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Sam Nunn on Donald Trump and a lack of GOP depth on foreign policy

The time has come, Donald Trump said Wednesday, to put away the “old people” behind U.S. foreign policy.

Because the nuclear football would be so much safer in younger, presumably larger, hands.

“We have to look to new people, because many of the old people frankly don’t know what they’re doing — even though they may look awfully good writing in the New York Times or being watched on television,” said the 69-year-old man who must now be considered the presumptive Republican nominee for president.

Former U.S. senator Sam Nunn, speaking at the UGA Charter Lecture on Tuesday. AJC/Special

In what his campaign called his first major foreign policy speech, the billionaire hop-scotched across the globe and the decades, declaring the last 30 years of U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War to be an abject failure.

From the stage of the Mayflower Hotel in D.C., Trump damned President Barack Obama and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for ISIS and the mess that is the Middle East. But the billionaire was actually tougher on the concept of nation-building introduced into the region by President George W. Bush.

You high school history students in the audience take note. Trump may have just placed more foreign policy emphasis on the phrase “America first” than any U.S. political figure since Charles Lindbergh. The “Lone Eagle” made it the motto of isolationists in the days before World War II.

It seems strange to say, because it wasn’t always so, but a Republican presidential campaign is no longer the place for a coherent discussion of America’s place and responsibilities in the world.

Apparently, those conversations must be had where the old people are. And on Tuesday, the day before Trump unveiled his worldview, the conversation was in Athens, Ga.

That’s when two of the old men of American foreign policy delivered the University of Georgia’s annual Charter Lecture – former U.S. senator Sam Nunn, and former secretary of defense William Perry. Nunn spoke in person, Perry via the Internet from California.

Their performance was nuanced, serious and more than a little frightening — qualities that no longer play well on the campaign circuit. The first question: We’ve gone 71 years without a nuclear bomb being exploded in anger. Can we get through another 71?

“I hope so. The odds are against it, though,” said Nunn, who — despite his advanced 77 years — heads up an anti-nuclear proliferation organization in Washington.

“The likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe today is actually higher,” said Perry, 88.

Nunn spoke of nuclear dirty bombs. Any terrorist organization that controls a hospital can make one, he said — because of the cesium-137 on hand for radiation therapy.

Perry worried about the world blundering into a U.S.-Russian confrontation similar to the Cuba missile crisis of 1962. His predicted location — the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

(Hours before Trump took the stage on Wednesday, two U.S. Air Force fighter jets — F-22s, the best we have — touched down in Lithuania. It was a heavy-handed diplomatic signal that didn’t merit a mention in the billionaire’s speech.)

Nunn was dissatisfied with an Obama administration push toward smaller nuclear weapons. The size of an initial nuclear strike is unlikely to have any bearing on the response, he said.

Perry was against the administration’s decision to include intercontinental ballistic missiles in a $1 trillion rehabilitation of the U.S. nuclear weapons platform.

Neither man brought up the 2016 presidential contest. But afterwards, I asked Nunn about Trump’s forays into foreign policy.

“There are a lot of itches out there that Trump is scratching. And Bernie’s scratching, too,” Nunn said — a reference to Bernie Sanders, the Democratic candidate.

Much of Trump’s scratching has been irresponsible, Nunn said. “But the itching is there. It’s there on foreign policy, on American intervention. It’s there on trade and immigration,” he said.

Trump has called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization an outdated concept — a position from which he appeared to retreat on Wednesday. In his speech, Trump complained — as he has before — that U.S. allies, in Europe and elsewhere, aren’t shouldering their proper share of the load.

It’s true. And it’s an ancient objection. “ [U.S. Sen. Herman] Talmadge talked about it all the time. I tackled that issue head-on in the 1970s,” Nunn said. “Everything’s timing. There’s the refugee problem and the Greece problem and the Ukrainian problem and the Baltic fears about Russia — and all that stuff going on. This is not the time to shake the alliance.”

Nunn still travels — quite a bit, in fact. I asked him what Europe thinks of Trump.

“Europeans are scratching their heads. Of course, they’re so busy with their own alligators — the refugee problem,” he said. “I think there’s a discount factor here, about Trump not being electable in the fall. They’re kind of comforting themselves with that. But they do ask the question, ‘How can this possibly happen in America?’”

By “this,” they meant Trump.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Republicans carried the swagger stick when it came to U.S. foreign policy. No more. U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona have kept up the tradition, as have members of the House and Senate armed services committees, Nunn said.

“Beyond that, there’s seemingly not much interest among Republicans. I don’t see it in their governors, either,” he said.

The former Georgia senator does have a dog in the current presidential contest. He’s sent a check to Hillary Clinton. “Of the people who are left, she has the most leadership experience and is best qualified,” Nunn said. Though he likes John Kasich, too.

But Nunn is worried by the new lack of depth on the GOP side when it comes to world affairs. “When either one of the parties has one candidate who’s totally irresponsible, I think it’s a dangerous situation,” he said. “Anything can happen in an election year.”

Of course, that’s just one of the old people talking.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.