As of this writing, Nate Silver gives Donald Trump a 32.1 percent chance of winning the presidency this coming Tuesday. And as much as it is tempting to ignore such an unpleasant prospect, it is necessary to consider what the Republican nominee’s foreign policy might look like should he find himself in the Oval Office come January 2017. Based on the real estate mogul’s worldview, that picture is just as unpleasant. Leaving aside the grotesque statements Trump has made about torture, killing the families of terrorists, and banning Muslims from entering the United States—as well as his serially contradictory statements—the logic underpinning The Donald’s view of world politics is zero sum and transactional.
Political scientists such as Thomas Wright and Daniel Drezner, as well as this excellent video recently released by Vox, point to three core elements to how Trump understands foreign policy. The first element is an obsession with power and being perceived as powerful, often demonstrated in his admiration for various authoritarian world leaders. Second, every policy issue is a transaction with clear winners and losers. And third, America is on the losing end of nearly all of its international arrangements because it is weak and foolish.
This zero sum worldview is evident in the signature issues of Donald Trump’s campaign. More immigrants equal fewer jobs for Americans. Trade has clear winners and losers, with trade deficits demonstrating poor negotiating skills and lack of will by American leaders.
In Trump’s zero sum worldview the liberal international order the United States established after World War II is a failure. The net benefits for the world of an open commercial system ensuring the movement of goods throughout the globe and a system of military alliances that ameliorates security competition are instead an example of American fecklessness. The problem with the 2003 invasion of Iraq was not that it was a misguided utopian scheme to import liberal democracy to a country that had no historical precedent for it and lacked the requisite institutions. Instead, it was foolish because the victor decided to forgo the spoils of war—e.g., America did not take Iraq’s oil wealth for itself.
As Wright has argued, this worldview has been evident in statements made by Trump going back decades. It has come to the forefront, however, in his campaign. And it will animate his foreign policy should he win. According to Bert Mizusawa, a retired U.S. Army major general advising Trump on foreign policy and national security, a President Trump “would consider each foreign engagement or ‘entanglement’ on its merits: the costs vs. the expected benefits, with the option to disengage if it becomes apparent that actual benefits do not justify the costs.” It is perfectly reasonable—if exceedingly difficult in day-to-day foreign policy—to assess costs and benefits. But it matters how one judges the benefits. To Donald Trump, America’s military alliances fail the cost-benefits test because NATO’s member states, Japan, South Korea, and others, do not pay their “fair share.” That they do not pay for American protection is enough of reason, in Trump’s world, to do away with security agreements with them. If jettisoning those alliances increases the chance of war or nuclear proliferation in those regions is of little concern. Trump has even gone so far as explicitly endorsing states like Japan or South Korea acquiring their own nuclear arsenals should they feel necessary to do so absent an American security guarantee.
The relatively stable and peaceful postwar international order, the increased number of liberal democracies and relatively free market economies in Europe and Asia, and the amelioration of pressures for the spread of nuclear weapons that are at least in part a product of American security guarantees, all benefit American taxpayers. However, they are unlikely to enter into Trump’s transactional understanding of international politics. Instead, they are just further evidence of America making losing deals.