Trump’s Rise: Who’s to Blame?

The Republican foreign policy establishment is up in arms over Donald Trump’s ascendancy. The prospect that “The Donald” could become The Commander in Chief is simply too much for many of them to stomach.

Take, for example, this “Open Letter on Donald Trump From GOP National Security Leaders” signed by almost 80 members of the Republican foreign policy elite. They warn that a Trump presidency would be dangerous to America’s safety, civil liberties, and international reputation.

I share their concern. But when people ask who is at fault for America’s tragic turn inward, if Trump wins a major party nomination – or, worse, the election – the very GOP foreign policy elite that is now denouncing him should get the lion’s share of the blame for his rise.

We should begin by understanding the people who comprise today’s GOP foreign policy elite, and what motivates them. This is not Dwight Eisenhower’s GOP, or even George H.W. Bush’s. Their bias toward interventionism is not grounded in traditional conservative precepts of order and fiscal discipline. When forced, they will call for higher taxes to fund more military spending. And they are openly disdainful of whatever small government instincts the modern conservative movement draws from libertarianism. 

So no one should be surprised when some neoconservatives speak openly of choosing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump as many are now doing. If they do ultimately pull the lever for Clinton, they will merely be reaffirming their core beliefs.

After all, some of the older neocons cut their teeth writing policy briefs for the hawkish Democrat Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson. The earlier generation’s intellectual descendants fastened themselves firmly to the GOP, which they saw as the most convenient vehicle for implementing their foreign policy views. But that doesn’t mean that the association was either automatic or permanent.

The neocons would occasionally show their hand, admitting that they would choose foreign policy orthodoxy over party, and threatening to return to their Democratic Party roots. In 2004, for example, Bill Kristol praised the Democratic nominee John Kerry’s proposal to double down on the U.S. military presence in Iraq, at a time when some Republicans were wavering on Iraq. Kristol pointed out in an interview with the New York Times that his magazine The Weekly Standard, “has as much or more in common with the liberal hawks than with traditional conservatives.” In 2014, in a long feature article in the New York Times magazine, Jacob Heilbrunn noted that many putative GOP foreign policy elites would abandon the party if Republican voters nominated a skeptic of U.S. military intervention, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. The party’s own nominee for president in 2008, John McCain, when asked who he would vote for in 2016 if it came down to Clinton vs. Paul said, with a nervous laugh, “It’s gonna be a tough choice.”

So it should surprise no one that the neoconservatives are in a panic over Trump, and ready and willing to cast their votes for Clinton, if it came to that. In addition to her vote in favor of the Iraq war in 2002, Clinton has pushed many of the neocons’ other foreign policy adventures, including in Libya in 2011. And although The Weekly Standard editors castigated Bill Clinton for his personal foibles, they cheered him when he waged war in the Balkans.

But while Washington elites were also looking for the next dispute to meddle in, public skepticism of such global adventurism lingered below the surface. Americans were unconvinced by arguments that American exceptionalism necessarily meant defending other countries that can and should defend themselves – effectively, forever. More than half thought that the United States was doing too much to try to solve all the world’s problems, while fewer than one in five thought we should be doing more. And a growing number of Americans questioned whether even those interventions sold purely on the basis of advancing U.S. national security – e.g. Iraq in 2003 – actually had that effect. But when the leading candidates of both parties promised them more of the same, they went looking for alternatives. They found Donald Trump.

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It didn’t have to be this way. As I’ve watched Trump’s rise, and seen his poll numbers grow after every ugly, xenophobic, and racist comment, I’ve had a passage from my book, The Power Problem, running in the back of my head. I wrote the book in 2008, before Barack Obama’s election, and before the effects of the financial crisis had become clear. It was after the surge in Iraq, but before the surge in Afghanistan. A lot has happened during Obama’s seven years in office. But, back then, I was most concerned about the unwillingness of the bipartisan foreign policy elite to revisit some of the core assumptions that had guided U.S. foreign policy for decades. And I was most troubled by the elite’s utter disregard for the will of the people who actually fight their wars, and pay the bills.

