino ship Sierra Madre, Trump will think, “well, sure, China is more powerful, so let them do what they want.” That the U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines probably won’t mean much to Trump, especially if it’s a “bad deal.”
The U.S. need not formally withdraw from NATO or reassess its relationship with Japan, South Korea, or any other country or alliance in order to cause chaos. Trump need only state out loud that we might not actually defend the Baltic states, Japan, or South Korea for a global realignment to occur. Every state (and state-like entity, such as Taiwan) would reassess what an agreement, treaty, or guarantee from America is worth.
If Trump says he might not defend the Baltics, how long will it be before South Korea and Japan go nuclear? Or even Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Taiwan? Dangerously fast nuclear proliferation would be only one of the damaging effects. States would have to decide whether or not to bandwagon with Russia, China, or Iran—it’s difficult to imagine any state bandwagoning with North Korea—in the (truly ironic) hope of getting a better deal for themselves; or whether or not to form a new alliance system that excludes the U.S.
Global realignment and rampant nuclear proliferation are not the only dangers posed by a Trump presidency. Trump’s economic vision is no better. It is rooted in the idea that everyone else capitulates to American demands, or else. Unfortunately for Trump, it is far easier for states to retaliate against the U.S. economically than militarily, and the damage to the American economy would be severe. There are also important security considerations in international trade. If the world’s major economies are tied together through a robust trading regime, they may well be less likely to go to war—and the potential for Trump’s actions to demolish the trading system that has taken 70 years to develop is a horrifying prospect.
His talk of a moratorium on Muslim immigration is already used as fodder for terrorist recruitment and damages American standing abroad. Trump’s tone and rhetoric could start to undo the integration of Muslim communities in the United States. If Trump sets a tone that marks Muslims as a hated and feared “other,” his stirring of anti-Muslim sentiment could become a self-fulfilling prophecy and create a domestic radicalization problem that does not yet exist.
Hillary Clinton is not the ideal foreign policy candidate. Her track record on many of these security challenges is not great, and her judgment is highly questionable. She was behind the “Russian reset” that showed little foresight into Vladimir Putin’s strategic aims; she pushed for the intervention in Libya that destabilized that country, allowed the Islamic State to take hold of new territory, and made U.S. counter-proliferation efforts more difficult; and she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is both an economic boon to its members and a step forward in bringing a diverse array of nations together to counter China’s expansionist aims in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, compared to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton is the greatest foreign policy mind in history—George Kennan, Georges Clemenceau, Charles Talleyrand, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt all rolled together.
Clinton is more interventionist than President Barack Obama, and that is not inherently a bad (or good) thing. She is likely to intervene more aggressively in Syria and Iraq to both push back against the Islamic State and provide humanitarian aid. She is also likely to increase NATO troop strength in Eastern Europe, boost U.S. naval presence in the South China Sea, and take a more aggressive approach to Iranian missile tests. She will want to push back against revisionist states, and she possesses the experience and knowledge to do so in a reasonably effective manner—the question is if her party’s base makes such action politically possible.
Hillary Clinton does not present any sort of radical foreign policy vision that will somehow solve the world’s problems, but she is a known quantity and an intelligent person. It is actually possible to make some predictions about what she might do as president. Donald Trump’s foreign policy will benefit nobody but Russia; and even then, his thin-skinned narcissism and ignorance makes the possibility of war even in the face of an American inward turn impossible to rule out. Being highly unpredictable at the poker table can be a strength, but being highly unpredictable in international politics can be catastrophic.
Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter @jonathancristol.
[Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore]