Before Donald Trump became president, economist Tim Harford suggested in his book Messy (which examines the “power of disorder to transform our lives”) that the real-estate mogul not only thrives on chaos, but tries to sow chaos. While his campaign rivals “would tiptoe in,” Harford observes, Trump “would broadcast some inflammatory comment” or “pop up on Twitter, mock his rival and do something else outrageous” and then suddenly “change the subject.” Like a shrewd military commander, Harford submits, Trump “chose his battlefields,” deployed chaos as a weapon, and left his opponents “always scrambling to figure out a response.” Harford is not alone in this assessment. A Washington Post analysis concludes, “Every indication from what we know of Trump the businessman and reality TV star suggests that he revels in the chaos, that he believes the chaos produces just the sort of results he likes.”

This may be true on the campaign trail—Trump won 33 states and 304 electoral votes—but Trump’s chaos theory does not hold when it comes to foreign policy. As we have seen in his first weeks as president, chaos and uncertainty do not serve U.S. interests abroad. Consider some of the consequences—and these are the shortest of short-term consequences—of Trump’s early foreign policy decisions and pronouncements.


Candidate Trump called NATO “obsolete” and suggested he would come to the defense of NATO members under attack—an ironclad requirement of the North Atlantic Treaty—only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” This sent shockwaves through Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in heavy and freighted words, responded, “We Europeans have our fate in our own hands.” Artis Pabriks, former defense minister of Latvia and current member of the European Parliament, grimly concluded, “The dreams that Americans or God will save us, it’s somehow over.” Donald Tusk, president of the EU’s heads-of-state council, observed, “Worrying declarations by the new American administration all make our future highly unpredictable,” adding that Trump’s positions “put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy.” Tusk even suggested that Trump’s ambivalence about the European project represents a “threat” to the EU—listing the dramatic “change in Washington” alongside Russia, China, and radical Islam.

Seventeen European policymakers, many from Eastern Europe, sent a letter to Trump pleading with the new president “to sustain our powerful transatlantic alliance,” warning that “a deal with Putin will not bring peace,” and reminding the president of something they shouldn’t need to point out: “When America called on us in the past, we came. We were with you in Iraq. We were with you in Afghanistan. We took risks together; sacrificed sons and daughters together. We defend our shared transatlantic security as a united front.”

What’s telling—and troubling—is that when given a chance to modify his position and calm America’s allies, President-elect Trump, in an interview with two of Europe’s leading newspapers, said, “NATO is very important to me,” before adding, “Countries aren’t paying their fair share, so we’re supposed to protect countries?…A lot of these countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to be paying, which I think is very unfair to the United States.”

That didn’t do much to reassure America’s oldest allies or shore up history’s most successful alliance. In fact, Trump’s words were eagerly welcomed by NATO’s oldest enemy: “NATO is indeed a vestige [of the past] and we agree with that,” a Kremlin spokesman said.

Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, famously explained that NATO’s purpose is “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” If Trump follows this current trajectory, his chaos will upend that enduring purpose.

First and Last

To those with ears to hear, Candidate Trump’s use of the “America First” label was jarring and worrisome. His defenders dismissed it as a campaign-stump slip of the tongue, to which some of us responded: If he employed this historically-fraught phrase unwittingly, we can only conclude that he has little understanding of a dark strand of American politics—and if he purposely used the phrase aware of its connotations and implications, we can only conclude that he accepts its historical baggage. Neither alternative was comforting.

Regrettably, President Trump’s inaugural address made it clear that his use of the phrase wasn’t an accident. Unlike most other modern inaugural addresses, which sought to connect America to the world, reassure our allies, and warn our enemies, Trump’s drew heavy and dark lines of separation between America and the world, while rejecting decades of foreign policy continuity.

“We’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries…defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas,” he declared. “The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world,” he said. And then, the leader of the Free World issued “a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.”

In short, Trump sketched the outlines of an inward-looking America, an America that has turned away from free trade and toward autarky, an America focused on itself in a zero-sum world.

It’s a paradox, but for America, a foreign policy shaped and defined purely by self-interest has the effect of undermining America’s interests. This is not to suggest that presidents should focus on the interests of other nations at the expense of U.S. interests. Turning the other cheek and dying to self are indeed next to godliness for individuals, as scripture teaches, but such behavior is next to suicidal for nation-states.

What it does suggest is that the liberal international order America began building after World War II is in the national interest. It doesn’t run on autopilot or grow by magic, however. It depends on America projecting power into the global commons, deterring aggressive states, enforcing international norms of behavior, serving as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense, and pursuing a foreign policy of enlightened self-interest. This isn’t charity work or a “bad deal,” to borrow a phrase. In fact, it’s the very opposite. Encouraging free governments and free markets, buttressing an open trading system connected by open sea lanes, transforming Europe from an incubator of world wars into a partnership of prosperity, maintaining a stable Asia-Pacific, ensuring the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, building and maintaining an architecture of alliances—all of this is in the national interest. Consider the findings of a RAND study: “A 50-percent retrenchment in U.S. overseas security commitments could reduce U.S. bilateral trade in goods and services annually by as much as $577 billion, excluding trade with Canada and Mexico. …The resulting annual decline in U.S. gross domestic product would be $490 billion.”