So, here’s what I wrote. I hoped at the time that I would be proved wrong. But I’m afraid that I was right. You decide:

For years, international relations scholars have stressed that the world would resist the emergence of a single global superpower. The fact that we’ve managed to sustain our “unipolar moment” for nearly twenty years does not mean that an alternate path might not have delivered a comparable level of security at far less cost and risk. Even many who celebrate our hegemony admit that their approach is costly. They also admit that it cannot last forever. It was they, not their intellectual opponents, after all, who called it a “unipolar moment.”

The wisest course, therefore, is to adopt policies that will allow us to extricate ourselves from regional squabbles, while maintaining the ability to prevent a genuine threat to the United States from forming. This book has tried to set forth just some of the many reasons for doing this. The strongest reason of all might be that our current strategy doesn’t align with the wishes of the American people. As the costs of our foreign adventures mount, and as the benefits remain elusive, Americans may push with increasing assertiveness for the United States to climb down from its perch as the world’s sheriff.

For now, no clear consensus on an alternative foreign policy has emerged. Polls show that Americans are opposed to using the U.S. military to promote democracy abroad. Similar majorities believe that the costs of the war in Iraq have not been worth the benefits. There is now precious little enthusiasm for launching new military missions, and considerable skepticism that the United States must solve the world’s problems, or even that these problems require solving.

If the trends are moving away from a strategy of primacy, away from the United States as indispensable nation, and away from Uncle Sam as global sheriff, where might a new consensus on foreign policy end up? It is possible that it will coalesce around a strategy that is less dependent on the exercise of U.S. military power and more on other aspects of U.S. influence — including our vibrant culture, and our extensive economic engagement with the world. Another very different consensus could also coalesce, however, and move the country — and possibly the world — in a sad and ugly direction.

Surveying the high costs and dubious benefits of our frequent interventions over the past two decades, many Americans are now asking themselves, “what’s the point?” Why provide these so-called global public goods if we will be resented and reviled — and occasionally targeted — for having made the effort? When Americans tell pollsters that we should “mind our own business” they are rejecting the global public goods argument in its entirety.

As noted in the introduction to this book, the defenders of the status quo like to describe such sentiments as isolationist, a gross oversimplification that has the additional object of unfairly tarring the advocates of an alternative foreign policy — any alternative — with an obnoxious slur. There is, however, an ugly streak to the turn inward by the United States. It appears in the form of anti-immigrant sentiment and hostility to free trade. The policies that flow from these misguided feelings include plans to build high walls to keep unskilled workers out, and calls for mass deportations to expel those already here. And we already have a very different wall built with regulations and arbitrary quotas for skilled workers under the H1-B program.

For the most part, Americans want to remain actively engaged in the world without having to be in charge of it. We tire of being held responsible for everything bad that happens, and always on the hook to pick up the costs. We have grown even more skeptical of our current foreign policies when the primary benefit that they are supposed to deliver, namely greater security, fails to materialize. If “global engagement” is defined as a forward-deployed military, operating in dozens of countries, and if the costs of this military remain very high, then we should expect the public to object. And if the rest of the world looks upon this military power and our propensity to use it as a growing threat, and if Americans gain a fuller recognition that our great power and our willingness to use it increases the risks of terrorism directed against the United States, then many will demand that we change course. But if Washington refuses to do so, or simply tinkers around the margins while largely ignoring public sentiment, then we should not be surprised if many Americans choose to throw the good engagement out with the bad, opting for genuine isolationism, with all of its nasty connotations.

That would be tragic. It would also be dangerous. For to the extent that there is a global war brewing, it will not be won by closing ourselves off from the rest of the world. If Americans reject the peaceful coexistence, trade, and voluntary person-to-person contact that has been the touchstone of U.S. foreign policy since the nation’s founding, the gap between the United States and the rest of the world will grow only worse, with negative ramifications for U.S. security for many years to come.