Trump’s Zero-Sum Game

There was a moment in Monday night’s debate that, though largely unnoticed, beautifully encapsulates a crucial difference between the candidates. Donald Trump, attempting to discredit Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy experience, described the Iran treaty thusly:

“You have a country that was ready to fall, they were doing so badly, they were choking on the sanctions. And now they’re going to be, actually probably, a major power at some point pretty soon.”

This has become pretty boilerplate GOP language for describing the treaty, but his statement deserves greater scrutiny. Pay attention to what Trump is actually saying: In his mind, the purpose of sanctions is to economically cripple Iran, to isolate and starve the country. Consider the implications of this. Iran is a country of 77 million people occupying a swath of land larger than Spain, France, and Germany put together. And his plan is to do what, exactly? Choke the country with sanctions, destroy the economic prospects of its citizens, and likely delegitimize the ruling government? Yeah, that’ll go well. We’ve all seen in Iraq the great benefits derived from driving a relatively stable region into chaos…

Now, consider Hillary Clinton’s response:

“With respect to Iran, when I became Secretary of State Iran was weeks away from having enough nuclear material to form a bomb…So I spent a year and a half putting together a coalition that included Russia and China to impose the toughest sanctions on Iran. We did drive them to the negotiating table, and my successor John Kerry and President Obama got a deal that put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program without firing a single shot.”

The contrast is striking. In her statement, Clinton doesn’t diminish the threat, she acknowledges how close Iran came to becoming a nuclear power. However, when she talks about sanctions, she does not view them as a means by which to destroy Iran. Her end goal was not economic devastation. Instead, she frames the sanctions as the means by which she was able to drive the Iranian government to the negotiating table, the first step towards ushering Iran back into the community of nations.

The difference between Trump and Clinton’s underlying philosophies is revealing; Trump views all interactions as zero-sum games. If the United States is to come out on top, it means using strength to defeat our rivals. Clinton, on the other hand, grasps that, particularly in matters of foreign policy, this mindset is fatal. International cooperation and global prosperity are predicated upon countries finding ways to work together towards mutual benefit. It is in neither the United States’ nor Iran’s best interests for Iran to become fertile ground for terrorists and warlords. Trump’s simplistic worldview blinds him to this truth, and to any prospects for improved relations with the Iranian government.

At this point, though, one should not be surprised by how Trump views foreign policy. In his world, there are winners and there are losers. In order to win, you need to make someone else lose. This is the same justification he uses t0 defend how he shortchanged contractors and left investment partners holding the bag after his multiple bankruptcies. His definition of a good deal is one in which he comes out on top—no matter the fallout. This philosophy is part of what makes Trump a subpar businessman. It’s the reason most banks will no longer do business with him, it’s part of why he’s been sued 3,500 times. However deleterious this proclivity is to his business, though, it doesn’t hold a candle to how devastating that philosophy would be in the Oval Office.

Our country can’t view all decisions through a zero-sum lens, “America First” cannot be our north star. This philosophical shortcoming undergirds his flippant comments about leaving NATO if the other nations don’t “pay their share”. It’s why he blatantly disregards international law, repeatedly admonishing that the US should have “taken the oil” before we left Iraq. It also explains why “law and order” is his answer to civil unrest: He sees salvation in the strength of a billy club.

Clinton, by contrast, sees that the path toward a brighter future lies in mutually beneficial cooperation. That’s why she unambiguously stated her support for our NATO allies. It’s why she chose to act in unison with the international community to impose sanctions on Iran, ultimately yielding a treaty that diminished Iran’s nuclear capacities without resorting to armed conflict. It’s why she has stressed the importance of community policing, of holding officers who commit crimes accountable and restoring citizens’ trust in law enforcement.

This November our choice is clear. We can choose a president who views all issues through a zero-sum lens, or we can choose a president who understands that the world is more complicated than “winners” and “losers”. For the peace and security of our world, I hope we choose the latter.