“President Donald Trump isn’t an isolationist, but a realist,” Victor Davis Hanson said in a speech at Hillsdale College on September 3.
Hanson, an author and historian whose latest book is “The Case for Trump,” spoke about foreign policy under the Trump administration at Plaster Auditorium Sept. 2 at 8 p.m. at an event hosted by the Alexander Hamilton Society. He is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution as well as the Wayne and Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History at Hillsdale College.
“You can see that he’s not an isolationist because an isolationist does not allow 170,000 troops to be posted overseas,” Hanson said of Trump. “That’s the largest foreign expeditionary force of any major country in the last 75 years.”
Trump’s foreign policy involves more than a big stick, however. According to Hanson, the United States has 30,000 diplomatic personnel posted all over the world. Ironically, one of Trump’s most “isolationist” policies — his threat to withdraw from NATO — resulted in approximately $100 million for the organization.
According to Hanson, achievements like that weren’t possible under the Obama-era policy of being “loud with a twig.” Instead, Trump took appropriate action by cracking down on countries that weren’t pulling their weight.
“Why didn’t those countries pay their fair share? The European Union, to which they all belong, has about 90% of the GDP of the United States,” Hanson said. “The answer is, they didn’t want to. They assumed that no one would ever question NATO. Trump did, and all hell broke loose.”
Trump’s tough stance on China was also heavily criticized by the media — until the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s agenda is world hegemony in 20 years, which they announced at their own party congress in 2017,” Hanson said. “Trump came along and said ‘We’re going to use tariffs.’ Everybody was aghast.”
Despite the world’s disbelief that Trump could affect change via tariffs, Hanson said he believes that China was on the verge of creating a deal with the U.S. when COVID-19 crippled the country.
“Is that isolationism? I don’t think so,” Hanson said.
Mary Greco, a junior studying international relations who attended the event, agreed with Hanson that Trump’s toughness benefits the international community.
“The U.S. is so involved worldwide, but we’re not obsessed with controlling other areas of the world,” Greco said. “Our job is to get regional powers to control their regions so that we don’t have to be the world police.”
According to Greco, Trump’s hands-off approach to foreign policy empowers other nations to form coalitions and control their regions. Individual governments know their people best, and countries that share similar culture can cater to their populations more effectively than the U.S. ever could.
“We have an obligation to help other countries, but we don’t have an obligation to destroy ourselves,” Greco said. “The various deals that we’ve had with Iran, Russia, and China have all been hurting America, and that’s why he’s pulled out of them.”
Hanson emphasized that many countries involved in deals with America, such as Germany, are virulently anti-American.
“German people poll the most anti-American of any European country,” Hanson said. “That’s not a tenable situation to have 35,000 troops there. NATO was not going to be viable if nobody met a meager 2% investment.”
Trump also faces fierce resistance from within the U.S. But his worst critics often share his views. According to Hanson, center-left think tanks such as the Brookings Institute and Freeman Spogli Institute say that the Trump-Pompeo foreign policy is in shambles while parroting his ideas.
“If you say to them, ‘What should be the policy with China?’ they would say ‘We should be very skeptical of China, about their explanations for the virus, about their human rights record, about their treatment of the Uighurs,’” Hanson explained. “They will say everything this administration is saying, but if you ask them about Trump’s policy, they’ll say it was terrible. But they’re mimicking exactly what Trump is doing.”
Hanson said that the controversy surrounding Trump’s foreign policy is due to two things: his personality, and his disruption of the post-World War II status quo. According to Hanson, Trump’s situation is reflected in the parables of Aesop.
“It’s kind of like the Aesop’s fable of the cat that keeps eating the mice,” Hanson said. “All the mice get together and say, ‘Someone has to put a bell on the cat, so every time it comes to eat us up we can hear him and hide.’ But then they realize that the one who puts the bell on the cat is going to be devoured, and they say ‘We don’t want to do that after all.’ In other words, somebody had to put the bell on all these foreign policies, but the person who did it would be doing something antithetical to the foreign policy consensus of the last 75 years, and they would be hated. And that’s where we are today.”
Sophomore Elizabeth Brady, who attended the talk, agreed with Hanson that Trump’s polarizing personality contributes to the resistance his policies face.
“People aren’t willing to look past who he is as a person, and he’s definitely not your typical diplomat,” Brady said. “He’s tweeting up a storm, and if you get stuck on that, and don’t look at what he’s actually doing, it becomes hard to say that you agree with him. If you say that you agree with him, the assumption is that you’re endorsing everything he says with his tweets, which isn’t true. You have to look at the policy he’s actually enacting.”
Hanson believes it was Trump’s unconventional stance on foreign policy actually helped him win swing states back in 2016.
“Donald Trump ran on a series of policy issues that differed not dramatically from a traditional Republican agenda, except in four or five areas,” Hanson said. “One of course was getting tough with China. Another was avoiding optional wars that didn’t result in a U.S. advantage. But they were enough to draw out people from the Midwest, from states like Michigan that had not voted for Republicans in a long time.”
Hanson argued that ultimately, Trump’s record is a positive one.
“We can adjudicate whether all of the crazy tweets and the tough guy talk was conducive or counterproductive, but if I look at what he’s done, I think he did most of what he said he was going to do.”