Joseph Nye: Trump has no foreign policy, he has attitudes | US presidential elections 2016: What do I need to know? | DW | 05.08.2016
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US elections 2016

Joseph Nye: Trump has no foreign policy, he has attitudes

Donald Trump's most dangerous foreign policy stance yet is his questioning of NATO, eminent political scientist Joseph Nye told DW. Nye also said that America's poor political discourse could hurt its image abroad.

DW: In an unusual development, leading European politicians have openly and repeatedly voiced their deep misgivings about Donald Trump, arguing that his foreign policy ideas threaten transatlantic relations. Others counter that fears about a President Trump singlehandedly upending the global order are overblown as the US's own checks and balances as well as international opposition to his plans would prevent that from happening. Who is right?

Joseph Nye: They are both right. Trump is a departure from normal, in the sense that for 70 years there has been no questioning about the bedrock of alliances as central to American foreign policy. Trump is the first major party candidate to call that into question with his statements.

On the other hand, to say that Trump has a policy is to give him too much credit. He has attitudes. But when you actually ask what policies he has they are not spelled out in any detail. Nor does he have advisers who have clear policies on these issues. So if he is, as he claims, the man who worships the art of the deal, one would imagine that he would be susceptible to various checks and balances and pressures if he were to become president. So yes, one should be alarmed about Trump's attitudes. But with his policies one simply does not know what they are. And his practice is one of doing deals.

Trump's central foreign policy premise is that America's status and power in the world is waning because of failed leadership in Washington, that economically and militarily the US has been exploited by its allies and is not taken seriously any longer by its adversaries - all to the detriment of the American people. And he promises to put America first and "make America great again." What's wrong with Trump's assessment and his promise?

Joseph Nye Jr ehemaliger Verteidigungsminister

Nye is a former dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government

I think factually it is incorrect. I wrote a book last year called “Is the American Century over?” in which I try to assess the evidence for whether America is in decline or whether American preeminence is likely to vanish in the next two or three decades. And all the evidence suggests the answer to that is no.

But for the political candidate who wants to say that the status quo is terrible and that therefore you should change and elect him particularly - a man who is appealing to protest voters - saying that everything is in decline and that America needs to be made great again and so on is part of the political rhetoric.

So there is a big difference between the facts of the situation which I tried to outline in my book and the political rhetoric of how you appeal to the maybe 30 to 35 percent of the electorate which feels like they have been left out of the economic benefits and feels a shock from cultural changes, which you might call a discontented electorate, that will vote for protest.

What do you consider Donald Trump's most dangerous foreign policy positions so far, such as his takes on Russia, terrorism, NATO or immigration to name just a few?

There are so many that is hard to identify just one. But I think questioning the alliance structure is probably the most dangerous overall. Trump thinks you can get a better bargain by indicating uncertainty. So you shock the allies by basically saying I am not sure I will defend you. And if you are doing a real estate deal the threat of walking away from the deal may in fact get you a better bargain. But if you are talking about alliances and assurances in international politics, creating insecurity by creating uncertainty is a big mistake. That just plays into Putin's hands. I think his questioning of the alliance structure and the uncertainty that it creates is to my mind at least the biggest damage he has done.

Hillary Clinton has laid out her foreign policy stance as basically a continuation of Obama's foreign policy legacy. But she has taken a much tougher line on key issues such as confronting Russia over Ukraine and US policy vis-a-vis Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Generally she is viewed to be much more open to military interventions abroad than Obama. Clinton also recently reversed her position on international trade deals. Given those differences is it really accurate to portray Clinton's foreign policy as a continuation of Obama's?

There is always the question of how much change is major change. Will there be some change from Obama? Clearly yes. On the use of military force I think the degree of change will be relatively modest. I don't see her deploying an Iraq invasion-type force into Syria for example. Could she declare a no-fly zone or be more aggressive in bombing? Possibly. But I don't see that as a major change.

The more dramatic change is on international trade and the fact that she has now backed away from the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) that was negotiated in part when she was secretary of state. That reflects a more significant change if it is indeed the policy that she implements and if Obama is unable to accomplish his plan of passing the TPP during the lame duck session. It is hard to see that Hillary is going to make that as a priority given what she said during the campaign.

You coined the term soft power in international relations to describe the ability to persuade or convince others to do what you want them to do without resorting to military or economic pressure. And you have argued that especially in the Internet age credibility is essential to leveraging soft power effectively. What does it mean for America's future ability to deploy soft power when its two presidential candidates, Trump and Clinton, have historic unfavorability ratings and are not trusted by large swaths of the American people?

I think that has a negative effect. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 did a lot to restore American soft power after it had been damaged by George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. So if you look at the attractiveness of the United States in Europe or other parts of the world the fact that the Americans elected their first African-American president restored a sense of confidence in the American political process. The quality of the political discourse this year makes others look at the United States and say maybe it is not as attractive as we first thought.

So if either Trump or Clinton is elected that could damage America's attractiveness or credibility internationally?

I don't think that is likely to be the case if Clinton is elected, which I think is the probable outcome of the American election. Because she is an experienced politician internationally and will have very good contacts internationally and knows many of the other leaders and will be able to develop a sense of trust. So the question of whether her polls domestically will prevent her from, let's say, working effectively with Angela Merkel, I doubt it.

Joseph Nye is a professor at and former dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is considered one of the most influential scholars in international relations and US foreign policy.

The interview was conducted by Michael Knigge.