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Monday, December 09, 2019

Trump Misses Every Point of International Treaties

Every scholar of international affairs learns about alliances. Understanding why states choose to collaborate on matters of security is a simple prerequisite for undergraduates just beginning to dip their toes into the field. The topic is particularly relevant to U.S. foreign policy: In the post-World War II era, the United States has constructed an international order of overlapping partnerships that have produced a safer and more prosperous world.

Donald Trump is no scholar of international affairs.

Over the weekend, the reality TV star turned GOP nominee for leader of the free world tweeted out one of his classic burns. The target? Apparently, the world at large: “The U.S. has 69 treaties with other countries where we would have to defend them and their borders. How nice, but what do we get? NOT ENOUGH”

As usual, we must first note that Trump is not being fundamentally factual. Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out on Twitter that Trump should be referring to seven treaties rather than 69 — the latter number presumably comes from the total number of countries the seven treaties cover, although in total, the treaties only really apply to 54 nations, charitably including a few that have bowed out of those treaties in the past.

The bigger problem with Trump’s assertion, however, is that the seven treaties he is citing are not one-sided arrangements but rather mutual defense pacts, meaning that all signatories pledge to come to the aid of any one that is attacked. Trump suggests — both in his tweet, and often throughout his campaign — that these are standing contracts requiring the United States to defend others with no reciprocity, but this simply isn’t true.

The ‘mutual’ part of these mutual defense pacts isn’t an abstraction as it pertains to the United States, either. NATO provides a concrete example grounded not in arcane notions of great power warfare, but the world’s more recent struggles against terrorism. Less than 24 hours after the attacks on 9/11, NATO invoked Article V — the part of its charter that rallies every member to the defense of one attacked — which ultimately led to the alliance’s joint work in fighting the Afghan Taliban.

So Trump lacks an understanding of how many treaties the U.S. is a party to, how many countries those treaties include, and the fact that those countries will defend the United States when we ask them to do so. Yet it is clear from his continual calls for a tribute-based foreign policy that he ignores the second- and third-order benefits of alliances, too.

First, alliances open the door to a wider range of collaboration. In an age in which combating extremism is one of the top international security priorities, intelligence sharing is an absolute must; the connections between disparate and (necessarily) secretive national security agencies are made stronger by formal alliance structures. Trump may claim that he “alone can solve” the problem of terrorism, but tracking the movements of dangerous individuals the world over is a hard job to do all by one’s lonesome.

Alliances also help to ensure that conflicts are legitimate. Allies can be a key driver in considering the case for war rather than rushing to quick action — contrast the strong case built for the first Gulf War to the hurried, unpersuasive rationale for the invasion of Iraq. Trump’s United States would be a wonton force of nature, “bombing the shit outta” anywhere he pleases and purposefully murdering noncombatants. That’s a far cry from the measured approach that the Greatest Generation tried to establish in the wake of the Second World War.

Finally, alliances promote active interoperability between militaries. Conducting joint exercises sends a clear signal to rival countries — military demonstrations in the South China Sea, for example, check China’s unilateral attempts to redraw boundaries there. It is also wise to ensure that partner militaries purchase reliable American-made military hardware — and the replacement parts, upgrades, and training programs that go with them — that keep cooperation close for years. Trump alleges he would make our military great and powerful, but the rhetoric he consistently advances would only reduce the number of partners it can work with.

To be sure, its wealth of alliances does not make U.S. foreign policy perfect. We have always had relationships — sometimes mutual defense pacts, sometimes other arrangements — with less than savory countries in the name of various security-related goals. Pressing our international friends and acquaintances towards the values we want to see reflected in the world is the hard work of every new administration.

Yet Trump doesn’t make his arguments against alliances for the sake of human rights. He sees the notion of collective defense as a protection racket for which the United States is being insufficiently paid. In undoing these alliances, Trump would push the United States and the world back to a diplomatic era before World War II, when great powers did go to war with one another — to frequent and devastating results.

Perhaps someday Donald Trump might stop knocking our allies long enough to consider the implications of his lies about treaties. But of all the inconsistencies and policy reversals we’ve seen from the presumptive Republican nominee so far, this one unfortunately seems the least likely.

