This election season is so much fun because Donald Trump keeps enraging all the right people – and his timing is perfect. Just as the Republican convention was at its height, with his running mate up there on the podium perorating about the alleged threat of Vladimir Putin, along comes Donald with an interview in the New York Times that has the War Party yelling and screaming bloody murder. The head of NATO; the foreign policy pundits; even some alleged “non-interventionists” – they’re all aghast that Trump is questioning the supposedly sacred tripwires that commit us to going to war if Lower Slobbovia invades Upper Slobbovia.
It started with this article, in which Trump’s views on NATO, the Turkey coup, and other matters were summarized, but it caused such a commotion that the Times published the entire interview, and it is really a sight to see – good news for us anti-interventionists, and very bad news for the internationalists, i.e. the entire foreign policy Establishment.
It starts off with Times reporter David Sanger trying to bait him into attacking Paul Ryan, who, he says, “presented a much more traditional Republican, engaged internationalist view of the world.” Sanger reminds him of his previous comments on NATO: that our shiftless “allies” need to start paying their fair share of the costs of the alliance. Sanger adds in Korea and Japan, and ask: what if they won’t pay? What then?
Trump’s answer is vintage Trump: “Then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, ‘Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.’”
He is challenged by Sanger – who asks most of the questions, by the way – who avers that our system of alliances is in our interests as well, because of “trade.”
Does Sanger imagine Russia going to somehow stop trans-Atlantic commerce? It isn’t clear, but Trump comes back at him by saying it’s “a mutual interest” – in which our NATO allies are not doing their part. Stopped in his tracks – because even President Obama, as well as traditional Republicans like Robert Gates, have complained that our allies aren’t paying – Sanger reverts to the default interventionist argument:
“Even if they didn’t pay a cent toward it, many have believed that the way we’ve kept our postwar leadership since World War II has been our ability to project power around the world. That’s why we got this many diplomats …”
Trump’s answer is perfect:
“How is it helping us? How has it helped us? We have massive trade deficits. I could see that, if instead of having a trade deficit worldwide of $800 billion, we had a trade positive of $100 billion, $200 billion, $800 billion. So how has it helped us?”
Here Trump has stumbled on the dirty little secret of the post-World War II security architecture so beloved by our elites: for the privilege of paying for their defense, and in effect militarily occupying our allies-cum-satellites, we allow them to flood our markets with tariff-free goods, while they wall off their markets with trade barriers and subsidies. As the Old Right economist and prophet of empire Garet Garrett put it at the dawn of the cold war, it’s a peculiar sort of empire in which “everything goes out and nothing comes in.”
It’s really quite interesting to see Sanger take on the role of the defender of our role as “the indispensable nation” – although to be fair, it’s his job to challenge the candidate – and see how Trump argues in favor of a new policy, one that recognizes the limits of power. In their discussion of the US presence in South Korea, Sanger argues that this has prevented war, but Trump avers that it has only led to the radicalization – and nuclearization – of the North, and heightened the prospect of a really catastrophic conflict, one in which the 28,000 American troops stationed in the South would be instantly incinerated. And Trump goes further, opining that if we hadn’t intervened and stationed our troops there to begin with, things might’ve turned out differently:
“Maybe you would have had a unified Korea. Who knows what would have happened? In the meantime, what have we done? So we’ve kept peace, but in the meantime we’ve let North Korea get stronger and stronger and more nuclear and more nuclear, and you are really saying, ‘Well, how is that a good thing?’”
The fact is that the Koreans were getting closer to unity and resolving their own problems back during the Bush administration, but the neocons stepped in and scotched what was a hopeful process of reconciliation and reunification. I wrote about that here and here.
And here Trump lets it rip with a reiteration of his essential point:
“I’m only saying this. We’re spending money, and if you’re talking about trade, we’re losing a tremendous amount of money, according to many stats, $800 billion a year on trade. So we are spending a fortune on military in order to lose $800 billion. That doesn’t sound like it’s smart to me. Just so you understand though, totally on the record, this is not 40 years ago. We are not the same country and the world is not the same world. Our country owes right now $19 trillion, going to $21 trillion very quickly because of the omnibus budget that was passed, which is incredible. We don’t have the luxury of doing what we used to do; we don’t have the luxury, and it is a luxury. We need other people to reimburse us much more substantially than they are giving right now because [they] are only paying for a fraction of the cost.”
