Brussels, the Presidential Election and the U.S. Role in the World

People gather at a makeshift memorial in front of Brussel's Stock Exchange.

People gather at a makeshift memorial in front of Brussel’s Stock Exchange. PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

The murderous terrorist attack in Brussels last week was a horrible event underscoring, yet again, the ability of ISIS and their fellow travelers to kill and cause havoc in Europe. The attack also highlighted one of the major themes and fundamental complexities of the U.S. presidential election.

The primaries have drawn a great deal of attention to several issues that may on the surface seem only peripherally related, but all revolve around the broader question of the U.S. relationship to the rest of a world that becomes more interconnected every day. Two of the issues that helped catapult Donald Trump to the top of the early polling in the Republican primary last summer and fall were his promise to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, and his pledge to exclude Muslims from entering the country. An issue that helped Bernie Sanders to his most significant primary win to date, in Michigan, was his opposition to NAFTA and his portrayal of Hillary Clinton as a committed free trader unconcerned with American workers. Thus, for both Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders, at least part of their surprisingly strong showings are due to their vision of a U.S. that is more independent from the world and less enmeshed in global politics and trade.

In addition to the issues of trade and immigration, there has been a debate over both the substance and approach the U.S. should take to its foreign policy more broadly. In this area, as expected, Hillary Clinton has staked out the establishment position. She has advocated for increasing U.S. engagement in the rest of the world, working with allies to address problems like ISIS or Jihadist terror, and has evinced little concern about the economic cost of such engagement. Ted Cruz is the most hawkish candidate left standing, and calls for “carpet bombing” ISIS, dramatic increases to the military budget and a position on the Israel-Palestine conflict to the right of the Likud Party. Bernie Sanders has sought to present a different foreign policy approach, one that is less reliant on military force and in which the U.S. would play a reduced role in the world.

The most intriguing foreign policy approach has been that of Donald Trump largely because he has argued both for a less ambitious U.S. foreign policy while also joining in, and frequently amplifying the Republican mantra that the U.S., is currently weak and unable to defend itself. The conflict between these positions is evident. Threading the needle between being feared globally and less involved with the rest of the world, as Mr. Trump has advocated, is extremely difficult.

The conflict between these two principles could not have been lost on anyone, with the probable exception of Mr. Trump himself, last week when he told the editorial board of the Washington Post that perhaps the U.S. didn’t need to be in NATO; the next day, following the terrorist attack, he expressed outrage and recommitted himself to his proposals to exclude Muslims seeking to enter the U.S. while advocating for torture of suspected terrorists.

While many Americans were outraged and furious about these attacks, it is also worth noting that they did not occur here. The notion that an attack on Brussels makes it axiomatic that the U.S is under siege, as suggested by both Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz after the attacks, is not accurate. However, if the U.S. is part of a globalized world, and a member of NATO, the attacks in Brussels take on the significance suggested by Mr. Trump’s reaction. His proposed solutions are, alas, a different story.

Mr. Trump’s ability to suggest leaving NATO one day, then respond so passionately to an attack on a NATO ally the next speaks to both he GOP frontrunner’s ideological flexibility, but also the complexity surrounding how many Americans view our relationship with the rest of the world. Removing the U.S. from NATO would have an enormous impact on global politics and would almost immediately remake America’s role in the world and reduce our status globally. Ironically, perhaps the only positive side to leaving NATO, at least in the minds of those who want a less globally involved U.S. is that we would no longer have to care quite so much horrific terrorist attacks on countries like Belgium. Mr. Trump’s response to the latest terrorist attacks, however, indicates that he cares a great deal about these attacks on our allies. Moreover, many Americans, even those who would like to see fewer trade deals and less U.S involvement overseas, see the attack on Brussels as at the very least a reminder of the threat Jihadist terrors poses to the U.S.

The seemingly paradoxical comments by Mr. Trump, thus reflect a broader conundrum facing much of the America electorate: We seemingly want both to wall ourselves off from the rest of the world and to be the primary protector of the west. Neither is easy. Doing both is nearly impossible.

Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.