On Friday, Charles Krauthammer wrote what I assume will be his last column before the election. He attacked Hillary Clinton for “shiftiness, paranoia, cynicism, and disdain for playing by the rules.”
However, Krauthammer found that Donald Trump’s liabilities outweigh Clinton’s, especially on foreign policy. He sees Trump as a threat to our open, free international order. He fears that Trump will initiate trade wars and undermine our alliances with countries like Germany, Japan, and South Korea.
Are Krauthammer’s fears justified? They might be, and that possibility — among other concerns — should give conservatives pause.
However, I think that Krauthammer, like most other analysts, fails to recognize the extent to which Trump accepts conventional wisdom. If Trump is, as I have come to view him, a conventional thinker, then it’s highly unlikely that as president he would pose a threat to the international order.
When asked where he gets the information on which he bases his foreign policy views, Trump famously replied “the shows.” He meant the television news shows that do little more than recycle conventional wisdom.
As a presidential nominee, Trump now gets information and advice from a foreign policy team. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is a key member of that team. Flynn’s foreign policy views aren’t conventional in all respects, but they generally do not fall outside the conservative mainstream. He is not for toppling the international order.
Iraq provides a good example of how conventional Trump’s thinking tends to be. In the run-up to the 2003 invasion, Trump was very skeptical about going to war. As the invasion approached, he gave it lukewarm support in an interview. As soon as things started to go badly, he became a strong critic.
This was a highly conventional trajectory.
Or consider Trump’s position on Israel. His sympathies are with Israel but, like just about every president in recent memory, he wants to broker a big peace deal. To do so, he believes he must adopt a neutral stance.
Unfortunately, you can’t get much more conventional than that.
When Trump departs from conventional wisdom, it’s almost always in service of opportunism. Immigration is probably the best example. After the 2012 election, Trump espoused the utterly conventional view that Mitt Romney had shot himself in the foot by coming across as too tough on illegal immigrants.
In seeking the Republican nomination, Trump came across as much tougher than Romney. Was this because he had started to think unconventionally about immigration or was it to rile up potential supporters?
We need not guess. As the nominee, Trump says we must secure the borders, deport lawbreakers, and then see what we can do for illegal immigrants who have not caused trouble here.
This is the conventional conservative position.
Trump’s talk about making our allies pay more for the security we provide or else defend themselves should, I think, be viewed in the same light as his pre-nomination posture on immigration. Such tough talk plays well and, like his rants on immigration, is based on valid grievances.
But would Trump as president buck the uniform thinking of the foreign policy establishment and pull the plug on our allies? Almost certainly not.
Trade falls into the same category, I think. The tough talk is fundamental to Trump’s appeal, and it wouldn’t hurt to be somewhat tougher in trade negotiations. But as a businessman and a conventional thinker, there’s little reason that Trump will give us trade wars.
Trump’s positions on Russia and Syria are portrayed as unconventional, and I find them troubling. But in the case of Syria, his position is nearly indistinguishable from current Obama policy (as opposed to talk).
Trump basically wants Assad to prevail and Russia to be the power behind the dictator. Based on what Obama does (and doesn’t do), it seems clear that he wants basically the same thing now. The only difference I can detect is that Obama sees Iran, more than Russia, as the power behind an entrenched Assad in post-civil war Syria (or the key portions of it).
But what about Trump’s views on Russia? Isn’t his willingness to engage Putin — or as he would characterize it, to take a wait and see approach towards him — unconventional?
At the moment, yes. But six years ago, President Obama and Hillary Clinton were more enthusiastic than Trump now is to embrace Russia. Who can forget the Russian reset?
Is this a fair point, though? Hillary appears to have learned from her mistake; shouldn’t Trump have learned from it too?
My answer is yes. But Clinton’s embrace of Russia flew in the face of the experience of the Bush years. At the time of the reset, Russia had invaded Georgia. Former President Bush was universally derided for his silly talk about having looked into Putin’s soul.
Clinton and Obama, however, attributed our poor relations with Russia to the misguided approach of the predecessor administration. They thought they could do better.
That’s basically Trump’s position now. He thinks Russia’s aggression stems from the weakness Putin perceives in the U.S. (just as Obama and Clinton apparently thought it stemmed from Bush’s bellicosity). This view is simplistic, but not entirely wrong.
Nor is it all that unconventional.
Even discounting for bluster, Trump’s foreign policy views are disquieting in some cases. But I think Krauthammer’s column significantly overstates his case. There’s little risk that a President Trump would bring down the international order.
Krauthammer’s column also ignores the threat Hillary Clinton poses to our domestic order. Or so I will argue tomorrow.