A pariah state isolated from the international order. A well-trained military divided by poor civilian leadership and ordered to commit war crimes. A national security establishment with an overarching strategy, beholden to the whims of a deluded individual. A nation less safe, ruled by an erratic, self-infatuated despot who is quick to demonize his own fellow citizens, his political rivals, the press, and anyone else who stands in his way.
One can read the above and several examples from history come to mind — one in particular. But it also could be America's fate if Donald Trump becomes president. America under Trump would see its standing in the world tumble, its military less effective, and its allies desert it.
Trump sends mixed signals on everything, and defense is no exception. "I'm gonna build a military that's gonna be much stronger than it is right now," Trump told Meet the Press. "It's gonna be so strong, nobody's gonna mess with us. But you know what? We can do it for a lot less."
It's difficult to know what to make of this statement: Thinking about it too much may be giving Trump too much credit, but it's pretty much all we have to go on. The statement is Trump at his populist best, trying to appeal to the "keep America strong" crowd while simultaneously painting politicians as feckless spendthrifts.
But could you actually build a stronger military for less money? That's been the watch phrase of defense reformers for decades — yet with few examples nobody has been quite able to figure out how.
Practically speaking Trump could, for example, kill the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and buy more upgraded versions of older planes like the F-15 and F-16. He could churn out more, cheaper Navy ships to increase the overall size of the fleet. The military could — in sheer numbers — grow bigger and by some definition stronger.
But there are tradeoffs to everything. Older planes are less survivable on the battlefield, and while buying modern versions of planes designed in the 1970s held some appeal for a while, that is fading as China and Russia churn out new, modern planes. Cheaper navy destroyers and frigates are not necessarily better ships.
If Trump wants to keep just half of his pledge, he's going to have to spend more money. The problem is that unless Trump wants to borrow money, there's no more to be had for defense. While this may not be problematic for someone who has gone bankrupt four times, it's a problem for the republic. Trump's vow of a "cheaper, better" military is just an empty, throwaway promise that has no grounds in reality.
More importantly, Trump is morally unfit to be commander-in-chief. While previous administrations have conducted torture while feigning ignorance or deluding themselves that their policy doesn't amount to torture, Trump embraces the idea of torture as a tool of policy. Trump infamously said he would go after the families of terrorists, unwilling to draw a distinction between the guilty and innocent — who in his view would be guilty by association. Trump has insisted military officers would carry out such orders — even as he's been confronted with the fact that such orders would be clearly illegal. Trump has since announced he would not order soldiers to commit war crimes, but then he seemed to walk back his walk-back by saying he would simply rewrite the definition of war crimes. This is preposterous.
Then there are America's military alliances, a vital cornerstone of our defense policy. Our membership in NATO and our bilateral agreements with Japan, South Korea, and other countries increases confidence on both sides that mutual interests will be protected, together, and gives our allies confidence to face down mutual adversaries.
Alliances are like bonds: They're only good so long as all parties have confidence in them. Throw Donald Trump into this mix and our decades-old alliances will be reduced to junk bond status. A politician such as Donald Trump, who believes in nothing, regularly contradicts himself, and believes that his force of will can magically overcome reality will make our allies very, very uneasy.
Where to start? Donald Trump's admiration for Vladimir Putin, who indiscriminately bombs in Syria, fought an undeclared war in the eastern Ukraine, assassinated political rivals, and has rolled back human rights in Russia? His crass description of allies? His endorsement of torture and the killing of civilians in wartime?
The election of a fascist whose political platform is so counter to American ideals and who would cozy up to the enemies of the Free World will make heads spin. If our allies felt that, rather than defend against totalitarianism, the United States fell in line with it — and let us be clear that would likely be the case if Donald Trump were to become president — they will go their own way. And we may never get them back.
Donald Trump as president would be an unprecedented catastrophe for American defense policy. It would reverse decades of security policy, demoralize our armed forces, and rightfully panic our allies. The results would be not dissimilar to losing a major war, one that it would take the United States decades to recover from. And we would have no one to blame but ourselves.