What to do about Donald Trump?It is a difficult time to be a conservative internationalist in the United States. At a moment when Republicans in Congress and experts in center-right think tanks are most in agreement on the importance of our alliances and international engagement, the Republican Party has nominated the most dangerously isolationist candidate in its history.
Experts knew that the American people were unhappy with the direction of the country, but public opinion polls also showed strong support for alliances and wariness of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran — especially among Republicans. It therefore came as a shock when Donald Trump began praising authoritarian leaders and attacking our democratic allies after clinching the Republican nomination in the spring. Some Republicans signed open letters at that point warning that Trump was an unacceptable candidate, but most held their fire in the hope that the candidate might listen and change after formally becoming the Party’s nominee in July.
Instead, Donald Trump has doubled-down on his dangerous rhetoric. He threatened to abandon allies that would not pay more for defense. He engaged in a narcissistic, prejudiced and self-defeating spat with the Gold Star parents of a slain Muslim-American soldier. He surrounded himself with aides who have alarming ties to Vladmir Putin. And he continued using words that inflamed the most delicate racial and social tensions in American society. Three things have now become clear.
First, Donald Trump does not have the judgment, self-discipline or temperament to be president: he tweets personal attacks without thinking, he refuses to apologize or modify even his most outlandish statements and he makes no effort to study or understand complex international issues facing the country.
Second, Trump is convinced that he can successfully apply his troubling personal business model to any problem of international security: he ignores ethical considerations, focuses on expanding his own publicity, threatens and blusters to get the best price and then frequently goes bankrupt or walks away, leaving enormous damage in his wake. His decisiveness appeals to many who are frustrated with the political paralysis in Washington, but his way of doing business would be a disaster for America’s role in the world.
Third, and most troubling, he is very unlikely to change.
As a result, prominent Republican and conservative figures have begun making their own personal choices on how to deal with Trump’s dangerous leanings. Some prominent Republican national security figures like former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft have endorsed Hillary Clinton. More will follow.
Other political leaders, like House Speaker Paul Ryan have reluctantly chosen to endorse Trump while criticizing individual statements Trump makes. Others are leaving the Republican Party or resigning from the Republican National Committee. And this week, 50 veteran national security officials of previous Republican administrations, including me, issued an open letter warning that Donald Trump would put the nation’s security at risk.
Predictably, Trump has responded to our letter with a series of attacks, many nonsensical, such as blaming the signatories for the killing of four Americans at Benghazi (which happened after we were all out of office) and claiming that we were disgruntled because he would not include us in his campaign (none of the signatories ever had any such desire).
The letter we signed is unprecedented in American history. None of us took what we did lightly. This was particularly true for the former directors of the CIA and secretaries of Homeland Security — those most responsible in previous administrations for identifying threats to the security of the United States.
Still, there were two factors that gave some of us pause. The first was the question of whether a warning from elites would penetrate the current anti-elite, populist mood that Trump has tapped into for his own campaign. We concluded that it is our moral obligation to explain to the American public the concerns we share based on our experiences in government, and the letter appears to have had some impact despite the Trump campaign’s attacks on us. These were, after all, 50 of the most senior national security officials from previous Republican administrations, while virtually none stood in defense of Trump after our letter was released.
The second thing that caused me particular pause was what signal this letter might send to America’s friends abroad, including Korea. Might our warning be seen as an indicator to close allies that they should guard against dramatic changes in American foreign policy? We concluded that Trump’s increasingly dangerous statements about the world had already done such damage and that our only option was to take a stand within the United States to do what little we could to help forestall a Trump presidency by informing the American voter of our concerns.
I believe that clarity about the danger of Trump’s character and worldview will ultimately help us to reinforce those critical institutions of American democracy that will ensure our core national security values do not change, even in the unlikely event that Trump wins (the best political analysts give him a 20-30% chance of victory). If Trump wins, the signatories will probably be persona non grata in the White House along with other Republicans and principled conservatives who have voiced concern. But Trump will have to populate his cabinet with reasonably competent people who will likely agree with our worldview. While their duty will be to obey the commander-in-chief, those officials and officers will not obey unlawful orders or implement un-implementable utterings Trump may make.
Korea has had its own turbulent political transitions, but the U.S.-ROK alliance has always emerged stronger. That will happen this time as well, no matter what the near-term impact of the American presidential election result. The United States is blessed to have allies like Korea, and most Americans know it. In a democracy, that counts.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.