The most salient political aspect of Donald Trump’s nomination this week is this fact: the American people have never elected anyone whose first public service was the presidency. (I include generals — Dwight Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant — as having serious experience in public service before the presidency.) Only once before has one of the two major parties nominated a business leader with no prior experience in public office, with the GOP’s selection of utility executive Wendell Willkie in 1940.
Like Trump, Willkie had been a Democrat most of his life, and only converted to the Republican Party a year before seeking the GOP nomination. But there the parallels end. Unlike Trump, Willkie had a long track record of detailed public engagement on the issues of the 1930s prior to his nomination, and in any case he fell far short of dislodging Franklin Roosevelt, despite reassuring voters that he was no foreign policy isolationist amidst the spreading war in Europe.
About Trump we still can’t make out his foreign policy principles, and the foreign policy establishment of both parties is having a collective freak out about the uncertainty of a Trump Administration foreign policy. His repeated expressions of admiration or sympathy for authoritarian rulers such as Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein are less a sign that he aspires to be a dictator than a shallow view that he regards them as akin to bank presidents and big city mayors with whom he can cut deals as if he was merely siting another Trump tower. He is certain to have a rude awakening if he persists in thinking high level political diplomacy has the same character as the real estate world he finds familiar and easy to master. People like Putin have a wholly different conception of what it means to acquire real estate.
What do Trump’s equivocations about NATO and European security imply for Eastern Europe? Even the Obama Administration has belatedly come to recognize the revived Russian threat to the peace and stability of Eastern Europe, recently agreeing to station an American brigade in Poland while other NATO allies do the same in the Baltic states. Trump, meanwhile, has said that he might not necessarily respond to an invocation of NATO’s Article V — the collective security clause that holds an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all of NATO, summoning forth a military response from NATO members. Like Trump’s views on international trade, he thinks the United States is shouldering too much of the burden for collective security, and wants a “better deal” in which our European allies spend more for their own defense.
The irony is that a number of neoconservatives alarmed at Trump’s heterodoxy forget that back in the 1980s, when the Cold War with the Soviet Union was still at fever pitch, there were a lot of complaints about our NATO allies not spending enough on defense, with some neoconservatives arguing that the U.S. defense guarantee to Europe amounted to a cross-subsidy of Europe’s growing welfare states. There were grumblings that the U.S. ought to be more demanding of European defense commitments. In other words, 30 years ago some neoconservatives sounded a lot like . . . Donald Trump.
It is plausible to think that Trump’s unpredictability and tough-guy stance may well make enemies such as Putin, Iran, North Korea, and China hesitate before launching any aggressive moves, and such uncertainty can serve a world leader well. But we simply have no way to know whether this is just Trump posturing for diplomatic advantage, or whether he really means it that the U.S. might continue its withdrawal from world leadership. Determined men such as Putin might well conclude that Trump is out of his depth on the world stage, all talk and no bite, thereby increasing the risks already protracted by President Obama’s guilt-ridden drive to reduce American power and influence.
If there’s a bright spot for Eastern Europe in a prospective Trump Administration, it comes ironically from one of his domestic policy priorities that will have salutary international effect. Trump proposes expanding conventional energy production in the United States. Already the U.S. is poised to be a major exporter of oil and natural gas, and the downward pressure on world prices this will cause would squeeze especially Putin’s drive to dominate Eastern Europe with high-priced energy.
But in general Trump is a high-risk proposition, not just for the Republican Party, but for the world. His break from the conventions of American politics may be just what Washington needs, or he could break himself in the process and leave the country worse off. The United States has never been in a comparable position before with such an unknown quantity poised to be president. Bismarck reportedly said that God looks after drunks, fools, and the United States of America. The current decade, after Obama and soon under either Trump or Hillary Clinton, will sorely test that proposition.
Steven F. Hayward is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. Mr. Hayward is the author of the definitive two-volume biography of Ronald Reagan, “The Age of Reagan” and a member of BulgariaAnalytica’s board of international advisers.