Why Trump's NATO stance might resonate with young voters, even if it scares everyone else


Donald Trump has done it again. For the second time in his candidacy, he has cast huge doubts onto the future of NATO, calling the future of U.S. foreign military operations into question, and freaking out the foreign policy wonks who follow this stuff.

In an interview with The New York Times, Republican presidential nominee Trump called into question his willingness to extend security guarantees for NATO members, a position that has been bipartisan orthodoxy over the years. When deciding whether to come to a small member's aid in the case of an attack by Russia, he said he would first have to determine if the nation has "fulfilled their obligations to us.”


The logic that he uses is that the promise of foreign military involvement often results in a "bad deal" for the U.S. Basically, his foreign policy isolationism comes down to money, not morals or geopolitical strategy. And while that might make some people cringe, it actually seems more in line with young Americans' worldviews than presumptive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's take on the subject.

Increasingly, young people in the U.S. are skeptical about entering into military conflicts abroad. A 2015 poll from the Chicago Council, one of the largest of its kind, lays this out for us, along generational lines. Look at the left column of the following chart, and how it differentiates with other generations:

Also, at the increasing streak of isolationism that Trump touts, which younger Americans are cool with:


This is the realm of stuff Libertarian candidate Ron Paul was proposing in 2012: that the U.S. should focus on our many problems at home, slash military budgets, bring troops home, and stay out of conflicts and interventions abroad. That message was huge with young voters in the last election cycle.

Trump, for his part, takes a completely different train of thought to arrive at his conclusion, but the result is more or less the same. Why are we spending so much money with so many troops permanently deployed abroad, when we have so many problems here?


"I would prefer that we be able to continue [to protect allies abroad], but if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth," Trump said in his Times interview, "then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, 'Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.'"

For detractors, these statements are absurd. Projecting military power across the world has never been a zero-sum calculation on monetary returns, but the price to pay for staying the global superpower, post World War II.


This would result in "undermining the free nations of Europe, marginalizing NATO, and ending America’s reign as the world’s sole superpower," as the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg put it. Not to mention opening East Asia up to more Chinese influence if the U.S. pulled out of South Korea and Japan, where tens of thousands of troops are stationed.

As Bloomberg's Leonid Bershidsky points out, Trump's stance would mean the only Baltic nation that he would currently be willing to defend is Estonia. Others, like Latvia and Lithuania, would be left on their own if they don't pay up. (President Obama has also voiced frustration about what he calls "free riders.")


"In a deal, you always have to be prepared to walk," Trump continued. "Hillary Clinton has said, 'We will never, ever walk.' That’s a wonderful phrase, but unfortunately, if I were on Saudi Arabia’s side, Germany, Japan, South Korea and others, I would say, 'Oh, they’re never leaving, so what do we have to pay them for?'"

For Clinton's part, she has called U.S. support for NATO "one of the best investments America has ever made." Likewise, she fully backs keeping troops permanently positioned throughout Europe and East Asia with minimum strings attached.


Former Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who is overwhelmingly popular with young Americans, has long argued that some of these policies are a waste of U.S. taxpayer money, and an unnecessary threat to global peace, to Russia in particular. Essentially, his position on military involvement is far more in line with Trump than with Clinton.

This partly explains why young people are more likely to support "insurgent" candidates that are willing to break with foreign policy orthodoxy when it comes to keeping more money spent overseas at home. It's not to say Sanders and Trump share the same vision of isolationism; Sanders wants to avoid future conflicts, while Trump wants to back out of existing treaties with our allies. But to a certain degree, the two impulses do align.


Clinton, for all intents and purposes, can be considered a traditional conservative when it comes to broadcasting U.S. military force abroad. During her time as Secretary of State, she is credited with convincing President Obama to intervene in Libya in 2011, something Obama has signaled that he regrets. She has suggested Obama hasn't done enough interventions, for instance saying he should have done more against the Assad regime earlier in the Syrian Civil War.

That's at odds with what most Americans want from a president, especially young people. In a poll conducted last year, YouGov found that only 17% of young people want a president who is "more willing" than Obama to use military force. Comparatively, 38% of people older than 65 agree with that statement.


According to Trump's public statements, he seems openly hostile to getting drawn into expensive, lengthy conflicts, even if current arrangements say we should get involved.

When it comes to projecting power, Clinton and Trump are of two schools of thought: One is that projecting military power is a way to command respect, and that it should be done often. The other is that projecting all that power abroad is too expensive, that it's a poor return on investment, and that we would do better to spend that money at home.


To state the obvious, Trump is not a very likable candidate. But on this one policy point, he seems to be speaking a language that young Americans can agree on.

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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