Carl Bildt perhaps wins the prize for the most succinct assessment of what a Donald Trump presidency would mean — not just for Americans, but for the entire world. “If Donald Trump was to end up as president of the United States,” the former foreign minister of Sweden said, “I think we better head for the bunkers.”
Trump probably cherishes such scorn. His campaign, built around an appeal to America First and an open disregard for the opinions of others, but especially those of elites and non‐Americans, has clearly benefitted from a sense among many of his supporters that typical American politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, pay too much attention to what others around the world think. And for those Americans who think we should care, Trump would have a ready response: “you’re free to leave.”
He’s not the only one pondering a mass exodus. When asked how he would handle a sudden influx of Americans fleeing north of the border in the event of a Trump victory, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joked that “Cape Breton is lovely all times of the year and if people do want to make choices that perhaps suit their lifestyles better, Canada is always welcoming and opening.”
All kidding aside, there is a serious element to the international disquiet that Trump has caused, and it suggests a major flaw at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, and the international order that this policy has created over the past several decades. U.S. elections could have a direct impact on not merely the 330+ million people here in the United States, but arguably 7+ billion people all over the world. And I’m not just talking about the concern that President Trump will have his finger on the apocryphal nuclear button.
In many respects, the U.S. government has taken on a task typically entrusted to other governments – namely, providing security for their people. It is not hyperbole, therefore, when French President Francois Hollande says “an American election is a world election.” The government that Americans choose to govern America also governs, loosely, the rest of the world.
Except that it doesn’t, really. Or, at least, it wasn’t intended to do that. The U.S. government exists first and foremost to provide security for the people of the United States. Americans elect the person that they believe will keep this country safe and prosperous. If doing so also benefits the rest of the world — and it often does — that is a pleasant by‐product. Very few Americans, however, would confuse providing security for others as the core object of U.S. foreign policy.
But too many Americans inside of the Beltway bubble have taken the U.S. Constitution’s pledge to “provide for the common defence” as a mandate that extends even to those men and women who are not party to the document’s unique social contract. And U.S. policymakers’ repeated assurances to the leaders of other countries that Washington will treat their security concerns as synonymous with our own have led many countries to neglect their defenses. Indeed, that was the object of U.S. foreign policy.
Will Trump’s rise induce others to hedge their bets, and revisit their decision to sub‐contract governance to an unpredictable partner? One that, their wishes notwithstanding, they have no control over?
Time will tell. Mobilizing public support for higher military spending and a more assertive security policy will be difficult for many U.S. allies, and the smart move may be to assume that the status quo will prevail. Hillary Clinton, whose talk of America’s exceptional role in global security echoes the conventional wisdom among policy elites, has a 72 percent chance of winning the presidency, according to current projections. But that is down from a high of 89 percent less than a month ago.
Such trends are surely worrisome for many foreign elites. Even a small chance that the United States won’t come to their defense in their hour of need can’t be comforting for those who have been told for decades that it would.