The United States cannot prosper in the 21st century while focusing on “nation building here at home,” to borrow a poll-tested phrase employed by President Barack Obama, or by waving the “America First” banner, to borrow a from-the-gut phrase employed by President Donald Trump.

Red Lights, Green Cards

In the flurry of executive orders he has issued, Trump signed one that temporarily suspended admission to the U.S. of people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

To be sure, every nation has the right to determine who enters and who doesn’t enter its borders. That’s part of sovereignty. But as Americans, we know we are a nation of immigrants. As Christians, we know we are called to treat the foreigner with fairness and to help the least. And as America’s chief policymaker, Trump should know that a president’s EOs, speeches, and positions—even his Twitter feed—have cascading effects on the nation and the world. As such, they must be thoroughly considered and vetted before they are released.

To underscore how ill-timed and ill-crafted this EO was, consider that Trump initially barred even green-card holders from traveling to the U.S., apparently unaware that green-card holders are legal permanent residents or that as many as 18,700 U.S. troops hold green cards. Consider that the U.S. Air Force was left scrambling to ensure dozens of Iraqi pilots could get to and from their F-16 flight training in Arizona. Consider that the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security were not given the opportunity to review an EO that directly impacts what they do and how they do it.

And consider the second-order effects: how it impacted allies already reeling from years of U.S. retreat and retrenchment. The EO’s poisonous effects surely seeped into Trump’s phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who asked if the refugee ban would reverse commitments the Obama administration made allowing for the transfer of 1,250 refugees held by Australia into the U.S. Trump responded by telling Turnbull, “This is the worst deal ever” and warning him that he was forcing America to accept the “next Boston bombers.”

Consider how the EO will be exploited by enemies like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran. It feeds and fuels their false narratives about America. Indeed, Iran’s leader mockingly thanked Trump for issuing the EO because, in his view, it “showed the real face of America.”

Consider how the EO impacted the fragile position of Iraq. The Iraqi government needs U.S. equipment, aid, training, and hands-on assistance to clear its territory of ISIS. And the U.S. government needs Iraqi cooperation to destroy ISIS and thus deny ISIS a safe haven from which to launch attacks against the West. This EO does not help either side achieve their convergent goals. According to one report, the travel ban “has driven a wedge between many Iraqi soldiers and their American allies. Officers and enlisted men interviewed on the front lines in Mosul said they interpreted the order as an affront.”


Finally, Trump insists that he will renegotiate NAFTA, which he labels “a disaster,” and he vows to “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”

But history shows that trade protectionism does not lead to prosperity or a stronger America. In fact, it is freer trade that leads to a stronger, more prosperous America.

Consider NAFTA. What Trump calls “a disaster” (and Obama called “an enormous problem”) generates total trade flows of some $1.2 trillion (up 250 percent since 1993, the year prior to NAFTA). U.S. manufacturing exports to NAFTA are up 258 percent from 1993; U.S. goods imports from NAFTA are up 235 percent from 1993. Since NAFTA came into force, the NAFTA-zone economy has more than doubled; merchandise trade among the NAFTA trio has tripled. In the 15 years immediately after NAFTA came into force, U.S. manufacturing output increased by 62 percent (or 4.1 percent annually), compared with 42 percent (or 3.2 percent annually) in the 13 years before it came into force. U.S.-Mexico trade increased by 506 percent between 1993 and 2012, and U.S.-Canada trade by 186 percent. Trade with Canada and Mexico supports at least 15 million U.S. jobs (9 million with Canada; 6 million with Mexico). And NAFTA’s critics forget how intertwined and interdependent North American supply chains are: A recent Economist analysis concludes that “Some 40 percent of the value of Mexican exports consists of inputs bought from the United States.”

In response to Trump’s plans to renegotiate NAFTA (which Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 all strongly supported), Mexican officials have vowed that, if Washington presses for “something that is less than what we already have,” they will withdraw completely from the trade pact. And in response to Trump’s insistence that Mexico will pay for a border wall (likely through a 20-percent tariff on imports from Mexico), Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto angrily canceled a summit with Trump.

If Trump has angered Mexico, he has sparked worry in Canada. Canadian financial experts are trying to factor in “Trump risk” in real estate, trade and currency.

Put it all together, and our allies can only take so much chaos.

The good news is that Trump’s cabinet is stocked with thoughtful public servants and statesmen who grasp the nuances of foreign policy, national security, and intelligence. Let us hope and pray they can quarantine the chaos, for as President Kennedy observed, “Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”

Alan Dowd is a contributor to Providence and a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.

Photo Credit: President-elect Donald J. Trump walks with Army Maj. Gen. Bradley A. Becker, commanding general of Joint Task Force National Capital Region and the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, in the Memorial Amphitheater display room at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., Jan. 19, 2017, before a wreath-laying ceremony. Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as part of the inaugural events leading up to their swearing-in on Jan. 20. Army photo by Rachel Larue.