“Who the f*** does he think he is?Who’s the f***ing superpower here?” — President Bill Clinton after meeting with Israeli PM Netanyahu in 1996
Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive standard-bearer, shares former President Clinton’s frustration with America’s allies. And like Clinton, President Obama and others who have occupied the Oval Office, Trump isn’t sure what to do about it.
In his recent foreign policy address, Trump faulted Obama’s foreign policy on several grounds. “Our allies aren’t paying their fair share,” he complained. His next criticism: “Our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us.”
This conflicted attitude toward our allies – that they’re not doing enough for us, but we’re not there for them – is hardly unique to Trump. But rarely are the contradictions so obvious.
Take his criticism of our European allies. He notes that, aside from the United States, only 4 of 28 NATO members have met their pledge to devote at least two percent of GDP to military spending.
“We have spent trillions of dollars over time — on planes, missiles, ships, equipment — building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia,” he said. “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense – and, if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
That’s a bold statement. But in the next breath, he excoriated the Obama Administration because it “abandoned our missile defense plans with Poland and the Czech Republic.”
The Czech Republic has been a NATO member since 1999. It devoted 0.97 percent of its GDP in 2015 to military spending. Its defense budget hasn’t reached two percent of GDP since 2003. Poland’s military expenditures hit the two percent benchmark last year, the first time since it joined the alliance in 1999.
In effect, Trump is criticizing Obama for doing what Trump himself believes should be done: leaving European countries that spend too little on defense to “defend themselves.”
Trump is not alone in his inconsistency. Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolski of Brookings argue that the U.S. “has become so focused on maintaining its relationships with its allies above all else that it’s forgotten what the relationships were for in the first place: securing U.S. interests.”
Shapiro and Sokolski see this as a legacy of the shirts-against-skins worldview that prevailed throughout the Cold War. We won when a country chose to ally with us; we lost when they allied with the Soviets. Alliances thus came to be treated as ends in themselves, which had the perverse effect of putting the U.S. at the service of its weaker allies.
That mentality survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with one important change: we have lost our clearly defined and broadly shared sense of national interest. The result, as Trump observed, is that “we’ve lacked a coherent foreign policy.”
The elder President Bush proclaimed a “new world order” in which the U.S. would join with other nations “to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind,” a goal of dubious feasibility. President Clinton called instead for turning inward, using the “peace dividend” to spend more on handouts and less on defense, all the while ignoring the rise of Islamic jihadism. The younger President Bush favored what Charles Krauthammer called “democratic realism” — promoting democracy (by force, where necessary) as an antidote to jihadism – which led to a costly and unpopular war. President Obama, like Clinton, aspired to “nation-building at home,” but has found himself instead entangled in perpetual war – from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria to Libya – and beset by metastatic Islamic extremism.
Trump rejects all these approaches, but has offered no clear alternative of his own. He vows to “view the world through the clear lens of American interests,” but his speech leaves those interests largely undefined. He says that his “America First” posture will produce a “disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy,” but he is fuzzy on the details of that policy. He places a premium on a “long-term plan to halt the spread and reach of radical Islam,” but he has no plan. Instead, he vows to “look for talented experts with new approaches and practical ideas.” Good luck with that.
But though his speech can be faulted for favoring platitudes over particulars, it at least recognizes that the purpose of foreign policy is to promote our interests – not to spread democracy, better mankind or serve the “international community.”
Charles DeGaulle famously said that “no nation has friends, only interests.” Our allies have long understood that. Our foes have as well. The U.S. alone has a long list of friends but no clearly-defined interests. It is time that changed.