Graham F. West manages The Whistlestop (@thewhistle_stop), a platform for holding candidates and elected officials accountable on issues of national security and foreign policy throughout the 2016 cycle. Views expressed are his own.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally to highlight POW-MIA issues on Memorial Day weekend in Washington, U.S. May 29, 2016.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A Trump Doctrine At Last?

There is a dog-walking-on-hind-legs peculiarity to watching Donald Trump give a scripted speech.

His foreign policy address to The National Interest on Wednesday was, of course, not his first; despite prior insistence that no presidential candidate should be allowed a teleprompter, he did so at AIPAC as well. This is done presumably in an effort at message discipline — and in part, it worked. After all, Trump didn’t advocate for torture or the killing of terrorists’ families! What a low bar this cycle has set.

Even so, the weirdness of a “more measured” Trump persists because even when moderated, he is not. There was so much that was so quintessentially Trump about this address even if the man who delivered it was pretending not to be him. Among a cacophony of contradictions, embellishments, and outright lies, Trump presented a disastrously incoherent worldview built on a foundation of empty promises.

First, a look at the contradictions—beginning with the kind of pedantic nitpicking that Trump so loathes from eggheads like myself. There is a distasteful irony in Trump’s christening his foreign policy approach as “America First” and immediately moving to praise U.S. leadership during World War II, given that the movement of the same name advocated fiercely for isolationism in advance of the same conflict. This is not to say that foreign policy doctrine names are ever good (remember Rubio’s capitalized yet shallow American Strength?), but is simply one piece of evidence among an ever-growing pile that Trump has little regard for history or context.

Trump’s discussion of allies was the most whiplash-inducing topic in the speech by far. In the space of just a few paragraphs, he advanced two propositions: one, that our allies are freeloaders greedily taking advantage of our money and security guarantees, and two, that these allies don’t feel like they can depend on us. These points are mutually exclusive. It is remarkable to hear promises of how America will “be a great and reliable ally again” from a man who questions the utility of NATO and thinks Japan and South Korea should just build their own nuclear weapons. Trump promised his administration would work with our Muslim allies in the Middle East to fight ISIS, yet gave no indication of how this would be achieved while he simultaneously banned them from immigrating or even traveling to our nation.

Trump also argued that the United States should stand by its commitments on the world stage — before insisting that we abdicate the Iran nuclear deal. To be fair to Trump, he qualified his statement with the word “friends,” perhaps in his mind exempting Iran (though still in contrast to the NATO and Asia points above). But to be fair to reality, Trump made a mockery of the facts around the deal. Iran has not ignored its terms, per the international organization monitoring their nuclear supply chain. The lines of communication established by its negotiations did facilitate the return of our Sailors. And of course, it does prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon through limits and verification — far more than bloviating from a podium does.

In fact, the Iran diatribe well illustrates that while contradictions are part of Trump’s brand, so is being wrong and misleading. Trump rants that we’re “Asking our generals and military leaders to worry about global warming,” when actually, they’re the ones asking us. He continues to insist that he was always “proudly against” the Iraq War, which has been proven demonstrably false with actual interview audio. Even the little things don’t escape outright fabrication: Trump rails against the disrespect of “nobody” greeting President Obama on the tarmac in Havana, when in fact Cuba’s foreign minister and others did so and the White House knew in advance that Raul Castro would not.

There are near-endless Trump tropes to unpack throughout the speech. He warned against “importing extremism through senseless immigration policies,” implicitly insisting that the exhaustive verification process we have does not exist, perhaps because he himself does not understand or know about it. And he bemoaned “people laughing at us” around the world—a theme that, along with his opinion that the United States should exact tribute in response for our efforts at global stability, is a surprisingly consistent piece of Trump’s worldview.

But perhaps the most Trumpian thing of all the Trumpian things about the speech was the incredible lack of how. Trump made promises that contradicted each other, sure, but also sweeping statements—ensuring ISIS “will be gone” the most spectacular among them—that simply had no follow through. When Trump was not criticizing others, he was simply offering an ever-increasing list of empty guarantees all rooted in the conviction that he, through means unexplained, could deliver on them. The most concrete policy proposal was calling for two already regularly-held summits—everything else would resolve itself by the sheer force of Trump.

