Donald Trump's Foreign Policy Paradox

At a recent CNN Republican debate in Miami, frontrunner Donald Trump proclaimed that he would support a substantial ground invasion to defeat ISIS: "We have no choice. We have to knock out ISIS. We have to knock the hell out of them. We have to get rid of it and then we have to come back here and rebuild our country, which is falling apart." 

This aggressive posturing is never-ending and similarly coincides with a radio ad Mr. Trump aired in November, promising that as president he would "bomb the hell out of ISIS." Trump's hyperbolic rhetoric goes on when he demanded that the United States "go after" the families of terrorists, when in December he stated, "When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives; don't kid yourself. But they say they don't care about their lives. You have to take out their families." Last month, in opposition to what he calls a "politically correct war", Mr. Trump not only justified the use of torture, but attempted to legitimise the use of torture techniques that go beyond waterboarding, rejecting any conscious conforming to international law. 

Herein lies a seeming contradiction in Trump's foreign policy. Trump has for awhile been politically posturing. He projects himself as the no-nonsense candidate who criticizes the President's foreign policy deficiencies, and promises to resolve that through 'strength'. He postures and many millions appear to buy into it, even though Trump's defining foreign policy characteristic is not of strength, it is abrasive, weak and dangerous isolationism. Thomas Wright of POLITICO rightly notes that Mr. Trump has a historical consistency of staunch isolationism that rejects the important alliance system that was built after the war by President Truman. 

Trump has consistently scolded President Obama for a lack of intervention yet at the same time he argues that the United States should withdraw from the rest of the world, withdraw from its international responsibilities.

Historically, one associates the foreign policy of Republicans in the late 1940s such as Sen. Robert Taft and Charles Lindbergh as weak and timid because of their isolationism, and because it meant the United States wasn't fulfilling its international responsibilities as a world power. This isolationism meant a delayed entry into World War II, a rejection of U.S. entry into NATO, and a dismissal, at the time, of the Soviet threat.

Mr. Trump can too be deemed an isolationist. Yet he has somehow ruffled these feathers of isolationism to make it now appear a foreign policy of strength. 

There are two paradoxes. The first is this notion peddled by Mr. Trump that isolationism can be a foreign policy of strength. There is little strength in dismissing the importance of the current commitments the United States has toward the security of Eastern Europe, nor should it be deemed favourable to receive praise and acclaim from Vladimir Putin. Trump's isolationism would be dangerous for eastern Europe, let alone South Korea, Mexico, China, etc. Wright notes that,'Putin would no longer have to deal with a president committed to wide-open global trade, NATO and democracy close to his border.' The second is the condemnation by Mr. Trump of Obama's foreign policy on the basis of its weakness or ill-strategy. Trump calls to rebuild the military and to 'get tougher',  while at the same time he demands withdrawal from responsibilities around the world.

Trump has few foreign policy advisors by his side and that plays into the question of whether or not he is just making up his foreign policy views as he goes along; though he probably does know what his views are beyond his incessant emphasis on 'strength'. It's scary because the rhetoric is so incredibly senseless.

On the one hand Trump appears to call for heightened aggression, in demanding a substantial ground-force to take out ISIS, supporting the killing of the families of terrorists and supports an extension of torture beyond waterboarding, to the disregard of the Geneva Convention. At the same time, Trump rejects the alliance system built up since 1945, and is hostile to a transatlantic coalition, that can continue to assure the security of our allies. Trump's foreign policy combines the abrasiveness of an authoritarian dictator, with the non-credible prescription of dangerous isolationism.

Trump postures strength. His foreign policy projects weakness.