The Republican senator from Arkansas is supporting the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
Normally, this would be an unsurprising statement. But, as you’re no doubt aware by now, this is not a normal election. The senator is Tom Cotton, who is something of an exotic creature in Congress these days: a Republican hawk who, like his colleague John McCain, has immersed himself in international affairs and advocates robust U.S. leadership in the world. Cotton values NATO. He is a proponent of free trade and believes that, on balance, NAFTA has benefitted the U.S. economy. He thinks the Iraq War was necessary and just.
The presumptive nominee is Donald Trump, a nationalist, semi-isolationist Republican who has ridiculed John McCain, has scant experience with international affairs, and dismisses America’s global leadership as a rotten deal. Trump is fed up with NATO. He is a proponent of protectionist trade policies, even trade wars, and describes NAFTA as the “worst trade deal in the history of this country.” He calls the Iraq War “one of the worst decisions in the history of our country.”
Therein lies the surprise, and the confusion, about the position Cotton has staked out in the election. “We need to be active and engaged throughout the world because [the United States has] been a positive force for stability and order, which as a continental nation with global interests is in our national-security interest,” Cotton told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. This conviction, he said, put him squarely within the “post-World War II bipartisan consensus” on U.S. foreign policy.
How, then, can Cotton possibly support the likely GOP nominee for president? Goldberg noted that Trump hasn’t “articulated a view of America in the great confrontation [with] fascism and communism—that we won the 20th century and that we are the indispensable, exceptional nation, and we have burdens that come from indispensability and exceptionalism.”
“I believe that Donald Trump believes that America is an exceptional nation and that we need to tend more closely to our core national-security interests,” Cotton said.
Cotton’s support for Trump may be sincerely felt. Cotton may also be angling to be Trump’s running mate (he insists he’s not being vetted for the job), hedging his bets before his own presidential bid in 2020, or showing deference to his party’s base and his constituents in Arkansas, where Trump won the Republican primary. Whatever the motivations, Cotton’s rationale speaks to a liminal moment for the Republican view of America’s role in the world. The 39-year-old Cotton is offering one of several competing visions for the future of the party. On matters of international affairs, the GOP currently finds itself somewhere between George W. Bush and Donald Trump, between Iraq and a hard place.
To be fair, Cotton and Trump do agree on certain issues. They both oppose the nuclear deal with Iran. They both want to construct a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and build up the U.S. military. But Cotton admitted that they also have fundamental disagreements. And he offered several explanations for why these differences haven’t stopped him from backing the candidate.
First, Cotton argued that Trump’s positions aren’t as radical as they may seem. Yes, he’s called for America’s European partners in NATO to spend more on defense, but so have many Republicans and Democrats, including Barack Obama. Trump hasn’t given up on NATO, either; just this past week, he suggested enlisting the military alliance in the fight against ISIS. Yes, Trump has threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, but Jimmy Carter endorsed a similar idea in the late 1970s. Yes, Trump has made U.S. allies nervous, but so has Obama. Yes, Trump recently appeared stumped by a question about the “nuclear triad,” but “he is correct” that the U.S. needs to modernize all three of its systems for delivering nuclear weapons. And yes, Trump has made provocative statements about Mexicans and Muslims, but they are “racially inflammatory,” not “racist.”
Second, Republicans in Congress can keep Trump in check. “If Donald Trump is elected president, I will support him when he is right and we’ll try to change [his] direction when he is wrong,” Cotton told Goldberg.
Third, foreign-policy knowledge and experience are overrated. Presidential candidates—especially before they officially become their party’s nominee and begin receiving intelligence briefings—don’t have access to the classified material that a U.S. senator does, Cotton said: “I am confident that once Donald Trump has some of the information I have—for instance, about Vladimir Putin—as a member of the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, that he will be much less friendly toward Vladimir Putin.”
“What you’ve said is that the junior senator from Arkansas knows more about, for instance, Russia than the presumptive Republican nominee for president?” Goldberg asked.
“I know more about what’s happening in the world right now than Hillary Clinton does as well because she has not had access to classified information for four years,” Cotton responded.
“We’re not just talking about classified information,” Goldberg said. “We’re talking about analysis, about reasoning, about having experience with the world, about understanding history.”
“Hillary Clinton—you can say she has all the world-historical knowledge you want,” Cotton shot back. “That didn’t stop her from pressing the reset button with [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergey Lavrov. That didn’t stop her from advocating for what’s become a very disastrous intervention in Libya’s civil war.”
Which leads to a fourth explanation: Donald Trump is not Hillary Clinton. “I am confident that America’s national-security interest [is] more likely to be advanced with a President Trump and a Republican Congress than [with a] President Clinton,” Cotton said. He rejected Goldberg’s contention that in his bias toward U.S. action in foreign affairs, in his belief in American alliances and indispensability, he is closer ideologically to Clinton than Trump.
The United States has played a stabilizing role in the world for the past 70 years, Cotton argued at one point, “and we should be proud of that and we should try to continue that in the 21st century.”
Goldberg noted that Clinton once told him something strikingly similar.
Cotton conceded the point: “She gets something right every now and then.”
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