Because this, truly, is the key to Trump’s worldview: he is the beginning, the end, and everything in between. The narcissism that leads to harmless if laughable idiosyncrasies like a gold-adorned 757 becomes something far more serious when applied to leading a nation and the world. It reared its ugly head in Trump’s opportunistic tweet following the Brussels attacks—“I alone can solve” the problem of terrorism, he claimed—but this speech was an outgrowth of the same sentiment in that it presented a worldview built on platitudes, distortions, and above all else, ego.

That—nothing more, and nothing less—is the true Trump foreign policy doctrine: Trump First, Trump Alone, and Never Mind You How.

Graham F. West manages The Whistlestop (@thewhistle_stop), a platform for holding candidates and elected officials accountable on issues of national security and foreign policy throughout the 2016 cycle. Views expressed are his own.

Photo: Still. The National Interest/ ABC 

Cruz And Trump’s Foreign Policy Advisors Are Unsurprisingly Bad

Stories about campaign policy advisors are normally ones of process, interesting only to those inside the beltway. This is truly the nitty-gritty of political analysis: delving into the resumes of the men and women behind the candidate, and trying to extrapolate broad worldviews or specific policy recommendations they might be whispering into candidates’ ears. In short, it’s normally pretty banal stuff to the average observer.

It says something about the GOP race for president, then, that the foreign policy teams of their presumptive nominee and current runner-up are making such a splash in the news cycle.

Last week, the Republican Party’s last unpleasant hope to stop presumptive nominee Donald J. Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, released an eclectic mix of foreign policy advisors. One the one hand, Cruz has poached traditional neoconservatives, including names like Elliott Abrams of Iran-Contra indictment fame or Michael Leeden, Iraq and Iran war advocate extraordinaire. Yet on the other, he has courted some of the most extreme single-issue Islamophobes on the fringe of the right. Chief among these is of course Frank Gaffney, whose insane brand of Islamophobia includes believing that Saddam Hussein was behind the Oklahoma City bombing and warning against the infiltration of the American government (including the Republican Party) by members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The curious range of folks on his team mirrors Cruz’s obfuscatory foreign policy stances. Cruz has branded himself against neoconservatives, frequently lumping primary opponent Sen. Marco Rubio in with the Obama-Clinton (read: NATO) intervention in Libya. Nonetheless, they now appear on the senator’s foreign policy team, perhaps drawn to his idle promises of “carpet bombing” ISIS. But Cruz is trying to have his cake and eat it too; while on the one hand seeking the endorsement of the Washington establishment he so loathes (and that so loathes him) via the neoconservatives, he’s also trying to hit Trump from the right flank by bringing in extremist charlatans like Gaffney.

Meanwhile, 181 days after promising radio host Hugh Hewitt he’d be announcing “something very soon” and that “so many great national security people, including generals” were clamoring to be by his side, Trump has released the names of five advisors. There is arguably little point in analyzing the individual members of Trump’s national security team, because they are not a means to an end (better policy) but an end in and of themselves: Red meat for the beltway press to devour, and a throwaway line (“See, he has advisors—and they aren’t political hacks, either!”) for his supporters to holler at anyone who will listen.

In the same editorial board meeting in which Trump unveiled this preliminary list of advisors, he also suggested that the United States should step back from NATO, of all things. Trump’s understanding of U.S. power projection around the world as a money drain—and his proposed solution of a tribute payment solution—reflects a childish understanding of geopolitics, but he’s been expressing it consistently and publicly since 1990. Advisors will not change that view, but instead adapt their own expertise to bolster it in some way. At the end of the day, Trump’s comment that his best foreign policy advisor is himself because he has “a very good brain and [has] said a lot of things” is all the statement that one needs to understand how he views the world.

Both candidates’ foreign policy teams, thus, say more about their character than their substance. For Cruz, it’s a flexible attempt to reconcile his current need for the establishment with his past brand of radicalism; for Trump, it’s a cultivation of low-level sycophants who will validate his own assumptions about the world until the establishment swallows its pride and comes around to do the same. Meanwhile, the troubling spaces where both men overlap on foreign policy—inhumane positions on torture and refugees, simplistic, bomb-based plans to defeat ISIL, and reckless preference for force over diplomacy—remain too little discussed and dissected.

