Trump Is Dangerously Incompetent on National Security

His promise to abandon NATO allies is a huge gift to Russia and China.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures after Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence delivered his speech on the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
Donald Trump on the third day of the Republican National Convention on Wednesday in Cleveland.

John Moore/Getty Images

If Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping read the New York Times on Thursday morning, they must be hoping and praying for the election of Donald Trump. And if serious Republicans read the same paper, they must be sickened with fear—if they weren’t nauseated already—that their party’s presidential nominee is a threat to national security.

For on the front page of the Times, in an interview on foreign policy, Trump says that, despite our treaty obligations, he would not defend NATO allies from an invasion if they haven’t been reimbursing us for the cost of protecting them; that he would abandon our military bases in Asia; and that he wouldn’t pressure Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to relax his crackdown because “the world looks at how bad the United States is” on civil liberties, too.

Thursday morning, Trump spokesmen disputed the Times story, claiming that he wasn’t quoted accurately. Since then, the Times has released a transcript of the full interview, and the story, it turns out, is not only accurate but even more distressing than the boiled-down story suggested.

Look at the following exchange between Trump and Times reporters David Sanger and Maggie Haberman:

Trump: I would prefer that we be able to continue [with NATO allies], but if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of these massive nations with tremendous wealth—you have the tape going on?

Sanger: We do.

Haberman: We both do.

Trump: Then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.”

Sanger reminds Trump that Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty obliges member nations to treat an attack on one as an attack on all. Trump replies, “How is it helping us? We have massive trade deficits.” He also says, “In a deal, you always have to be prepared to walk”—as if the 28 nations of NATO were opposing sides in a contract dispute, not members of a mutually beneficial, trusting alliance.

Then comes the shocker.

Sanger: Can the members of NATO, including the new members of the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations—

Trump: Have they fulfilled their [financial] obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.

And if they haven’t paid the amount that Trump considers their proper share, the answer is no.

Then, to make matters specific, there’s this:

Sanger: I was just in the Baltic States. They are very concerned obviously about this new Russian activism, they are seeing submarines off their coasts, they are seeing airplanes they haven’t seen since the Cold War coming, bombers doing test runs. If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania … would you come to their immediate military aid?

Trump: I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do.

No! The whole point of NATO is to tell potential enemies, in no uncertain terms, that the United States and every other member-nation will respond to an attack with force.

In talking about U.S. commitments in Asia, Trump reveals himself as completely ignorant about military matters. If we shut down our bases in Japan and South Korea, and some crisis compels us to move back, Trump says, “We can always deploy” troops and weapons from bases in the United States, adding, “It would be a lot less expensive.” In fact, it would be a lot more expensive. It costs more to base troops at home than abroad, and it costs a lot more to deploy from home—we would need more cargo-transport planes and ships as well as the pilots, crews, and fuel to operate and maintain them. And it would take weeks, in some cases months, to mount a large deployment—possibly too long to make a difference.

If Trump is elected president, and if he actually does what he says he’ll do, every ally in Europe and Asia will scramble to form partnerships that do not include the United States. Some of the weaker allies will feel compelled, seeing no other choice, to cut a deal with Russia or China. Allies in every realm of international relations will view America as an untrustworthy guarantor.

Trump’s view of the world isn’t entirely out to lunch. If he and the Republican Party were trying to prompt a debate on America’s role in the world, if they were running on an avowed platform of isolationism, that would at least be taking a position. Such a debate is long overdue, and isolationism has its place as one school of thought in the American political tradition.

But it’s untenable for nearly every speaker at the GOP convention to lambast President Obama and Hillary Clinton for weakening our defenses, abandoning our allies, and “leading from behind” when the Republican candidate talks about our allies as expendable customers and prefers not to lead at all.

Trump reveals himself in the Times interview as an odd combination of isolationist and mercantilist. To him, every relationship is transactional, and the transaction’s currency is money—and only money. He sees alliances as a financial drain, carrying no geopolitical benefits. Geopolitics don’t enter into his calculus. If a commitment costs too much, cut it loose, cut the losses, balance the books, period.

Everything is a deal, and all deals are like the real estate deals that have made him a fortune. When the Times reporters ask him how he would deal with ISIS, he says that he would get the Turks to do more. When he’s reminded that the Turks care more about bashing the Kurds than defeating ISIS, he says, “It would be wonderful if we could put them somehow both together.” What’s his diplomatic plan for doing that? “Meetings,” Trump replies. “If I win, we will have meetings … very early on.”

One wonders: Does Trump think that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry haven’t already had “meetings” with Erdogan and the region’s other leaders about doing more to beat ISIS? Does he think his idea is novel? This may explain why he thinks the Obama administration—the entire U.S. government—is filled with idiots. Don’t they see, he might be thinking, that they have to hold meetings? He may see meetings with Erdogan and other national leaders as no different from meetings with the New York City Department of Buildings, a tenant who’s behind on his rent, an indebted hotelier that he wants to buy out, or a supplier that he’s trying to fleece.

The fact that the world is a mess, that America isn’t winning better deals, is proof to Trump that our people in power don’t know how to run a slick meeting. He thinks his opponents and critics know nothing. He doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know.

Read more of Slate’s election coverage.