When the Berlin Wall fell, Warsaw Pact dissolved, and Soviet Union split apart, U.S. foreign policy became obsolete almost overnight. For a brief moment advocates of a quasi-imperial foreign policy seemed worried.
For instance, NATO advocates were reduced to talking about having the anti-Soviet military compact promote student exchanges and battle drug smuggling. But advocates of preserving every commitment, alliance, and deployment quickly recovered their confidence, insisting that the status quo now was more important than ever. Since then the political elite has remained remarkably united in backing America’s expanding international military role.
GOP presidential candidates competed over how much to intervene. The Democratic frontrunner pushed for U.S. military intervention in the Balkans as First Lady, voted for the Iraq war as Senator, and orchestrated the Libya campaign as Secretary of State.
Breaking with this pro-war consensus is Donald Trump. No one knows what he would do as president and his foreign policy pronouncements fall far short of a logical and consistent foreign policy program. Nevertheless, he was the most pacific GOP contender, perhaps save Sen. Rand Paul.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s views have dismayed the guardians of conventional wisdom. However, for the first time in years, if not ever, many advocates of American dominance believe it necessary to defend their views, which they had previously considered to be self-evident. For instance, NATO supporters are trying to explain why the U.S. must defend European states which, collectively, are wealthier and more populous than America.
Nevertheless, the downsides of Trump as messenger are obvious. While his opinions on allied free-riding are well-established, on other issues he has shifted back and forth. Who knows if he means what he says about much of anything?
Moreover, even when he is right conceptually, he often misses the mark practically. For instance, the answer to allied free- (or cheap-) riding is not to charge other countries for America’s efforts. Rather, Washington should simply turn the defense of other nations over to them.
Trump also mixes sensible foreign policy opinions with misguided and overwrought attacks on trade, immigration, and Muslims. And his manner is more likely to repel than attract.
Yet almost in spite of himself he is likely to change U.S. foreign policy. Imagine Trump living down to expectations and losing badly. Then the usual advocates of war and intervention would insist that his foreign policy approach has been discredited and seek to squelch any further debate. Everything would simply go back to normal.
If Trump does respectably but loses narrowly, he will have demonstrated popular discontent with a policy in which average folks pay and die for utopian foreign policy fantasies advanced by Washington policy elites. That would encourage future political leaders to seek votes by challenging today’s interventionist consensus.
Finally, if Trump triumphs he will be in a position to transform U.S. foreign policy. What he would actually do is anyone’s guess. For the first time in decades there would be a serious debate over foreign policy and a meaningful opportunity to change current policies.
As I wrote for National Interest: “There are lots of reasons to criticize Donald Trump. However, he offers the most serious challenge in a generation to today’s interventionist zeitgeist. In spite of everything, he just might end up changing U.S. foreign policy.”