Politics & Policy

A Nuclear-Armed Trump?

B-52 Stratofortress flies over South Korea, January 10, 2016. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty)

Last week, a group of more than 100 leading Republican foreign-policy and defense experts, including many with decades of practical policy experience, signed an open letter stating their common belief that Donald Trump is unfit to be America’s commander-in-chief and that he must be opposed. This statement, published by the website War on the Rocks, received widespread commentary from news outlets in the U.S. and abroad. I was happy to sign that letter. Here’s why.

Every Republican president since World War II has affirmed that the United States has a key role to play in upholding an international order friendly to its own interests. This need not include intervention in every case; we’ve certainly learned that over the years. It does, however, include a worthwhile set of U.S. alliances, bases, trade agreements, intelligence capabilities, and deterrent forces overseas. Imagine if the United States had stayed aloof from international politics since the 1940s. The world would certainly be a far more dangerous, impoverished, and authoritarian place than it is today. American conservatives, for their part, have long engaged in healthy debate about exactly how to best contribute to U.S. interests overseas and why it’s vital to do so. But ever since Dwight Eisenhower beat Robert Taft for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1952, no Republican commander-in-chief has actively tried to uproot or dismantle this overarching U.S. world role.

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American engagement in global affairs since the 1940s has been a force for good. To believe this, you don’t need to be a neoconservative. I’m not. Neither were most of the signatories of our open letter. The letter was signed by a wide range of Republican foreign-policy and national-security analysts, including pro-defense advocates, foreign-policy realists, GOP internationalists, regional experts, and traditional conservative security hawks. Believe me, we sometimes disagree with one another. But one thing we all agree on is that the world would be an even more dangerous place if Donald Trump were president.

Trump can’t defend or affirm an American-led order, because he doesn’t even understand it, much less support it.

Trump can’t defend or affirm an American-led order, because he doesn’t even understand it, much less support it. Nor does he make any clear distinction between America’s allies and our adversaries. Instead, he seems by instinct to nurse a kind of undifferentiated resentment toward all foreigners, with the possible exception of a few dictatorial strongmen, such as Putin, who earn his respect. Trump calls for protectionist trade policies that would impoverish the United States as well as our partners. He calls for Japan and other allies to contribute to their own defenses, without realizing that they already do. His insistence that Mexico will pay for a U.S. border wall is absurd; it will not. He calls for bombing ISIS but otherwise offers no serious strategy. His proposal for a (“temporary”) ban on all Muslims into the United States would of course make counterterrorism much harder, because the U.S. can defeat jihadist terrorists only by cooperating with those Muslims who oppose it.

#share#These are just some of the substantive ways in which Trump is so often dead wrong on foreign policy and national security. His temperament, judgment, and decision-making style are equally serious flaws.

We know from painful experience, as well as from historical examples, that the personal qualities of an individual are absolutely crucial in determining whether he will be a successful foreign-policy president. The best presidents demonstrate strength in moments of decision, after a thoughtful consideration of the alternatives. Nobody pretends that Trump is thoughtful. But even his claim of strong leadership is a hollow one. Looking over his career in business and entertainment, one can only conclude that Trump’s signature personal qualities aren’t strong at all. On the contrary, he is incredibly erratic, unstable, and thin-skinned. He surrounds himself with yes-men, barks insults at those around him, and builds sham operations that fail for everyone but himself. His standard operating procedure is to issue empty threats multiple times a day, year after year, out of personal pique. Try doing that with hardened autocrats in Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang, or Tehran, and see what happens when deterrence fails.

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Trump not only knows next to nothing about the substance of policy — he also doesn’t care to know. This is a leadership issue as well. The man is about to turn 70 years old. He has already had multiple decades to develop both the character and the knowledge to be president, if he were serious. This isn’t about whether Trump obeys some rulebook by Miss Manners. It’s about whether he is fit to have his hands anywhere near the U.S. nuclear codes.

Trump not only knows next to nothing about the substance of policy — he also doesn’t care to know.

Trump has indeed done very well with one thing: relentless brand-name self-promotion. He has now parlayed that talent into front-runner status within a major political party for the presidency of the United States. Judging from his erratic behavior over the years, he would have been fine with the nomination from any party at all. But Trump’s undoubted skill in media self-promotion will not be enough to manage dangerous crises overseas. When we look at the span of his personal history, we see that he isn’t actually a strong leader; he just plays one on TV.

Those of us who signed the letter against Trump have been told we should defer to the Trump Train, get in line, and not rock the boat. But if you truly believe this man to be a threat to the Republican party, the conservative movement, and America’s role in the world, then you have a duty to say something.

#related#Finally: One interesting criticism of our letter was that it was politically unaware. To be sure, voters will make up their own minds; think-tank types like us don’t determine elections. But the American public does, and this November, if Republicans nominate Trump, every American will be forced to ask whether he has the character, judgment, and good sense to be commander-in-chief. Do we really want a nuclear-armed Trump? The issue will be inescapable, and truthfully, he could easily lose the fall election on this issue alone. So if conservative Republicans want to be politically aware, with an eye toward November, they might rally against him more effectively before he wins the nomination.

On the other hand, if by “politically unaware,” critics mean that we’re not currying favor with Donald Trump, then we do plead guilty.

I can’t imagine voting for Hillary Clinton, any more than for Donald Trump. But then, I’m a conservative, and neither of these two candidates is. Clinton versus Trump? Conservatives should hope it doesn’t come to that — and work to prevent it.

— Colin Dueck is associate professor in George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs, and the author of The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today.

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