The Dangers of Donald Trump’s America First Foreign Policy

Donald Trump may be regularly depicted as an impetuous toddler in chief, but he appears to possess genuine convictions about international relations. Ever since he gave an interview to Playboy magazine in 1990 decrying Mikhail Gorbachev for failing to hold the Soviet empire together (“not a firm enough hand”) and praising the Chinese Communist leadership for crushing the student uprising at Tiananmen Square (“they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength”), Mr. Trump has extolled authoritarian leaders as possessing the right stuff, while he has dismissed democratic ones as weak and feckless.

This impulse is not a new phenomenon for the United States; it dates back to World War I and World War II, when leading American conservatives praised foreign autocrats such as Kaiser Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco as their ideological comrades in arms. Until now, however, no modern president has lauded autocracy as a model for America.

During his four years in office, Mr. Trump blustered about alliances and praised foreign dictators but never actually upended America’s foreign policy. That could change in a second Trump administration. The former president is poised to adopt a radical program centered on constructive engagement with foreign strongmen and hostility toward democratic allies; it would include abandoning NATO. It would convert America from a dominant economic and military power into what Mr. Trump purports to abhor — a global loser.

To understand why Mr. Trump’s approach might well differ from the one he took in his initial term, it’s helpful to look at the foreign policy advisers who are being talked about as potential members of a new Trump administration. They can be divided into two camps, which might be called Restorationists and Revisionists.

Restorationists are establishment Republicans such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the former national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien who want to go back in time — specifically, to Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy hawkishness and staunch internationalism, which they believe led straight to the fall of the Berlin Wall and victory in the Cold War. During the Trump presidency, they worked overtime to maneuver Mr. Trump in this direction, pushing him to adopt tough stances toward Iran, Russia and China, while maintaining ties to traditional allies in Asia and Europe.

Now, in a variety of interviews, speeches and books, they have been sketching out their vision for a second Trump term — one that would shore up America’s alliances, pursue peace through strength and confront Iran, Russia and China — while camouflaging their crusading Reaganite views in a thin veneer of Trumpian nationalism.

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