“I know the outer world exists, and I’ll be very cognizant of that, but at the same time, our country is disintegrating.” So says Donald Trump, who wants to “make America great again” by refocusing U.S. foreign policy to rebuild American strength from within. This idea comes not from a civil libertarian’s respect for the Constitution but from his trademark exhibitionist belligerence. Trump is less Thomas Jefferson than George Jefferson, moving on up to win his party’s presidential nomination.
He’s not an isolationist. Trump has floated the use of U.S. troops in Syria and pledged to torture suspected terrorists and “knock the hell out of ISIS,” maybe with nuclear weapons. Trump sees most U.S. allies as weak at best and free riders at worst. He doesn’t want to scrap NATO–he just thinks allies should pay more of its bills. His go-it-alone approach is in some ways an extension of Bush-era neoconservatism and the Obama Administration’s extensive use of drones and sanctions.
For all his bluster, Trump has raised questions that speak directly to the anxieties of many Americans, and the Washington foreign policy establishment would do well to engage him. Why does Washington allow Germany and Japan, two of the world’s wealthiest nations, to outsource their security to the U.S.? Do ordinary Americans really benefit from globalization? Doesn’t the trade deficit prove that others take us for suckers? Trump assumes these questions don’t have good answers. He’s wrong, but Americans deserve to know why he’s wrong–in detail.
Trump has embraced an “America first” foreign policy, but that won’t make America great again. This country’s exceptionalism is not based just on its military and wealth, as Trump would have it. The U.S. remains a nation–and an idea–worth emulating. It has set a standard of freedom and opportunity against which people everywhere measure their own governments. The U.S. idea of citizenship is based on allegiance rather than tribe, drawing people from around the world. These are the choices and values that make America great.
But what if the America that others emulate becomes Trump’s small-minded, self-interested version? What would that mean for the future of Europe’s union or efforts to contain wildfires in the Middle East or coordinate foreign and trade policy in Africa and Latin America? Can Americans remain safe in a volatile world on their own?
Trump lives in a zero-sum world in which China’s leaders “have drained so much money out of our country that they’ve rebuilt China.” He divides the world into winners and losers, good and evil, workers and freeloaders, us and them. That’s hardly an exceptional idea.
But it’s not enough to dismiss Trump and his foreign policy views. The questions he raises and the resentments they engender must be answered, clearly and confidently, or they will fester. And that’s a risk that the U.S. and the world just can’t afford.
This appears in the April 11, 2016 issue of TIME.
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