Is There an Emerging ‘Trump Doctrine’?

The candidacy and subsequent election of Donald Trump to the presidency caused a great deal of consternation among the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Democrat and Republican alike. His campaign rhetoric suggested that he had no coherent view of U.S. foreign policy, other than the gauzy commitment to “making America great again” and “America first.”

Trump criticized America’s overseas commitments, including the ongoing effort in Afghanistan; called into question the value of NATO; and argued the United States was being undone by its adherence to free trade. On the other hand, his bombastic language suggested he was ready to abandon the constraints on the use of force that traditionally have guided our military efforts. For instance, during the Republican primaries, Trump said that he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS” and supported the use of waterboarding terrorists and targeting their families. His inflammatory campaign rhetoric led many conservative foreign policy specialists to criticize him. At the time, many signed two letters taking him to task (full disclosure: I signed both). Today, many conservative foreign policy professionals remain adamant “NeverTrumpers.”

Even though Trump’s rhetoric often remains undisciplined, his actions as president suggest the emergence of something resembling a doctrine. It is important to note that the “doctrines” associated with presidents in the past—the “Truman Doctrine,” the “Nixon Doctrine,” the “Carter Doctrine,” and the “Reagan Doctrine”—were usually not the result of a coherent plan developed at the outset of a president’s administration but were instead attempts by outsiders to discern a pattern in the actions of a given administration. So it is with any attempt to describe a nascent “Trump Doctrine.”

Schools of Thought
National security specialists employ several lenses to ascertain the content of an administration’s foreign policy. The two dominant paradigms from international relations theory are, of course, “realism,” which focuses on the relative power of states in the international system; and “liberal internationalism,” which stresses the role of cooperation, norms, and international institutions in the international system.

Although often little more than a sterile debate between Machiavelli and Kant, these two paradigms give rise to various policy and strategy taxonomies—for example, “primacy,” “strategic disengagement,” “selective engagement,” and “cooperative internationalism.” Truth is, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to shoehorn U.S. foreign policy into any one of these categories.

Historians provide a different perspective. One that has gained traction in the recent past can be traced to the work of Walter McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania and Walter Russell Mead in his book, Special Providence. Mead identified four “schools” of American foreign policy since the founding of the republic. First, the Jeffersonians, concerned primarily with liberty at home, have traditionally been suspicious of a large military and large-scale international projects. George McGovern’s plea to “come home, America” and the presidency of Jimmy Carter are recent examples of this approach. Ironically, Jefferson himself was not hesitant to use U.S. naval power against the Barbary pirates.

By contrast, Hamiltonians have tended to support international engagement in order to support not only American power but also prosperity. They have focused on armed diplomacy on behalf of opening foreign markets and expanding the U.S. economy. Jacksonians support a strong military, albeit one that should be used rarely. However, once employed, the goal should be the application of overwhelming force in order to bring the enemy to its knees. World War II is the clearest example of the Jacksonian use of force. Finally, Wilsonians are moral missionaries, willing to use force in order to spread democracy, as in the case of George W. Bush in Iraq, but also preferring to cede sovereignty to international institutions, as in the case of Carter and Obama.

Of course, these categories have never been “pure.” U.S. foreign policy has usually reflected a hybrid of some sort. Most recently, the foreign policy of the George W. Bush Administration combined Wilsonianism and Hamiltonianism while that of Obama represented a combination of Jeffersonianism and Wilsonianism.

We could categorize U.S. foreign policy in any number of different ways. As I have argued in the past, the United States has been most successful when it has followed a foreign policy of what might be called “prudent American realism,” which links American principles with Aristotelian prudence (Henry Nau of George Washington University and Paul Miller of the University of Texas call this approach “conservative internationalism”).

This approach recognizes that American realism differs from the realism taught as part of academic international relations courses: American realism has always fused the features of traditional realism—power and security—with prosperity and the preservation of American principles. George Washington articulated this unique American realism in his Farewell Address:

If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.

Prudent American realism, as opposed to the “realism” of university courses, acknowledges that the internal character of regimes matters and that foreign policy must reflect the fundamental principles of democratic republicanism. And unlike liberal internationalism, which holds that international law and institutions alone are sufficient to achieve peace, prudent American realism understands some problems may be addressed only through the prudent exercise of power.

Although “prudence” doesn’t seem apt when it comes to describing Trump’s rhetoric, his actions seem to indicate the emergence of a substantive set of principles guiding his administration’s approach to the world. There are a couple of reasons for this phenomenon.

First, as a businessman, President Trump sees himself as a pragmatist. As his critics note, he does not seem to adhere to any fixed principles. Of course, this is potentially a flaw but it also reveals a flexibility that may serve him well as his presidency unfolds. Indeed, he has changed his views on a number of topics, including the value of NATO and U.S.  policy in Afghanistan.

Second, recall the old saying in politics that “personnel is policy.” President Trump has selected a national security team that embraces an approach similar to the one I call prudent American realism—Jim Mattis as secretary of defense, Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, H. R. McMaster as national security adviser, and Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations. Trump’s supporters and critics are constantly trying to identify differences between the president and his national security team and of course, there is no question that there have always been battles within presidential administrations for control over policy, beginning with George Washington and the epic battle between Jefferson and Hamilton. But the combination of Trump’s pragmatism and the ability of his national security team to nudge him in their preferred direction, I would argue that we can discern some pillars of an emerging Trump doctrine.