Sanger, defeated, can only point to the logical conclusion of Trump’s foreign policy: “Or to take on the burden themselves.” Trump is ready for him:
“In a deal, you always have to be prepared to walk. Hillary Clinton has said, ‘We will never, ever walk.” That’s a wonderful phrase, but unfortunately, if I were on Saudi Arabia’s side, Germany, Japan, South Korea and others, I would say, “Oh, they’re never leaving, so what do we have to pay them for?’ Does that make sense to you, David?”
Sanger is forced to concede: “It does, but …” and he falls back on the far-fetched question of how will we defend the United States – as if there’s going to be an attack on the continental US. Trump comes back at him with the rather obvious fact that we can always deploy from the US – “and it would be a lot less expense.”
Exhausted by the pushback, Sanger switches to “current events” – the recent coup attempt in Turkey. Shouldn’t we stick our noses in that mess, too, because Erdogan is jailing people left and right. Trump says no, and in quite a remarkable way:
“I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country – we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems. When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.”
Who are we to lecture the world when we’re in a mess ourselves? That’s a viewpoint I’ll bet Sanger never expected to hear – and, frankly, neither did I. Trump continues to surprise us with his common sense approach and his willingness to tell the truth, no matter how it grates against the delicate sensibilities of the political class – a class so buried in its own conceit that it has lost touch with the reality most ordinary Americans have no trouble seeing. This is why Trump has come so far, so fast.
What really has the War Party bent out of shape is Trump’s refusal to go to war with Russia over some minor border dispute between Russia and the Baltic states, which have been palavering about alleged “Russian aggression” for years now. Sanger channels their palaver by accusing the Russians of doing all sorts of provocative things – never mentioning NATO’s unprecedented military “exercises” right on Russia’s border – and positing a scenario where Russia “comes over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?” When Trump fails to answer with an unequivocal yes, Sanger presses the point: “They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obligated.”
This isn’t true. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says if another NATO member is attacked each member “shall take such action as it deems necessary.” Republican opposition to the NATO treaty in 1949, led by “Mr. Republican” Sen. Robert A. Taft, would have defeated it in the Senate if any more binding language had been included. Since neither Sanger nor Trump seems to realize what the NATO treaty actually says, the discussion continues along these lines:
“TRUMP: We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.
SANGER: That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.
TRUMP: You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.
SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations –
TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”
Of the three Baltic states, only Estonia is – just barely – fulfilling its obligation to NATO. And if we subtract the enormous amount of military and other aid provided to Estonia, their account is in the red. Lithuania and Latvia are being similarly lavished with American taxpayer dollars, and they don’t even pretend to be trying to fulfill their obligations to NATO.
Furthermore, Estonia in particular has been provoking the Russians due to their policies toward those Russians who live in Estonia – and have lived there for generations – by depriving them of the privileges of citizenship. When Estonia declared independence from the former USSR, it granted citizenship only to those who had lived there since 1940: this left hundreds of thousands and their descendants out in the cold, with the threat of deportation hanging over them. To date, nearly 7 percent of the Estonian population consists of stateless ethnic Russians. They cannot vote in national elections and encounter systematic discrimination in housing and employment. It’s ironic that the same people who denounce Trump for his anti-immigration stance are defending the policies of a government that has built a de facto wall excluding a significant portion of the population on purely ethnic grounds.
It’s truly amazing how the neocons on the right and the Clintonistas on the left are uniting in outrage against Trump’s refusal to start World War III with the Russians. Jeffrey Goldberg has declared that “Hillary Clinton is running against Vladimir Putin,” and Mrs. Clinton, for her part, has issued a statement that does everything but accuse Trump of being a Manchurian candidate. Neocon Jamie Kirchick, in his bizarre piece for the Los Angeles Times advocating a military coup against Trump should he be elected, cites the Trump campaign’s successful effort to scotch a plank in the GOP platform calling for arming the Ukrainian government with offensive weapons as a reason to oust President Trump. Similarly, the Clinton statement attacks Trump for the same thing – as if the American people want to start a military conflict in Europe for the sake of a corrupt kleptocracy that came to power by overthrowing the elected President.
We haven’t seen a smear campaign like this since the frigid winter of the cold war, when anyone who deviated from the “commies under the bed” paranoia of that era was denounced as a “subversive” and hauled before a congressional inquisition. Both wings of the War Party are united in their hatred for Trump’s “America First” policy of minding our own business and staying out of foreign wars.
Yet Trump has turned the tables on the War Party: it is they who are being put on the defensive by his relentless assault, and his willingness to say what most normal people are thinking. His disregard for the pieties of the Beltway, his contempt for the self-proclaimed “experts,” and his ability to mobilize the American people behind a foreign policy that puts them first, is the best thing that has happened to this country in the modern era.
Somewhere, Bob Taft is smiling….
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.