Last night, it became crystal clear. The GOP nominated a dangerous, unfit man to be president of the United States. When it came to foreign affairs, where the president’s power is at its peak, Trump is showing himself to be ignorant, unprepared, and impulsive. Indeed, it’s hard to think of three worse qualities in a potential commander-in-chief.
In presidential elections, Americans understandably tend to focus on domestic policy. It has a more immediate effect on their lives, and the issues are far more familiar. Yet domestic policy is precisely the arena where the president faces his or her most profound limits. For all his undeniable expansion of presidential power, not even Barack Obama at his “pen and phone” worst has been able to implement vast segments of his domestic agenda. He’s ending two terms without cap and trade, without comprehensive immigration reform, and without new gun-control measures. His worst bureaucratic initiatives can be undone by any subsequent president.
If you’re a geopolitical rival of the United States, Trump is a delight. He’s America’s leading Putin apologist, wasting several agonizing turns in the debate defending Russia from the charge of meddling in U.S. elections and bizarrely wondering if a “400-pound” man “sitting on their bed” hacked Democratic National Committee e-mails. He said he hasn’t “given lots of thought to NATO” and then went ahead and proved the truth of that statement by fundamentally misunderstanding the alliance. He treats it as a glorified protection racket whereby NATO countries allegedly pay us to defend Europe and they’re not paying what they owe. He even doubled down on his claim — an incredibly bizarre claim given Russia’s military resurgence — that NATO “could be obsolete.”
This is of course music to Vladimir Putin’s ears, but it’s deeply threatening to American national security. America isn’t in the NATO alliance out of altruism. Since the founding of this nation, each and every time there has been a general European conflict, America has been pulled into the fray. The Napoleonic wars were key in triggering the War of 1812, a stalemate of a conflict fought largely on American soil. The two world wars collectively cost more than half a million American lives, and our toll was light compared with that of our European allies. During the Cold War, NATO helped preserve the very existence of the free world, and now it is the primary check on Russian aggression. Obsolete? Hardly. It has saved countless American lives.
Nuclear is the single greatest threat. Just to go down the list, we defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia, we defend countries. They do not pay us. But they should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service and we’re losing a fortune. That’s why we’re losing — we’re losing — we lose on everything. I say, who makes these — we lose on everything.
Once again: We don’t enter into treaties merely out of the goodness of our hearts. We have established defense relationships with Germany, South Korea, Japan, and other nations (we don’t have a collective defense treaty with Saudi Arabia) in large part because American national security and the American way of life depend on global peace and security. In a connected world, we simply can’t retreat behind our borders and expect to remain safe or prosperous.
Last night an unprepared Trump proved that he’s not ready to be commander-in-chief.
And while many of our allies can and should provide more resources for their own defense, they will always allocate a lower percentage of their gross domestic product for their militaries than the U.S. does, because they don’t have the same international reach. Given history, do we really want Japan and Germany to become global military superpowers? But that doesn’t mean our allies don’t have skin in the game. In the event of a second Korean conflict, the South Korean military would bear the brunt of the fighting — and take the vast majority of the allied casualties. Europeans make up the great majority of actual NATO boots on the ground in Europe, and our own deployment is a fraction of its former strength.
Treaties aren’t business deals, nor are they protection rackets. They have been the hallmark of bipartisan American foreign policy since 1945, because liberals and conservatives alike have understood the profound risks of true American disengagement. Even the Obama administration, for all its fecklessness, hasn’t raised the specter of American retreat to the same extent as Trump has.Trump has been running for president for 15 months. Businessman or not, that’s more than enough time to understand our treaty obligations — including the reasons for the relationships that have helped keep America out of a catastrophic war. If Trump truly believed that “nuclear is the single greatest threat,” he’d be wary both of nuclear proliferation and of discarding key allies. Geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and American retreat almost always triggers a rival’s advance.
A loud ignorant man is still ignorant. A blustering impulsive man is still impulsive. Last night an unprepared Trump proved that he’s not ready to be commander-in-chief. He’s most dangerous where he has the most power, and that should send a chill down every American spine.
— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.