Washington — Reality TV is about winning. It doesn’t matter how you manage to be a “survivor,” so long as you stay on the island. That’s the sensibility that Donald Trump, the ultimate reality-television star, brings to foreign policy.
In Trump’s world, winners don’t have to worry about alliances, nuclear proliferation or human rights — if they come out on top.
Trump’s comments during Wednesday night’s debate in Las Vegas conveyed a values-free approach to foreign policy that would make Machiavelli blush. A generous characterization would be that he voiced an extreme “realism” that focused entirely on U.S. interests. A harsher assessment is that Trump’s amoral approach would alienate long-standing allies and potentially endanger U.S. security.
Trump’s disdain for traditional foreign policy positions was clear in his positive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even after U.S. intelligence agencies accused Russia of hacking American political parties to destabilize the election, Trump still had good things to say about the Kremlin leader.
Trump seems convinced that he and Putin could achieve a kind of personal detente. “He said nice things about me,” Trump enthused Wednesday night. “If we got along well, that would be good. If the United States and Russia got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good.” It’s hard to argue against greater Russian-American cooperation, but Trump seems oblivious to the possibility that he might be used by a belligerent, autocratic Kremlin leader.
As in the past, Trump seemed to take Putin’s side against President Obama and Hillary Clinton. He suggested that Putin’s military success (achieved through aggressive, destabilizing tactics in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria) shows that he’s a strong leader who’s able to push a weak U.S. around.
“[Putin] has no respect for her. He has no respect for our president,” Trump said. “Putin has outsmarted her and Obama at every single step of the way. Whether it’s Syria, you name it.”
An example of Putin’s supposed outsmarting of the U.S. was the collapse of a Sept. 12 cease-fire in Syria, which led Secretary of State John Kerry to suspend bilateral negotiations: “During the cease-fire, Russia took over vast swatches of land, and then they said we don’t want the cease-fire anymore.” Trump said America had been “outplayed.” Rather than condemning Russian and Syrian military strikes that devastated Aleppo and led the U.S. to suspend talks, Trump said civilians there were dying “because of bad decisions” by the U.S.
Trump’s most astonishing comment about tough guys was his praise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a leader who has waged a vicious civil war and used chemical weapons against his own people. “He’s just much tougher and much smarter than her [Clinton],” Trump said, adding that if the Syrian opposition should prevail, “you may very well end up with worse than Assad.”
Moderator Chris Wallace eventually got Trump to “condemn” Russia’s hacking of U.S. political parties, but only after the GOP candidate had said “I doubt it, I doubt it” about a statement accusing Russia issued by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on behalf of the 17 spy agencies he oversees. This must be the first time in our political history when a U.S. presidential candidate, after encouraging a foreign adversary to spy on the U.S., challenged the evidence of wrongdoing.
What role do alliances play in Trump’s realpolitik world? Not much, it seems. Trump claimed that Clinton was telling “just another lie” when she accused him of undermining commitments to defend NATO allies in Europe and Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea. But Trump has repeated often what he said in an April 27 speech, that “the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves,” even if that means letting them acquire nuclear weapons.
The big news Wednesday night was Trump’s refusal to promise he will accept the election result if he loses. But why should that be a surprise? People who’ve done business with Trump say he’s famous for holding back his final payment to contractors and negotiating for a better deal, or stiffing them altogether.
Leaving people in suspense about his actions is part of Trump’s self-proclaimed “art of the deal.” Why would he be any less high-handed in dealing with the American public than with his business associates?
For Trump, life is a validation of the cynical aphorism that “might makes right.” The best thing you can say about Clinton’s debate performance was that she took aim at this untethered, overinflated dirigible and kept landing zingers.
— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.