Pillars of an Emerging Trump Doctrine
The first pillar is a healthy nationalism. This is not the nationalism caricatured by Trump’s critics; it is not a reflection of racism and disdain for foreigners. It is not ethnic or racial nationalism but civic nationalism, better described as patriotism. There is no evidence that President Trump is in any sense a racist; quite the contrary. But there is no question that he is a patriot, one who seriously believes that the purpose of American power is to advance the interests of American citizens.

As Walter Russell Mead has observed, nationalism properly understood should not be a dirty word. “A nationalist and patriotic elite produces leaders like George Washington, who aim to promote the well-being of the country they love. An unpatriotic and anti-nationalist elite produces people who feather their nests without regard for the common good.”

A healthy nationalism recognizes that the sole purpose of American power is—or should be—to secure the American Republic and to protect the liberty and facilitate the prosperity of the American people. It is not—or should not be —to create the “global good,” a corporatist globalism divorced from patriotism or national greatness.

The second pillar—and a corollary of the first—is a state-centric view of international politics, one that approaches international institutions and “global governance” with great skepticism. This is what President Trump calls “principled realism,” a term he first used during his May 2017 speech in Saudi Arabia. It is in the interest of the United States to advance U.S. political, military, and economic strength not to impose U.S. will on others but to “secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.” As Henry Nau argues, “the goal [of U.S. foreign policy] is a ‘republican world’ in which free nations live side by side, responsible for their own defenses and economies, and cut deals with other nations, including authoritarian ones, to the extent their interests overlap.”

The Trump doctrine seems to hold that the United States should not cede sovereignty to international institutions in order to be embraced by the mythical “international community” nor should the purpose of U.S. foreign policy be to defend a rule-based liberal international order. Of course, the United States will support international institutions to the extent that they advance U.S. interests. Indeed, the United States led the way in creating the institutions of the post-World War II liberal order, most notably the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system, and then employed its power to underwrite that system. The choice to do so was not motivated by altruism but by the recognition that the freedom, security, and prosperity of the United States are best secured in a world where other states are also secure, free and prosperous.

Changing Course—Somewhat
But while it is in the interest of the United States to cooperate with others within this international system, such cooperation depends on
reciprocity. This is especially important in the areas of trade and alliances. In principle, free trade is good for countries in the international system but for too long, the United States has pursued trade agreements that have not favored the United States. The principle of reciprocity is necessary to redress this imbalance.

The third pillar is armed diplomacy. For too long, American policymakers have treated force and diplomacy as an either-or proposition. But understood properly, force and diplomacy are two sides of the same coin. As Frederick the Great observed, diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments. The threat of force increases the leverage of diplomats. The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea is a case in point.

The fourth pillar of an emerging Trump doctrine is prioritizing economic growth and leveraging the new geopolitics of energy. The Trump Administration has moved expeditiously to lift regulations that hamper U.S. domestic productivity across the board, but especially in the area of energy production. While domestic oil and gas production has increased as a result of the technical revolution associated with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and directional drilling, it did so despite the priorities of the Obama Administration, which wished to decrease reliance on hydrocarbons. Trump has made it clear he wishes to exploit America’s energy potential to take advantage of the new geopolitics of energy.

The fifth pillar is a defense of liberal principles. Critics claim that the Trump Administration has subordinated defense of such principles to other considerations. As an example, they point to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s address earlier this year, which led some to accuse him of abandoning the U.S. commitment to human rights.

Of course, prudence dictates that the United States attempt to spread its principles only when it can do so in a cost-effective manner. As noted above, the United States is safer and more prosperous in a world populated by other democratic republics. But the United States faces limits. It cannot unilaterally spread democracy throughout the world. As John Quincy Adams said in a famous July 4, 1821 address, “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

In addition, much of the critique of Tillerson—and by extension, Trump—mischaracterizes what the secretary said. He was making the commonsense argument that “in some circumstances,” attempting to promote human rights per se can make it harder to pursue our economic and national security interests. Nonetheless, he argued that the United States must always stand firmly on the side of human rights. As noted above regarding Washington’s Farewell Address, prudence dictates the balance between “interest and justice.”

Ironically, when President Trump went to Warsaw and delivered one of the better speeches of his young presidency, calling on the West “to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization,” he was roundly criticized. One commentator called it “an alt-right manifesto.”  Another claimed that by referring to “the West” and to “our civilization” Trump was pandering to “white nationalism” because “the West is a racial and religious term.”

Nonsense. The president was defending the West and its virtues—liberty, reason, the rule of law, property, and prosperity. As Donald Kagan observes, “Americans do not share a common ancestry and a common blood. What they have in common is a system of laws and beliefs that shaped the establishment of the country, a system developed within the context of Western civilization.”

Trump’s foreign policy remains a work in progress, but it seems to point to an emerging doctrine, which Mead suggests represents a synthesis of the Hamiltonian-Jacksonian schools of American foreign policy. At a minimum, Trump’s approach so far reflects his understanding that a healthy regard for the safety and happiness of American citizens requires that U.S. power remain supreme but that the president of the United States has an obligation to American citizens, not to the welfare of the rest of the world.

This essay was adapted from an address to the Ashland University chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society on November 19, 2017.   


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