Banking on lists of advisors to adjust rhyme, reason, or American values into the GOP foreign policy conversation is clearly a faint hope.

Graham F. West manages The Whistlestop (@thewhistle_stop), a platform for holding candidates and elected officials accountable on issues of national security and foreign policy throughout the 2016 cycle. Views expressed are his own.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump and rival candidate Senator Ted Cruz (R) cross paths during a break at the Fox Business Network Republican presidential candidates debate in North Charleston, South Carolina January 14, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Keane 

The Weakness of President Trump

This is happening, America.

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump—a man who has never held elected office—swept the Super Tuesday primaries last night, dominating seven of eleven contests. His authoritarian-enamored supporters remain inexorably drawn more than anything else to the candidate’s presumed strength.

That strength is supposedly a massive correction to the perceived weakness and fecklessness of President Obama on the world stage. The globe may be on fire, but it will fall in line—if only the American president would be more pugnacious and demanding towards allies and adversaries alike. In this view, Trump’s force of personality is a panacea; his self-fulfilling assurances about his own intelligence, likability, and winning record cease to be a means to policy and become the policies in and of themselves.

But what if Trump’s supporters aren’t just wrong (they are), but catastrophically so? What if that so-called strength—the forwardness, unapologetic aggression, and of course the distaste for “political correctness”—that they so love about candidate Trump turns out to be a debilitating weakness for President Trump and, by extension, our country?

Imagine, for a moment, how President Trump would actually function on the world stage.

Imagine President Trump listening to speeches at the United Nations General Assembly. Say another foreign leader bruises his ego, perhaps with a well-intentioned joke or a purposefully mocking barb. President Trump will not be able to sue, so where will he turn next? From denouncing the leader with juvenile insults to espousing racist sentiments on the world stage, the consequences are sure to be embarrassing.

Imagine President Trump’s childish demands falling on deaf ears in the international community. Suppose Mexico refuses to pay for his luxurious wall, or that allies like Japan and Germany decline to pay tribute for hosting U.S. military bases on their soil. President Trump will not be able to bend them to his will through endless bloviating, so what will become of American credibility? From the alienation of longtime U.S. allies to a full-scale evaporation of U.S. soft power, the consequences are sure to be crippling.

Imagine President Trump in top national security briefings, surrounded by patriotic men and women trying desperately to educate and advise him on the nuances of U.S. foreign policy. If he makes good on his campaign promises, he’ll be ordering them to pursue catastrophic escalations with rival states or execute war crimes against civilians and combatants alike. President Trump will not be able to force them to abide by his un-American dictates, so what will happen to our nation’s civil workforce? Whether we see mass resignations or a full-scale revolt by the people who spend their professional lives working to keep us safe, the consequences are sure to be disastrous.

There are plenty of policy-oriented reasons to decry the prospect of Trump as commander-in-chief—he has a childlike understanding of the world around him, including an astounding ignorance of the details about our enemies, the value of our allies, and the capabilities of our own country. There are obviously moral arguments against him too, among them his unabashed support of torture and his coziness towards any dictator that bats his eyes in Trump’s direction. But perhaps more than anything else, it is Trump’s temperament that disqualifies him from leadership: The “strength” he loves to flex to raucous applause would leave the United States weaker, isolated, and sapped of all credibility.

Trump would be beyond embarrassing for the United States on the world stage. His gaffes, infantilism, and self-assured ignorance would, intentionally or not, systematically destroy our reputation as a world leader, taking down the international order that the greatest generation raised from the ashes of World War II along the way. Trump’s unpredictable and fragile ego — the ego of a man who sends rebuttals to his “losers and haters” signed, literally, in gold sharpie—would become the proxy for how the United States is perceived in the world.

Since 1990, Trump has bemoaned that America is “laughed at” around the world. It is an emotional sentiment that resonates well with his base, but the joke is on them. Should President Trump make his way to the Oval Office, there is little doubt the world will be laughing even harder.

Graham F. West manages The Whistlestop (@thewhistle_stop), a platform for holding candidates and elected officials accountable on issues of national security and foreign policy throughout the 2016 cycle. Views expressed are his own.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a news conference regarding issues on undocumented immigrants in Beverly Hills, California, July 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn