Donald Trump on US Foreign Policy: A Needed Reset?


Many have said that Trump’s foreign policy is nothing more than a series of inconsistent statements of a know-nothing. For example, Jeffrey Stacey claims Trump’s foreign policy views are:

“…contradictory, confusing, and destined for the historical dustbin if enacted. For example, Trump has promised to restore ‘global peace,’ rebuild the U.S. military, eliminate ISIS, contain ‘radical Islam,’ and act as a reliable ally. At the same time, he has also promised to withdraw from NATO if allies do not take more responsibility for their own security. Moreover, Trump has referred to U.S. interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Syria as ‘disasters,’ promising to ‘get out of nation building and focus instead on instituting stability everywhere.’”

It is certainly true that during the campaign, Trump has said many over-the-top things on a wide range of policy subjects. It is also true that predictions in this election cycle have mostly been wrong. But with a bit of wishful thinking, I can see Trump’s views evolving into a consistent and needed update to the role of the US in the world.

Time for a Reset?

Trump reminds us that our largest wars (WWII, the Cold War and Vietnam) ended a long time ago. At the end of all three of these wars, the US emerged economically and militarily dominant. Times have changed, but our foreign policies remains stuck in time. Countries that have grown to be economic powers, e.g., Germany, Japan, and South Korea still have a large portion of their defense needs covered by the US. And then there is NATO.


Trump, in an interview with The New York Times on March 26 said:

“We pay…a totally disproportionate share of NATO. We’re spending the biggest, the lion share’s paid for by us, disproportionate to other countries.”

Disproportionate? A NATO official explained to me that NATO Allies agreed to a new cost share formula in 2005. Under it, all nations but the US shares NATO costs in proportion to their levels of gross national income. However, the US share remains the same as it was before 2005 at 22%. This is a real break: if it was based on income, the US share would be 66%. However, one can still argue the US derives very little benefit from NATO and its share of NATO expenses should be lower.

Table 1. – NATO Expense Shares

Source: NATO

 b. Cost of Maintaining Troops Overseas

In 2013, a Senate Committee on Armed Services report put the cost of supporting the U.S. military presence abroad at more than $10 billion a year of which 70 percent, or nearly $7 billion, was spent in Germany, the Republic of Korea and Japan. For context, the Department of Defense’s total budget, excluding funding for combat activities was $502 billion in 2014.

There are about 49,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, 28,000 in South Korea and 38,000 in Germany. These countries make contributions toward the cost of keeping U.S. military bases there, with Japan contributing $2 billion in 2012 and South Korea giving $765 million. The Senate Committee reported that these contributions had not kept pace with the growth of costs for the United States. The report faulted the U.S. for not seeking cash payments for the return of facilities to Germany, and instead accepting in-kind contributions.

In considering the real costs of these overseas troops to the US, one has to ask what is the extra cost to the U.S. for keeping those troops abroad. A 2013 RAND Corporation report put the additional cost per personnel per year at $10,000 to $40,000, a figure that varied depending on the country and branch of service. But the study also concluded “the fixed costs per base do not appear to be systematically higher overseas, with the exception of the Air Force bases, compared with facilities in the United States,” but the “variable costs per person” were higher overseas due to ‘higher allowances related to the cost of living, higher permanent-change-of-station move costs, and the need to provide schools more comprehensively.’”

But in considering these costs, John Mixon makes an interesting point: “There’s really no place in the US for the US forces to go – many US military installations are downsizing or have closed, meaning that extraordinary measures would need to be taken to house and support the troops currently based in Germany. Since this would cost tens of billions of dollars during a time when the Department of Defense is tightening its budgetary belt, bringing US forces home would be a significant undertaking which it is trying to avoid.”

c. Military Assistance

In addition to posting troops in countries and fighting wars, the US provides military assistance to countries (Table 2). What stands out is the huge amount of assistance provided to Israel ($3.1 billion) and Egypt ($1.3 billion). These large annual amounts were agreed to at Camp David in hopes they would serve to move the peace process ahead.

Table 2. – US Military Assistance (in mil. US$)


Source: US State Department

Israel, the Palestinians and the “Peace Process”

Arab leaders have repeatedly said that getting a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians would go a long way to reducing Middle East tensions. On this question, Andrew Bacevich, a leading American military historian specializing in international relations said:

“I don’t know where the truth lies. I do believe we have an interest in testing the proposition. In other words, yes, let’s respond to the grievances of the Palestinians—they are real grievances—and then let’s see how that affects the attitude of other countries in the reason toward the United States.” In contrast, most US politicians work to outdo one another in showing support for Israel while being quiet on the two-state solution.

Very early on, Trump was different. He said that one of his primary goals was to work for a two state solution. From a New York Times interview:

“But I would say this, in order to negotiate a deal, I’d want to go in there as evenly as possible and we’ll see if we can negotiate a deal. But I would absolutely give that a very hard try to do. You know, a lot of people think that’s the hardest of all deals to negotiate. A lot of people think that. So, but I would say that I would have a better chance than anybody of making a deal.”

Such a position puts him at odds with the Netanyahu. The Israeli’s Prime Minister is increasingly “looking the other way” as more Israeli settlements are initiated in the West Bank. Trump, like a number of Middle East experts, does not see US interests always aligned with those of the Israeli government. As an obvious starting point for negotiations, Trump could point out to Netanyahu what the annual US payment of $3.1 billion in military assistance was intended for.


Trump says he would like to meet with Putin. This could be extremely helpful. US – Russian relations remain as they were during the Cold War – each sees the other as the enemy. Putin is very concerned about the US and NATO entering his “sphere of influence.” It is reminiscent of how the US felt about Russia in Cuba. Part of Putin’s concern is how the US and NATO have been courting the Ukraine, a country that Russia regards as part of its sphere of influence. With its corruption and non-democratic governance, Ukraine is not a country the US would normally support. And as second case: just this week, Putin threatened Poland and Romania because they have agreed to locate part of the US missile shield for the region in their countries.

What if a couple of Latin American countries were to Russia to install a “missile shield” within their borders? Like Cuba….

Keep in mind that the art of diplomacy is in making deals and not in categorizing people/groups. Diplomacy involves finding areas of mutual interest and using them to forge alliances on other matters.

One possibility for Trump: what if he said to Putin: “It is time to end the Cold War. What if the US and NATO withdrew of the Poland, Romania and the Ukraine in return for you ending your support for Assad in Syria? Of course, this would be an anathema to those who have made a business out of keeping the Cold War going. But I can imagine Trump doing this, and I would applaud him.

Defeat ISIS

Trump repeatedly says that he wants to defeat ISIS. But that is all we get. There are no real details to warrant a comment. He does say he wants the Arab nations to put more into the effort. That is nothing new. Obama has tried while Sanders and Clinton say the same thing.

Iran Nuclear Deal

Trump has been outspoken in his opposition to the deal, but it is not clear what he would do about it. Unlike his erstwhile Republican opponents, he has held back from saying he would tear it up.


Trump’s pronouncements on China have been completely incoherent:

“China has gotten rich off of us. China has rebuilt itself with the money it’s sucked out of the United States and the jobs that it’s sucked out of the United States.”

“…there’s a tremendous tax that we pay when we go into China, whereas when China sells to us, there’s no tax.”

“I would do a tax….the tax should be 45 percent,”

Saudi Arabia

Trump has said he would consider stopping US oil purchases from Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies unless the Saudi government provided more troops to fight ISIS. That would be extremely problematic. The US still imports almost 50% of the oil it consumes of which 11% came from Saudi Arabia in 2015.


Completely incoherent: “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me. Believe me. And I’ll build it very inexpensively. I’ll build a great, great wall on our southern border and I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Nation Building

Perhaps Trump’s most appealing foreign policy position is on nation building. He is against it. He recently met with Jeff Sessions, the conservative Republican senator from Alabama. Sessions characterized Trump policies as follows:

“It’s realism, it’s caution, it’s being more cautious about how we deploy our men and women in harm’s way, not to be involved in excessive efforts to alter, create democracies in countries that are not ready for it.”

Trump has repeatedly emphasized the US should not be in the nation building business. He has mocked Obama’s “Arab Spring.” It is clear he would stop US crusades to promote democracy worldwide. He would be closer to what China and Russia do – limit in-country involvement and deal only with leaders.


Taken together, Trump’s foreign policy statements constitute a mixed bag, with some wildly off the mark. But there is enough attractive in what he says to warrant serious consideration:

  • The Cold War is over, time for a new relationship with Russia;
  • Get other nations to pay for more for their national security;
  • Push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians;
  • No more nation-building.

We hear that Trump is a good listener. With the US government’s check and balances and his foreign policy staff, one would hope that his craziest ideas could be curbed. But could he be any worse than George W. Bush, elected for two terms by US voters?

I conclude with two quotes from a couple of well-known foreign policy experts.

Andrew Bacevich: “The disengagement of the American people from the consequences of our actions because most of us don’t pay any near-term price. That’s what leads me to say …that [this will stop] only when the American people get fed up.”

Maybe we should bring back the draft.

Robert Borosage, 2010, “The country finds itself constantly at war. New presidents inherit the wars of their predecessors. They are faced not with deciding to go to war, but whether to accept defeat in one already in progress….And slowly, the great power declines from the inside out. The wars are costly, running up national debts. Vital investments are put off. Schools decline. Sewers leak. For a long time, circuses distract from the spreading ruin….Other societies become productive centers, capturing the new industries. Some begin providing better education for their citizens, better support for their citizens. Their taxes, not drained by the cost of wars past and present, can be devoted to what we used to call “domestic improvements.” This is a very rich country, despite the years of conservative misrule. But even wealthy countries must choose. We can afford to police the world – to sustain 800 bases across the globe, to station troops in Korea, in Japan, in Bosnia, in Europe, fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sustain fleets to police the seas… A rich country, Adam Smith wrote, has a lot of ruin in it. We seem intent on testing the limits of that proposition.”

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