Rozental may well be right. Trump’s immigration plan may be thoroughly insincere or cynical. His America-First doctrine may reflect a profound misunderstanding or ignorance of foreign policy and the U.S.-led international order, not some grand strategy informed by close study of America’s place in the world. He may be fully aware that he’s building walls in the air with play pesos.
On the other hand, Trump may actually mean what he says. Critics like Hillary Clinton may interpret his wall proposal as fantasy because Trump’s underlying idea is so big—because he’s advocating for an alternate reality in which the United States puts up walls, sheds alliances, and spurns free trade, and dispenses with 70 years of accumulated, largely bipartisan wisdom about how America should conduct itself abroad.
If Trump is putting forth a big idea, it seems rooted in disillusionment with the burdens of being the world’s sole superpower. “I watched as we built schools in Iraq and they’re blown up,” he recently told The Washington Post. “We build another one, we get blown up. We rebuild it three times and yet we can’t build a school in Brooklyn. We have no money for education because we can’t build in our own country. At what point do you say, ‘Hey, we have to take care of ourselves?’ So, I know the outer world exists and I’ll be very cognizant of that. But at the same time, our country is disintegrating, large sections of it, especially the inner cities.”
For segments of the U.S. electorate who have seen few tangible gains from the U.S.-led international order, Trump’s message resonates. Consider free trade, for instance. Twenty years on, NAFTA’s record is mixed. The agreement appears to have had a positive, if modest, impact on GDP growth and trade volume in North America. But in the process, hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost manufacturing jobs to lower-wage workers in Mexico. As Binyamin Appelbaum notes in The New York Times, when the U.S. company Carrier shifts the manufacturing of its air conditioners to Mexico, that makes air conditioners cheaper for all Americans. But it also leaves several hundred Americans out of work. And the U.S. government hasn’t done enough to help those Americans recover, develop new skills, and find employment.
These are real problems. But is Trump demolishing the house to fix a leaking pipe? Are the benefits of building a wall, and making Mexico pay for it, really worth the costs of antagonizing America’s southern neighbor and risking recession? And why incur these costs at a time when more Mexicans are leaving the United States than coming into the country, and a significant number of those who are arriving are entering the U.S. legally and then overstaying their visas—a problem Trump’s wall can’t solve?
Then there are the second-order consequences of applying pay-for-the-wallism to America’s dealings with the rest of the world. Earlier this year in Politico, Thomas Wright imagined some of the other fallout from Trump’s foreign policy:
After his election, other countries will immediately hedge against the risk of abandonment. There will be massive uncertainty around America’s commitments. Would Trump defend the Baltics? Would he defend the Senkaku Islands [in the East China Sea]? Or Saudi Arabia? Some nations will give in to China, Russia and Iran. Others, like Japan, will push back, perhaps by acquiring nuclear weapons. Trump may well see such uncertainty as a positive. Putting everything in play would give him great leverage. But by undoing the work of Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, it would be the end of the American era.
There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of the American era, but, among other things, it has so far produced no world war or nuclear war, and it has left the United States at the helm of a relatively stable international system that is generally favorable to U.S. economic and geopolitical interests.