Trump's ideas will outlive his candidacy

Donald Trump will never become president.

I apologise for taking the suspense out of this story, but the still-likely Republican nominee just isn't going to win. Here are a few of the many reasons why.

When Mr Barack Obama defeated Mr Mitt Romney four years ago, more than half of all votes were cast by women. Mr Romney won 44 per cent of those votes and still lost the election by a sizeable margin. A poll released last week reported that just 23 per cent of women approve of Mr Trump, and his opponent this autumn is virtually certain to be a woman.

Media around the world have taken the possibility of a Trump presidency much too seriously. This does not mean, however, that we shouldn't carefully consider his foreign policy views, since they have won strong support from a vocal minority of Americans. His opinions will surely outlive his candidacy.

Contrary to popular perception, Mr Trump is not an isolationist. He wants to strengthen the US military, and at times he has suggested he might send US ground troops into Syria. He says he'll "knock the hell out of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)", maybe with nuclear weapons, and authorise the torture of suspected terrorists. He doesn't oppose trade. He says he simply wants to rip up what he believes are the unfair trade deals of the past and negotiate new agreements on much more favourable terms for the United States. That would allow the US to pay off US$19 trillion (S$25.6 trillion) in debt (in just eight years!) and restore lost manufacturing jobs.

He describes almost all US allies as weak friends taking advantage of Washington's foolish generosity. He denigrates alliances and institutions that he says constrain US action and cost too much money. For example, he insists Nato should be abandoned unless France, Germany and others spend much more on their militaries. In some ways, his unilateralist approach is a logical (if extreme) extension of Bush-era interventionism and the Obama administration's extensive use of drones and sanctions. But he also says the US should be willing to allow Japan, South Korea, and even Saudi Arabia to maintain arsenals of nuclear weapons so that Washington can renounce responsibility for their security.

It's true that traditional US allies face much greater dangers than the US. Europe is obviously much more vulnerable than the US to Middle East turmoil and Russian ambitions. China's expansion and North Korea's threats are much more worrisome for Japan and South Korea than for the US. ISIS is a far greater threat for Saudi Arabia than for the US, and it's true that Americans don't need Saudi oil nearly as much as they used to.

Many Americans now appear to accept the view articulated by Mr Trump (and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders) that trade kills jobs. Few Americans believe these days that globalisation strengthens the US economy.

Mr Trump lives in a zero-sum world in which China's leaders "have drained so much money out of our country that they've rebuilt China". He divides the world into winners and losers, good and evil, workers and freeloaders, one tribe and another. I've written in recent weeks that he has embraced an "America first" foreign policy. I didn't mean that as a compliment, and I'm surprised to see him recently embrace this label with enthusiasm.

But America badly needs an open and engaged debate about whether and why these opinions are right or wrong. Can a trade deal that provides greater economic benefits for others still be a good deal? Are there times when it is in America's national interest to do more so that others can afford to do less? Can the US remain secure and prosperous in a world that is becoming increasingly volatile? Is it in the US national interest that the US Navy does more than any other to ensure freedom of navigation around the world? Is it time for US policymakers to insist that allies share more of the costs and risks that come with collective security? US allies, and American voters, deserve to know more.

It is foolish to dismiss Mr Trump's foreign policy opinions, even if we know he will never be president. The questions he raises and resentments he channels must be answered or they will linger.

Unfortunately, that's a debate that his opponents still believe they can afford to avoid.

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices For America's Role In The World.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline 'Trump's ideas will outlive his candidacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe