Mr. Trump’s transformative foreign policy

Donald Trump has been in politics a very short time – something like a year and a half. The New York developer, however, has lived and breathed municipal and state politics all his adult life, and as his company grew to become a worldwide enterprise his experience extended to national and international politics. The Trump Organization now has properties and investments in more than a dozen countries: Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Dubai, India, Indonesia, Israel, Panama, Philippines, Scotland, South Korea, Turkey, and Uruguay. As would be expected, Trump has met and done business with political and business leaders in numerous countries so he can claim to know the world as few politicians do. But as a businessman, his pronouncements on international issues have been brief and infrequent; hence his foreign policy intentions can only be judged by the positions he has laid out since he began his run for the presidency.

As it happens, the written and spoken record is extensive. Trump has published several books outlining his views on various subjects, notably Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again which has chapters devoted to foreign policy and immigration. In addition, as a candidate he has delivered several lengthy speeches on international affairs: Israel and the Middle East (March 21), foreign policy (April 27), terrorism, immigration, and national security (June 13), global economic competition (August 8), and radical Islam and terrorism (August 15). In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention (July 22), Trump covered a wide range of international issues. Finally, his homepage carries statements he has made on domestic and international developments during the presidential campaign.

America First

The key to understanding Donald Trump is that he cares a lot more about his country than about the world. So his foreign policy, which he regularly describes as America First, runs contrary to the embrace of globalization which has informed US foreign policy thinking for a generation. Both his liberal and conservative opponents disdain his unapologetic patriotism, do not see the national decline which Trump believes should be the priority of public policy, and are appalled that he proposes to undo international structures and institutions – treaties and alliances — which do not benefit the United States. It is little wonder Trump has met with so much hostility from the political establishment, government, special interests, and the media: he is questioning much of what they believe in and he would transform their world if he could.

In Crippled America, Trump writes:

I believe in always putting the interests of American citizens first – always. There aren’t any second or third places. That level of commitment is what has been missing for so long in our foreign policy, in our trade policy, in our immigration policy. Somewhere we started worrying too much about what other countries thought about us. Does anybody reading this believe that I’m concerned about making other countries feel good?

In his speech of April 27, Trump outlined the direction of his thinking on foreign policy. Historically, the United States had much to be proud of, he noted, but after the Cold War US foreign policy had veered badly off course. “We failed to develop a new vision for a new time. In fact, as time went on, our foreign policy began to make less and less sense. Logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance, and this led to one foreign policy disaster after another.” US foreign policy today, he argues, has five main weaknesses: resources are overextended with a weakened economy and weakened military, allies in Europe and Asia are not paying their fair share of the common defence, America’s friends are beginning to think they cannot depend on it, America’s rivals no longer respect it, and Americans have no clear understanding of what goals they are trying to achieve abroad.

Under a Trump administration, this would change. There would be three priorities: a foreign policy based on American interests, a rebuilt US economy and US military, and a long-term plan to halt the spread and reach of radical Islam.

To all our friends and allies, I say America is going to be strong again. America is going to be a reliable friend and ally. We’re going to have a coherent foreign policy based upon American interests, and the shared interests of our allies. We are getting out of the nation-building business, and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.

Trump has espoused positions which have raised hackles not only in the United States but across the globe. In some cases, it has been the language he used. On August 18, he pointed out that he was not a politician, that he had never used “the language of the insiders”, and that “sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing … I have done that. I regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain.”  In other cases, however, critics have willfully distorted his meaning to try to make an otherwise reasonable, if not universally shared, position sound offensive, even beyond the pale.

Three of these cases have featured prominently to date and are worth examining for the colouration they have put on Trump’s entire foreign policy agenda: illegal immigration, Islamist terrorism, and treaties and alliances.

Illegal immigration

An early example of a manufactured Trump “controversy” were the remarks he made about illegal immigration in his June 16, 2015 speech announcing he was running for president. The words that sparked the public meltdown were: “When Mexico, meaning the Mexican government, sends its people … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He later added that it was not just Mexico sending drugs, rapists and criminals to the US, it was every part of South America “and it’s coming probably from the Middle East”.

Critics ignored the context and purported to find in Trump’s language evidence of an “anti-immigrant” bias and, of course, “racism” — contemporary politics’ all-purpose slur.

The context: Illegal immigration has been a political, economic, social, and criminal justice issue in the United States for decades. The problem was already becoming chronic in 1986 when the Reagan administration and Congress agreed on the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The Act allowed 2.7 million illegal immigrants (out of a total of just over 3 million) to obtain a green card, in parallel with control measures intended to prevent a recurrence of the problem. These measures made it illegal for employers to hire “undocumented” immigrants and tightened security at the border with Mexico (the border with Canada was not at issue).  In the event, the control measures were more honoured in the breach than the observance and by 2014 the number of illegal immigrants in the United States had soared to an astronomical 11.3 million.  Mexicans accounted for 5.6 million or 49%.

US illegal population by year
In November 2014, the Obama administration settled on the expediency of a 1986-style amnesty but of twice the dimensions, without addressing the control issue. Side-stepping Congress, the president announced he was taking executive action to “expand deportation relief”. In brief, the government would simply not take the deportation action required by law and would allow almost half of the illegal immigrant population to remain. Obama was only blocked when, in June 2016, the Supreme Court sustained a lower court ruling that he had exceeded his constitutional authority.

Most Americans deplore the situation. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the citizens of Canada or any other Western country tolerating illegal immigrants numbering 3.5% of the population.  In this light, Trump’s proposed solution struck many as reasonable: finally secure the border with Mexico and then find a way to deport illegals, beginning with the most undesirable.

US Mexico border fenceThe “wall” and Trump’s insistence that Mexico would pay for it were seized upon by his political opponents to portray him as anti-immigrant (i.e. he opposes all immigrants not just the illegal ones) and naive in foreign policy (the Mexicans could never be compelled to finance it). In fact, the wall is no chimera. Some 650 miles of the 2100-mile length of the US-Mexico border already have a “wall”, and the project might well have been completed by now but for funding disputes in Washington. Nor would “getting Mexico to pay” the $5-10 billion estimated cost be difficult to arrange. By law, the executive branch can place restrictions on certain kinds of international financial transactions and it could apply these to some or all of the estimated $24 billion in remittances which Mexican nationals in the United States, the majority of whom are believed to be “undocumented”, send back to their relatives in Mexico. The US could also raise fees for visas and border cards for the multitude of Mexicans visiting or working in the United States.  Thirdly, it could threaten or take remedial action against Mexican imports believed to be benefitting from unfair subsidies – a tactic the United States has employed with effect against Canada.

Nor was Trump wrong about the nature of many illegal immigrants from Mexico. As he wrote in Crippled America, “I understand that the vast majority of these people are honest, decent, hardworking people who came here to improve their own lives and their children’s lives.” But illegal immigration had to stop. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office had reported three million arrests that could be attributed to the incarcerated alien population including tens of thousands of violent criminals. There were 351,000 criminal aliens in US prisons, at enormous public expense.

On July 1, 2015, just two weeks after his “controversial” remarks, there happened one of the many illegal immigrant-related incidents which have infuriated Americans – and would the citizens of any other Western country.  A young woman named Kathryn Steinle was walking with her father and a family friend on Pier 14 in the Embarcadero district of San Francisco when she was shot and killed. The accused, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, turned out to be an illegal immigrant from Mexico who had a string of felonies on his record and had been deported back to Mexico five times. He had just completed a prison term and had been held briefly by the San Francisco Sheriff’s department before being released on the grounds the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) had not provided a sufficient legal basis to hold him. San Francisco is a “sanctuary city” which prides itself on its leniency towards illegal immigrants, while ICE reportedly released 36,007 convicted criminals into the community in 2013 alone. Islamist terrorism

Six months later there was another Trump “controversy”, for which he was widely denounced as an “Islamophobe” – and, of course, racist. This one arose out of his response to the San Bernardino Islamist terrorist attack in which the son of a Pakistani immigrant and his recently arrived Pakistani-born wife killed 14 and injured another 22 at an office party where he worked. The December 2015 incident followed Islamist-inspired killings at Fort Hood (13 murdered, 38 wounded), at the Boston Marathon (5 and 264), and in Chattanooga (5 and 3). In June 2016, there would be the still more lethal Orlando attack (49 and 53).

Five days after San Bernardino, Trump issued a press release with three main points:

  • Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
  • He drew attention to the “great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population”. According to studies by PEW Research and the Center for Security Policy, 25% of Muslims in the United States “believe violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad … Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine.”
  • He proposed that “Until we are able to understand this problem, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”

Predictably, Trump’s proposed moratorium was mischaracterized as a complete “ban” and almost all the coverage his proposal received simply ignored the explanation he gave for it: Americans are being terrorized and murdered in large numbers by people they have welcomed into their country, and it makes sense to stop importing more of them until the government has a better idea of what to do about the problem.

Trump is on more solid political ground than his critics have been willing to acknowledge. Despite all the effort the United States has put into homeland security, some 75% of the population doesn’t believe the country is safer than it was before 9/11. More than half believe the government hasn’t focused enough on the threat of domestic Islamic terrorism. And support has risen for Trump’s proposal from 25-40% to close to 60%.

Trump has since expanded on his proposal: the temporary restriction would apply to individuals coming from “the most dangerous and volatile regions of the world that have a history of exporting terrorism”. Moreover, he would institute a process of “extreme vetting” to screen out those who did not share American values. In mid-August, Rasmussen reported 59% approval for the first and 78% approval for the second (including 57% of Democrats).

Treaties and alliances

A third source of “controversy” has been Trump’s warning that the United States would no longer tolerate treaties and alliances which did not serve US interests. In the election campaign, he has taken direct aim at the longstanding bipartisan consensus in Washington and among “globalists” everywhere on the merits of comprehensive trade deals; and he has questioned the value of costly military alliances with partners who take so little responsibility for their own defence.

Job-killing trade deals

Over the last 20 years, Trump has charged that the United States has entered into “job-killing trade deals” which he insists would have to be renegotiated or the United States would leave them. In evidence, he cites:

  • The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada (1994), in which the US goods trade deficit with Mexico rose from around zero in 1994 to $58 billion in 2015 (*);
  • China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (2001), in which the US goods trade deficit rose from $83 billion in 2001 to $367 billion in 2015; and
  • The US-South Korea free trade agreement (2011), in which the US goods trade deficit rose from $13 billion in 2011 to $28 billion in 2015.

Trump argues that entry into force of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which has been negotiated but not yet ratified, would only add to the trade deficits the US is already running with TPP member countries.

(*) The US annual goods trade deficit with Canada is about what it was when NAFTA was concluded, in the range of $15 billion a year, but for most of the 20-year period it was two to five times as high. Between 2004 and 2008, the annual deficit averaged more than $70 billion. So far, Trump has been silent on Canada.

US manufacturing employment

While it is difficult to know what the state of the US economy might have been had these agreements never been concluded, the fact is that the country’s historically high trade deficits – the total deficit today is in the order of $800 billion – have coincided with a dramatic decline in manufacturing jobs in the United States. Speaking in Detroit, Trump offered the example of Michigan which the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported had 285,000 auto workers before NAFTA went into effect and only 160,000 today. Trump has promised strong-arm tactics to prevent US firms decamping to Mexico or elsewhere and then selling their products back into the United States.

The decline in manufacturing jobs has been socially disastrous for the United States:

  • Economic growth has been anemic despite several trillion dollars in “stimulus” and a now unbelievably high federal debt closing in on $21 trillion;
  • The United States has the lowest labour participation rate in 40 years with one in five households not having a single member working;
  • Annual household income is $4000 less than it was at the beginning of the century;
  • With many no longer being able to afford a home, home ownership is now at its lowest in 50 years; and
  • One in seven Americans (45.4 million) are living on food stamps (Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program), 12 million more than when Obama became president, at a cost of $76.1 billion (in 2013).

This is the picture Donald Trump – and Bernie Sanders – have responded to, but which has failed to move elite opinion. For Trump, the era of “job-killing trade deals” has to end. For the bien pensants, the loss of millions of well-paying manufacturing jobs is just the cost of doing business globally.


In Crippled America, Trump wrote that “My approach to foreign policy is built on a strong foundation: Operate from strength. That means we have to maintain the strongest military in the world … and we have to create alliances with our allies that reveal mutual benefits”.  Too many allies, however, were not paying their fair share. It just made no sense for the United States to be “spending trillions of dollars to safeguard other counties … paying for the privilege of fighting their battles”. If the United States was expected to defend Germany, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait – all wealthy countries – at least it ought to be paid for it.

When Trump repeated these points in the course of the election, along with the threat to scale back US military involvement in Europe and Asia if others didn’t contribute more to the common defence, he was called ignorant of world affairs and a menace to international stability. Critics were particularly scathing about his comments on NATO. The time had come to “renegotiate” burden-sharing within the alliance, Trump said, and if delinquent members didn’t pay up they would have to get out. “If that breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO”. In any case, NATO was “obsolete” for not focusing more on the threat from Islamist terrorism. (NATO has disputed the charge, but at their summit meeting in Warsaw in July leaders devoted just two paragraphs of their 139-paragraph final communiqué to the subject.)

Trump was being blunt, perhaps excessively so, but he is only the latest in a long line of Americans who have criticized allies for not pulling their weight.  In recent times, the most famous critique was the one retiring defense secretary Robert Gates – who worked for both Bush and Obama – delivered at NATO in June 2011.

For the better part of six decades there has been relatively little doubt or debate in the United States about the value and necessity of the transatlantic alliance … Thus, for most of the Cold War US governments could justify defense investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending. But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the US share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75 percent.

The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense. If current trends … are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders – for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience it was for me – may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.

Trump is of the view that not much has changed since Gates left the Pentagon. As was the case then, only five NATO members today meet or exceed the NATO-agreed target of states devoting at least two percent of their GDP on defence. And when, after Crimea and Ukraine and the intimidation of the Baltic states, the East European members called on their larger and wealthier Western allies to put troops on the frontline to help deter Russian aggression, it took months before just four stepped forward. Only two of them were European (UK, Germany). The others were the United States and Canada.


Trump’s advocacy of an America First foreign policy represents a profound break with decades of orthodoxy shared by its Democratic and Republican architects alike. It is not surprising that Democrats would take issue with it; but it is a mark of the transformative effect it would have that leading Republicans have also opposed Trump’s foreign policy – and done so with so much public animus in the midst of a tight presidential election race. There cannot have been many times in US history when so many party grandees denounced their party’s nominee for president as unfit for office.

But once again, Trump appears to be better grounded in the political realities of the time than his critics. When the presidential campaign got under way, 60% of voters felt U.S. foreign policy seemed to be concerned mostly about other countries, just 30% about putting America First. As a Rasmussen report has observed, “Voters have been telling us in surveys for years that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be seen as failures by future generations. Whether it’s Syria or Libya or Egypt or wherever in the Muslim world, most voters have urged the U.S. government to stay out. But the last two administrations — one Republican, one Democrat — just keep soldiering on, despite the opposition of the American people.” Trump hears them.

Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. During a 30-year career in the Canadian foreign service, he served in Tel Aviv, Moscow, at NATO, and in Washington where he was head of the political section. He can be reached at

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