Although the American presidency is not normally thought of as an entry-level position, Donald Trump has emerged as the frontrunner in the Republican primaries, despite his lack of previous political experience. Lambasting the corruption of the U.S. political system, Trump boasts of his outsider status and transforms his lack of political experience from a defect into a virtue. This claim has won him votes, but the reality is that running a multi-billion dollar business is not comparable to being president of the United States. Presidential leadership is more than the art of the deal.
Is business acumen a true preparation for statesmanship? For good reasons, Winston Churchill, the most notable statesman of the 20th century, had serious concerns about the limitations of the business perspective that influenced American foreign policy during the 1920s. The United States was insisting that Britain repay its debts from World War I, despite Britain’s precarious economic situation and the political instability that would follow in the wake of an economic collapse. President Calvin Coolidge seemed to succumb to this economic reductionism when he noted, “They hired the money, didn’t they?” In Churchill’s more capacious political perspective, this was “true, but not exhaustive.” Churchill presciently recognized that a weakened Britain could in turn destabilize Europe and create the preconditions for another world war.
Trump’s lack of understanding for foreign policy seems to reflect the same short-sightedness that Coolidge displayed in the 1920s. Trump wants to pay for his wall along the southern border by cutting off the flow of money sent home by Mexican immigrants. If the Mexican economy collapses as a result, won’t more impoverished Mexicans flee Mexico to come to the United States? If the Mexican government resents being bullied by its northern neighbor, how much cooperation will we get in stopping the flow of drugs and terrorists into this country?
Trump focuses on the economic costs of the U.S.’s role as the world’s only remaining superpower, with little regard to the benefits of the country’s willingness to assume international leadership (not to be confused with being the world’s policeman), or the potential costs of the U.S. retreating from that role. This narrow-minded economic perspective is particularly evident in his recent statements on NATO. He questions whether NATO serves a useful purpose in a post-Cold War world and suggests that the U.S. is spending too much money stationing American troops in Europe while propping up European countries, who should bear a greater share of the military costs of their own defense.
While the U.S. should pressure the Europeans to spend more for their own defense, to question the utility of NATO when Russian imperialism is on the rise and Vladimir Putin has taken over the Crimea, effectively seized other parts of Ukraine, and established a military base in Syria, demonstrates a stunning lack of political awareness. At the peak of the Ronald Reagan defense buildup during the Cold War, the U.S. spent 6.8% of GDP on defense. The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed the defense budget to shrink to 3.5% of GDP by 2001. The collapse of NATO would reestablish Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe and compel the U.S. to return to defense spending levels associated with the Cold War.
Trump’s equation of China and Japan as countries that allegedly don’t practice “fair” trade with the United States, thus running trade surpluses at the U.S.’s “expense,” not only shows a weak understanding of economics, but ignores that China is emerging as the dominant military power in East Asia, posing a significant threat to American interests in the region. Japan is America’s foremost political ally and the foundation of a Pacific alliance needed to check China’s ambition. Economists have sounded a warning bell regarding the potentially disastrous economic consequences of trade wars in an increasingly globalized economy, but the political consequences of Trump’s plan to aggressively flex America’s economic “muscle” are equally disturbing. The polestar of a Trump foreign policy would be to save money abroad to spend more at home. Whatever money “saved” in the short run would, however, be more than outweighed by the costs the nation would bear in cleaning up the mess that his policies would create. While President Obama described his unsuccessful foreign policy as “leading from behind,” Trump would abandon any attempt at leadership outright, generating even more harm to the cause of freedom and constitutionalism at home and abroad. Trump is Obama on steroids.
Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.