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Donald Trump’s Mafia Foreign Policy

The Republican front-runner wants to give America's allies an offer they can't refuse.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Speaking to an enormous crowd last August in Mobile, Alabama, Donald Trump expounded on a key part of his foreign-policy agenda: getting allies like South Korea, Japan, and Germany to pay America for defending them. Trump freely acknowledged that what he was proposing sounded to some like a mobster asking for protection money. “We defend the whole world,” Trump said. “Somebody said, ‘Oh, that’s like the mafia defense.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, okay. The mafia is not so stupid, all right.’” 

American presidential candidates don’t normally praise organized crime, so it is tempting to write off this comment as a joke. Yet as we learn more about Trump’s foreign-policy views, thanks to extensive interviews such as the one conducted by Maggie Haberman and David E. Sanger published over the weekend by The New York Times, the mafia comment seems less like a quip and more like a confession. 

Of course, it is possible to give Trump’s weltanschauung an intellectual pedigree. In an earlier article I did that myselfarguing that Trump’s unilateralist tendencies could be linked to a shadow tradition in American foreign policy, while the dominant philosophy since Franklin Roosevelt has been the internationalist consensus. Certainly Trump’s invocation of the slogan “America First” calls to mind the notorious aviator Charles Lindbergh, who turned his isolationist arguments against fighting Nazism in Europe into a popular movement, while the mogul’s skepticism of NATO evokes the memory of that stalwart opponent of American Cold War interventionism, Robert Taft. And Trump’s call for America’s free-riding allies to pay more for their defense directly echoes the thinking of the most recent unilateralist of any prominence in American politics, Ross Perot. 

Yet to put the emphasis on Trump’s unilateralism is to put too fine a sheen on what is actually a set of very primitive emotions. As the interview with Haberman and Sanger makes clear, Trump has no real foreign-policy doctrine—and very little grasp of even the elementary facts about global politics. What Trump does have, in spades, is a cluster of raw attitudes that allow him to confidently bluster about topics with which he’s utterly unfamiliar. Trump’s comment that “the mafia is not so stupid” can serve as a key for understanding these attitudes: For Trump, a successful president will have basically the same modus operandi as a mobster, using intimidation to maximize income. And, of course, as Ted Cruz likes to point out, the mafia might be more than just a handy metaphor when it comes to Trump, since one of his associates is a twice-convicted felon with mob ties. 

Repeatedly, Trump displays breathtaking ignorance of the most basic details of foreign policy. In the Times interview, he lamented that despite the release of $150 billion in frozen funds to Iran as part of the Iran deal, “They’re buying planes, they’re buying everything, they’re buying from everybody but the United States.” Sanger, his interviewer, had to politely explain, “Our law prevents us from selling to them, sir.” 

Trump went on to say that “Iran is the No. 1 trading partner of North Korea.” Again, Sanger had to very cordially interject: “Mr. Trump with all due respect, I think it’s China that’s the No. 1 trading partner with North Korea.” When Trump said he’d call on China to put pressure on North Korea, Sanger had to inform him that China “signed on to the most recent sanctions, more aggressive sanctions than we thought the Chinese would agree to.” This led to Trump pretending that he’d already known what Sanger had just informed him about: “Well that’s good, but, I mean I know they did, but I think that they have power beyond the sanctions.”

Normally, you might expect someone who’s way over their head, the way Trump is when talking about foreign policy, to be at least a little bit humble or deferential. But Trump is willing to take on the post of commander-in-chief despite his manifest dearth of knowledge because he feels that attitude is more important than a command of facts. He is blithely confident that his hoodlum behavior will allow him to solve any foreign-policy problem.

As it does in the mob, power in Trump’s world comes from displays of force. Hence the heroes Trump cites are autocratic military men (Douglas MacArthur and George Patton), and his paltry list of foreign-policy advisers is top-heavy with retired soldiers rather than diplomats. This admiration for displays of power can also be seen in his repeated praise of authoritarian leaders and dictators. For Trump, Putin is “a strong leader, a powerful leader,” Bashar al-Assad is a bulwark against ISIS, and Saddam Hussein “a bad guy but he was good at one thing: Killing terrorists.” 

Trump’s mafia thinking is also evident in the way he connects foreign policy with making money. To be sure, foreign policy always has an economic aspect. As historians like William Appleman Williams have taught us, the goal of expanding capitalist markets has long undergirded America’s diplomatic and military agenda. And certainly since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, America’s overriding foreign-policy goal has been to secure global capitalism through a system of alliances and trade agreements. It’s a measure of the importance of this agenda that the United States has been willing to build up economic rivals like Germany and Japan because doing so was seen as necessary to the larger success of capitalism, even if it might hurt specific America industries (as with competition in auto-making). 

But unlike presidents from Roosevelt to Obama, Trump doesn’t think in terms of global capitalism; he thinks more narrowly about making money. This is a hoodlum’s view of business: You collect your protection money and rule the roost, with no concern for long-term stability. “Our country’s a poor country,” Trump says, which is factually untrue but a necessary premise in order to justify a foreign policy that makes maximizing revenue, rather than protecting global capitalism, the main goal. 

Like a racketeer, Trump thinks about wealth in very material terms: not as a process of wealth-generation, but as holding on to actual lucre. Hence his longstanding complaint that the United States didn’t “take the oil,” and his general advocacy of a policy of plunder. “To the victor belongs the spoils” is, in fact, a Trump foreign-policy maxim. 

Trump’s clever way to fend off requests for specific policy positions is to praise the virtue of instability in conducting foreign policy. “We need unpredictability,” he explained to Haberman and Sanger. There’s an echo here of Richard Nixon’s infamous “madman strategy,” when he attempted to gain negotiating leverage over North Vietnam via rumors that he was a lunatic who would stop at nothing to win. 

Aside from Nixon, Trump’s promise of “unpredictability” conjures up another criminal president who keeps other nations in line through the fear that they don’t know what he’s capable of. Think here of the 1990 movie Goodfellas, with the portrayal of Tommy DeVito by Joe Pesci: DeVito’s capricious outbursts of violence might seemed unhinged, but they kept people scared of him. Of course, this agenda of unpredictability is very much at odds with the goal of American foreign policy for most of the last century: promoting international stability and order. 

In keeping with the whole idea of “unpredictability,” Trump has no real use for the traditional instruments of foreign policy, treaties and alliances. Instead he believes in making deals. Now, it is true that every treaty involves deal-making (or negotiation). But once a treaty or alliance is set, it creates a structure that has some value in and of itself, as a source of stability and a frame of reference. Trump doesn’t care for for such fixtures. He talks about every treaty and alliance as infinitely negotiable, as something he’d be happy to open up again as it suits him. (Hence his promise, echoed by other Republican candidates, to re-open the Iran nuclear agreement.)

Under President Trump, everything would be in flux: Every agreement would be fleeting and subject to change, depending on his whims. This would be similar to how a bandit leader operates, with ad-hoc verbal agreements being more important than fixed contracts. If America needed more cash, Trump would just turn to the leaders of South Korea or Germany and say, “This is a nice little alliance we have here. Pity if something happened to it.”

Trump is truly a radical figure on foreign policy. He promises a new style of international relations that has less in common with traditional diplomats like Dean Acheson and George Kennan than with the hooligan tactics of Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies. Although perhaps, on second thought, Michael Corleone might be a best-case scenario, since some of Trump’s bluster makes it possible that he more closely resembles Michael’s ill-fated brother, the unstable and violence-happy Sonny. Americans love movie gangsters, but it remains to be seen whether the country is ready to elect a mafia president.