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Foreign Policy Realists Need to Disown Donald Trump

Donald Trump speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Donald Trump speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

Beginning with his 2016 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump has attracted the allegiance of some advocates of a new U.S. foreign policy based on realism and restraint.  The source of that appeal was not hard to discover. Except Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Trump was the only prominent Republican to criticize Washington’s promiscuous, armed nation-building crusades in the Third World. Paul’s presidential bid flamed out early, but Trump emerged as one of the leading candidates.

The growing enthusiasm of foreign policy restrainers was understandable, as Trump even dared to denounce Republicans who had embraced the Iraq intervention and several of Washington’s other disastrous entanglements. When he suggested that NATO and other hoary alliances that the United States had established during the Cold War should be reconsidered in light of new international developments, the level of enthusiasm in the realism and restraint community grew even stronger.

Nevertheless, there were signs early on that Donald Trump was a severely flawed spokesman for the goal of a more sensible foreign policy. Equally alarming were the multiple signs of an intolerant, even authoritarian, personality. His obnoxious behavior in the debates and at several campaign rallies throughout the presidential race was hard to overlook. Restrainers also should have been wary of his openly hawkish views toward both Iran and China.

Trump’s conduct, once he took office, should have dispelled any notion that he would be the architect of a new, more cautious foreign policy for the United States. His initial key appointees ranged from bland GOP establishment figures such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to worrisome hawks such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis. It was glaringly obvious that new thinking on foreign policy would not come from such individuals.  Indeed, matters became worse with Donald Trump’s subsequent appointees, culminating in his selection of the ultra-hawkish John Bolton as National Security Advisor. Appointing a handful of restrainers, such as Ret. Col. Douglas Macgregor as ambassador to Germany or William Ruger as ambassador to Afghanistan, in the 11th hour of his term did not change the overall dismal track record.

The administration’s policies provided clear evidence that there would be little or no improvement to Washington’s role in the world. Surrounded by Mattis and a bevy of pro-interventionist generals, Donald Trump soon abandoned his campaign promise to end the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. The talk of “reconsidering” Washington’s Cold War-era alliances soon became little more than an intensified call for more burden-sharing (primarily financial burden-sharing)—a goal that multiple administrations had voiced for six decades. Trump endorsed bringing new, militarily and economically irrelevant, members into NATO. Such military powerhouses as Montenegro and North Macedonia joined the Alliance with Trump’s blessing.

U.S. policy toward China on both trade and security issues became noticeably more hardline. Even the point that Trump’s defenders emphasize—that he started no “new wars”—is less significant than it might appear.  The Trump administration may not have initiated any new wars, but it doggedly continued to prosecute all of the existing ones.

The greatest myth of all is that Trump was “soft” on Russia. His political adversaries repeatedly made that allegation, implying or sometimes stating outright that he was the puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  One critic even insinuated that Trump had been Moscow’s agent since 1987. Such unfounded smears would have made Sen. Joe McCarthy blush.  The problem with Trump’s policy toward Russia was that it was too confrontational, not that it embraced appeasement.

During Trump’s term, the United States abandoned the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Agreement.  Continuing both measures were high-priority goals for Moscow, but the president spurned their objections. Washington also escalated U.S. involvement in Ukraine, despite Russia’s increasingly pointed complaints and warnings.  Even President Barack Obama had declined to implement arms aid measures that Congress had authorized, fearing correctly that sending weapons would further antagonize the Kremlin. 

Under Trump, however, the flow of weapons commenced.  In addition, the United States helped train Ukrainian troops and intelligence operatives and conducted joint military exercises (war games) with Ukrainian forces. The long process of NATO’s expansion toward Russia’s border, which began during Bill Clinton’s administration, was a crucial factor in poisoning relations with Moscow—a policy that culminated in the Biden foreign policy team’s utterly tone-deaf behavior in the months immediately preceding the Russia-Ukraine War.  Trump’s administration bears its share of the blame for the resulting tragedy.  

One can and should reject the unfounded “Russia collusion” allegations that Trump’s political adversaries and unethical members of the intelligence community pushed and still conclude that Donald Trump was no advocate of realism and restraint. Nor does one have to endorse the latest criminal charges referred to the Justice Department by the utterly biased House Committee investigating the January 6 riot at the Capitol building to be uneasy about the former president’s commitment to democratic values. 

Trump’s own comments in early December betray a disturbingly authoritarian mentality. “[W]ith the revelation of MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION in working closely with Big Tech Companies, the DNC, & the Democrat Party, do you throw the Presidential Election Results of 2020 OUT and declare the RIGHTFUL WINNER, or do you have a NEW ELECTION?,” Trump wrote on Truth Social, the Twitter alternative that he founded. “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” he contended.

Even if he were a proponent of a foreign policy that embodied realism and restraint, such comments could not be justified or excused. However, Donald Trump is not and never has been a champion of a more benign and sensible role for the United States in the world.

Therefore, genuine, principled advocates of such a policy should not find it difficult to repudiate him.

Author Expertise and Experience: Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs.  His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).

Written By

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.  His books include (with Doug Bandow) The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).