As Donald Trump continues to amass delegates in primary contests, the Republican front-runner's remarks on foreign policy have caused some consternation among national security experts -- liberal and conservative alike.
On Wednesday, over 100 Republican national security scholars and policymakers published an open letter calling Trump's foreign policy vision "wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle" and denounced his "hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric," position on trade and international alliances, plans for a wall on the Mexican border, and calls to expand the use of torture.
On Friday, 45 scholars of civil-military relations published a second open letter calling Trump's pledge to order the U.S. military to target the families of terrorists illegal.
Matthew Kroenig, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University who signed Wednesday's letter, sat down to offer a scholar's perspective on Trump's national security vision and the role foreign policy is playing in the 2016 election. Kroenig, like several of those who signed the letters, supports Marco Rubio.
Why did you decide to sign the open letter?
I do not think Trump is fit to be commander-in-chief. I worry about his temperament, his lack of curiosity about foreign affairs, and the fact that he doesn't have a serious foreign policy team in place. The things he has said are either nonsensical or frightening.
Have you seen this many foreign policy experts rally against a candidate before?
I haven't. In 2012, Romney was the clear party favorite and the foreign policy establishment supported him from the beginning. This time there were seventeen candidates. Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush were building foreign policy teams a year ago, but there was an assumption that one of those three would get the nomination. Having an outsider who looks unstoppable is very unusual, which is why the establishment is rallying against him.
Is foreign policy playing a bigger role in this election than in previous years?
I think so. The world is more dangerous than it was in 2012, and given the terrorist attacks in California, the ISIS threat in particular hits home to Americans in ways that other issues don't.
We also have Russia redrawing the map of Europe and China becoming more aggressive in the South China Sea -- great powers challenging the American-led international order. People are afraid, and they're paying more attention.
How important is presidential leadership on foreign policy, and could foreign policy be a deciding factor for voters?
When Bill Clinton ran, James Carville said, "it's the economy, stupid." There's a lot of evidence that the state of the economy is what voters care about and determines the election. But the president has limited control over the economy. All he or she can do is put in place policies that he or she hopes will incentivize behavior in the private sector and lead to growth.
The president doesn't control world events, but on foreign policy he or she has much more control and doesn't share authority with the private sector, Congress, or the courts, except in a few limited areas.
Political science research shows candidates follow through on their campaign promises more than you might think. Foreign policy promises are things the president can deliver on day one. So Trump is either going to do these things when he gets into office or he's being disingenuous.
Trump has named Richard Haass, director of the Council on Foreign Relations, retired Army General Jack Keane, and Army Col. Jack Jacobs as people he has spoken with about foreign policy. Does that make him more credible?
Other candidates have national security teams with working groups doing papers and briefs on every region and international issue. That's very different from Trump going to meet with someone like Richard Haass, who is a great analyst but is the head of a nonpartisan organization. Part of his job is talking to potential candidates about U.S. foreign policy. But as Haass said, he's not endorsing Trump, traveling with Trump, or overseeing a working group. Name-dropping an expert or two and having a team in place are two very different things.
Is there a strong partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats on foreign policy like there is on domestic issues?
There are issues where there are clearly partisan divides. The Iran nuclear deal is the best example, where the Democrats support it and the Republicans oppose it. But there is an establishment, moderate consensus on many issues. Everyone I know in Washington who works on foreign policy, Democrat or Republican, believes that American military power is important, that the United States is the leading state in the international order, and that it has made the world a more stable, peaceful, and free place over the past few decades.
What about between establishment Republican and Democratic candidates like Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton?
The idea that America's alliances are important and that we should work to protect them is shared by Rubio on the right and Clinton on the left. The idea that we need to defeat ISIS and work with partners in the region to do so is shared by candidates on both sides. There are important differences, but there is a position in the middle that establishment, mainstream Republicans and Democrats sign onto.