By Michael Shank
When it comes to foreign policy planning, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is right to introduce an era of unpredictability, which, according to Trump, will be his overarching modus operandi if elected.
Just consider America’s security threats: Increased violence by non-state actors and heightened insecurity due to climate change-induced food, water, and resource scarcity, for instance. We’re entering a new normal where national security threats are no longer constrained at all by country-specific corridors.
Instability in this century will be anything but predictable, so Trump is right: Foreign policy of the future will throw myriad unexpected curve balls in the White House’s direction. The key is how America will respond, and this is where Trump’s tactics necessitate serious scrutiny.
It’s clear from the candidate’s ethos that shrewd deal-making will dictate foreign policy decision-making. Much has already been said, often in comparison to past private sector presidential hopefuls like Ross Perot, regarding Trump’s “America First” policy that would, for example, force North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to pony up and pay for their own protection. And while the Obama administration, and plenty of Republicans in the Senate, have similarly called for NATO and wartime cost-sharing, this is different.
Under a Trump administration, it’d arguably be a pay-to-play policy, with any protection predicated on a pay-for — whether it’s deal-making with Iran, post-sanctions, to ensure a Boeing bias in any business contract or nuking up against North Korea. Trump is less concerned about who is “with us or against us” in the traditional good-versus-evil paradigm and more interested in who is “paying us or owes us.”
Trump is ushering in an even less-regulated free market foreign policy. The candidate named natural gas exporter George Papadopoulos, who directs an international energy center at the London Center of International Law Practice, and Carter Page, longtime Caspian Sea-focused energy executive, as foreign policy advisers. His choices indicate how keen Trump is in tacking towards a business-centric extractives agenda.
“It’s clear from the candidate’s ethos that shrewd deal-making will dictate foreign policy decision-making.”
While this wouldn’t be a significant deviation from presidential predecessors — as many administrations have invaded and intervened based on oil, gas, minerals and rare earth investment interest — the framing, unfettered by international norms, is frightening. Previous American resource-driven interventions were always packaged within the premise, however shoddily assembled, of national security, freedom and democracy agendas. Trump’s preemptive Papadopoulos and Page picks imply a much more explicit agenda that will extract riches wherever possible. No State Department smoke and mirrors this time.
The economic efficiency of Trump’s business-based foreign policy is questionable, however. He has intimated that his new international order won’t be based on profligate aid to others — and he’s got a point, given our heavy deployment of 50,000 troops in Japan, 30,000 in South Korea and 80,000 in Europe. Clearly, some down-sizing or smart-sizing would be beneficial here.
His choice of Joseph Schmitz, however, suggests that Trump doesn’t care about more effective and efficient foreign policy operations. Schmitz, who served as inspector general at the Department of Defense during the George W. Bush administration, is known for blocking or slowing investigations of White House officials in the Bush administration, and working for the shadowy Prince Group, which owns the notoriously nefarious Blackwater private security firm.
Trump, particularly with Schimtz as his policymaker, likely wouldn’t put an end anytime soon to the trillions of American taxpayer dollars lost or embezzled by the Defense Department and the defense industry in American war zones over the last decade. To pay for the losses, Trump could quickly scoop up untold trillions of dollars’ worth of oil reserves in yet-to-be-exploited war zones — such as Somalia, where BP, Chevron, Conoco, Eni and Shell bought oil blocks decades ago.
The exchange of natural resources for U.S. military collaboration in a nation like Somalia mirrors scenarios that sparked the Iraq and Libyan wars, though those were hidden under a humanitarian flag.
Trump arguably would ignore pretense about national security or democracy building in such an exchange, potentially ushering in a much dirtier mercenary war-making agenda. This is where he would be most dangerous as commander in chief, as he’s much too inclined to punch or shoot first, making for a very combustible foreign agenda. Trump, rather, would likely be motivated to outmatch and outmaneuver China’s island-creating, territory-seeking agenda in the South China Sea, Russia’s intervention and takeover of Crimea, and any of the flag-planting at the resource-rich and quickly melting North and South Poles. This bravado may match up well with American machismo but it plays poorly on any international stage and makes it more likely that détente turns to disaster – especially with non-state actors who are increasingly keen to fight back.
This would be the new Trump America. And it’d impact every piece of US foreign policy, including trade.
With wars raging, threats increasing, trade unraveling, resources dwindling, and the globe warming, an America First agenda that “makes America great again” isn’t one that ramps up, in horrifying detail, policies ineffectively employed in the past. America has done the bullying, patronizing and colonizing — it’s time to end those practices. They’re not serving us or anyone else. What America desperately needs is some innovation in thinking through these threats and how to prevent them, not just punch them. And that is not in the Trump wheelhouse nor his batch of beltway bandits posing as a foreign policy team. More of the same — however louder and meaner — won’t cut it.
Michael Shank, Ph.D, is an adjunct assistant professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He writes in his personal capacity.