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Would Trump isolationism be music to Moscow's ears?

By Vladimir Mikheev, Special to Russia Beyond the Headlines
Republican candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at Atlantic Aviation in Moon Township, Pa., on June 11. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
Republican candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at Atlantic Aviation in Moon Township, Pa., on June 11. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo

Amid the noisy clamor around Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's often embarrassing slips of the tongue and deliberately provocative invectives, the true cause of the grand split between "Mr. Maverick" and the U.S. bipartisan establishment has been left in obscurity for too long.

Now, the truth is trickling out to the surface. Anti-Trump crusaders have started to lambaste him for endangering the status, standing and security of the United States in a world packed with unfriendly and "rogue" nations. This is usually termed "incoherence" as a synonym for the incompetence displayed by Trump in foreign affairs.

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Is an introverted America in the offing?

"Foreign policy does not determine American elections," Charles Krauthammer asserted in an April opinion piece in The Washington Post. Yet while this used to be the case – most post-WWII experiences in projecting U.S. military might overseas, with the exception of the Vietnam War, were either triumphant or at least not too costly – it certainly isn't anymore.

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"If America doesn't lead," former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued in a speech in San Diego in early June, "we leave a vacuum" that rival powers would "rush in to fill."

Robert M. Gates, a Republican who served as director of the CIA under George H.W. Bush before becoming secretary of defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has also sounded the alarm: "America turning inward not only will make the world more dangerous for others, but also for us," he was quoted as saying in The Washington Post in May.

The bipartisan attack on Trump as the unexpected icon of a renascent U.S. isolationism reveals the high stakes in the outcome of the current election. A Trump win might reshape the domestic/foreign agenda, clearing the stage for a more introvert and less bellicose America.

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Avenger and peacemaker in one

No one would be bold enough to accuse Trump of being a "weakling" or a "conformist" or shy of shooting from the hip if it comes to that.

Commenting on Russian planes doing a "barrel-roll" over U.S. aircraft in late April, the unabashed strongman made no bones about how he would have acted: "At a certain point, when that sucker comes by you, you gotta shoot," Buzzfeed reported him as saying on May 2.

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At the same time, Trump, who qualified this episode as a sign that Russian aircraft showed a "lack of respect" for the United States, made a point: "It should certainly start with diplomacy and it should start quickly with a phone call to Putin," he said.

Once again, Trump is showing consistency. He did say previously he was ready to talk to Russia's leader, meaning he believed he would find a sensible way to bridge the gap of distrust and even accommodate the differences between the two nations.

These overtures sound amazingly familiar: The original idea of a "reset" in relations with Russia was spelled out by Joe Biden, with Clinton placed at the wheel to reach this destination. Instead of a "reset" it ended up in an "overload" and a U-turn, as we know.

This is exactly the portfolio on which Trump and Clinton differ the most. The former head of U.S. diplomacy thinks, to quote Joseph A. Mussomeli ,who served in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1980 to 2015, "we should not be talking too much to Putin and that we ought to further expand NATO because... Russia would be an even greater threat had it not been for NATO expansion."

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Trump, in contrast, "seems to understand George Kennan's warning that NATO expansion would directly lead to a more paranoid and aggressive Russia," wrote Mussomeli, former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia and Slovenia.

Leaving aside the description of Russia "as more paranoid and aggressive," it is worth noting what the veteran diplomat defines as another key policy issue for Trump: his rejection of the "second neocon priority," which is "a new Cold War with Russia."

It is disputable whether a President Trump could deliver on his hints of a foreign policy based on "positive engagement." Yet there are indications that he might at least attempt to do it, and this "reset 2.0" would be invariably welcomed by the Kremlin, which is obviously fatigued by the current animosity in relations with the United State.

Up against Goliath

The great suspense is how Trump, if the combined forces of the neocons in the Republican and Democratic parties do not derail him, would pursue his non-interventionist foreign agenda.

He has tried to assuage the fears of the military by promising to maintain a robust armed forces, to "beat the hell out of ISIS" with no qualms about waterboarding captured terrorists and even targeting their families. Trump is well aware that American citizens want the United States to project the image of a mighty world power with military capabilities that command respect.

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However, Trump's inward focus and unwillingness to get involved in what Mussomeli calls "military adventurism" and what David Ignatius terms "unwinnable new conflicts" would make his administration less eager to endorse an increase in the defense budget and sales of armaments to dubious regimes. This might affect, depending on the balance of power on Capitol Hill, the targeting and allotment of federal spending programs.

Another issue is U.S. defense contractors, who would close ranks to become formidable opponents for Trump. Weapons manufacturing is a $400 billion industry, with six of the nine most powerful and wealthiest weapons companies of U.S. origin and registration. Take, for instance, Lockheed Martin, with annual weapons sales exceeding $35 billion, Boeing ($30.70 billion), Raytheon ($21.95 billion), Northrop Grumman ($20 billion), General Dynamics ($18.66 billion), United Technologies Corp. ($11.9 billion).

It is no great secret that when it comes to weapons manufacturing the United States outspends the rest of the top nations combined.

According to September 2012 data, the U.S. aerospace and defense industry employs (also in an indirect way) a minimum of 3.5 million Americans. Multiplied by the average number of family/household members, this makes at least 11 million Americans whose standard of living depends on state-allocated arms contracts.

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Despite the recent contractions of the labor force in this sector, it is still a sizable segment of society. On top of this, taking into account the volume of revenues and net profits generated in the weapons industry, Trump would be up against a no-nonsense Goliath determined at least to preserve the status quo if not push for expansion.

Neo-isolationist prophet or pariah?

The differences between the two main nominees to run for the presidency are mostly in style not substance and may evaporate when the rubber hits the road in January 2017.

However, Trump does spell out a conceptually different approach to dealing with the outside world.

"We have spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people," Trump was recently quoted as saying by the Post. "If we could have spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems, our airports and all of the other problems we have, we would have been a lot better off."

Basically, the message in these pronouncements is that Trump is suggesting reaping the "peace dividend" not through winning either a regional conflict some thousands of miles away from U.S. shores (remember Ignatius' "unwinnable new conflicts"?) or another Cold War but by putting the house in order while "making friends" and only "influencing" other people.

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A significant proportion of the war-weary public in the United States seems to realize if not through consideration then by instinct that Trump's readjusted foreign policy may not offer immediate material benefits but surely entails more psychological comfort.

Trump could end up going into history textbooks either as a neo-isolationist prophet or a neo-isolationist pariah. In any case, he stands for a more predictable and less adventurous foreign policy.

Whether or not Trump, having made it to the White House, would rally a "party of peace" around him is a multibillion-dollar question. But even if the Kremlin sees the expediency of not taking sides, Trump's as-yet unarticulated offer of a "reset" of relations with Russia and the rest of the world deserves credit and tacit support.

This article originally appeared at Russia Beyond the Headlines.

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