Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Detached Primacy: Further Musings on the “Trump Doctrine”
Detached Primacy: Further Musings on the “Trump Doctrine”

Detached Primacy: Further Musings on the “Trump Doctrine”

Donald Trump (Source: Flickr/marcn)Source: Flickr/marcn

“Today one must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.”
John le Carré


This essay is the companion to an earlier one[1] in which the author attempted to divine a “Trump Doctrine” in the realm of foreign affairs and national security. It suggests a name for Mr. Trump’s view of America’s place in a complex world — detached primacy — and plumbs Mr. Trump’s rather extensive body of written and spoken commentary over the past two-plus decades to define the likely contours of his foreign and national security policies, should he be elected President of the United States in November.

The author repeats his disclaimer from the companion essay regarding Mr. Trump’s candidacy. In expressing no opinion one way or another, he means just that — no position expressed here. Readers determined to find one should expect to be frustrated in their search. The author’s sole intent is to illuminate Mr. Trump’s position (or as some will insist, his lack of a coherent one) so that readers can decide for themselves where they stand on the question of his suitability to be the nation’s Commander-in-Chief.


“Incoherence” aptly describes American policy today in places like the Syrian-Iraqi battlespace. As Angelo Codevilla writes, “U.S. policy does not pursue any objective which, if achieved, would serve its interest…” He continues:

“U.S. policy has also made ‘stability’ — maintaining the territorial integrity of the region’s states — an end in itself, thus sacrificing fruitful relationships with the individual ethnic and religious groups that compose the Middle East. Having become the last defender of borders and regimes against which local peoples are rebelling, America ends up semi-allied with governments that are increasingly impotent and internally conflicted, as well as with ethnic and religious groups that are as partially committed to American objectives as the U.S. government is to theirs.”[2]

John Bolton’s literalist definition of unilateralism is “a state acting on its own in international affairs.” He hastens, however, that “It is a critical conceptual mistake…to pose ‘multilateralism’ simply as its [unilateralism’s] opposite.”[3] The United States would be acting “multilaterally” if it took a given matter to the United Nations — which he calls “the Holy Grail of multilateralism” — or alternately, to NATO. Mr. Bolton follows a truism — “Each organization is clearly multilateral” — with a non sequitur — “but their roles are so wildly different that the word ceases to have any meaning.” Here, perhaps, it is worth recalling Ruggie’s observation that American hegemony not American hegemony was responsible for the establishment of such post-WWII institutions as the U.N. and NATO to embody the notion of “collective security”.[4]

Mac Owens prefers the term primacy to unilateralism, defining the former as “a ‘go-it-alone’ approach in which the United States intimidates both friends and allies, wields power unilaterally, and ignores international institutions.”[5] The so-called “Bush Doctrine,” he argues, “in fact, represents ‘benevolent’ primacy,” which he characterizes as:

“an approach in keeping with the liberal traditions of the United States but which recognizes the world as a dangerous place in which a just peace is maintained only by the strong.”[6]

Unilateralism is not isolationism, whether expressed as benevolent primacy or not. Dr. Owens cautions:

“Unilateralism, which accepted the need for international cooperation in the form of treaties but rejected alliances as an unnecessary limit on American action, has often been confused with isolationism.”[7]

For his part, Mr. Trump might be said to advocate a second and distinct variation on unilateralism, one the author dubs detached primacy. It, too, recognizes the world as a dangerous place but rejects the United States’ role as a hegemonic stabilizer. That term — hegemonic stabilizer — is defined by Ethan Barnaby Kapstein as a ‘‘a state willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security’.’[8]  The United States, Dr. Owens writes, “as Great Britain before it, took up the role of hegemon not out of altruism but because it is in its national interest to do so.”[9]

The author’s neologism — detached primacy — means something different than benevolent primacy, in which the United States willingly acts as a hegemonic stabilizer. Detached primacy, like all iterations of unilateralism, accepts the need for international cooperation in the form of treaties and rejects alliances. However, whereas benevolent primacy rejects alliances solely because they impose an unnecessary limit on American action, Trump-esque detached primacy adds two more reasons. The first is that alliances are said to impose an unsustainable economic burden on the United States, in part because of free-riding allies.[10] This viewpoint turns on its head the fundamental postulate of Realism articulated by Kenneth Waltz, which reads:

“When faced with the possibility of cooperating for mutual gain, states that feel insecure must ask how the gain will be divided. They are compelled to ask not ‘Will both of us gain?’ but ‘Who will gain more?'”[11]

Instead, Mr. Trump sees the question through a detached primacy lens, and would likely phrase it differently:

When faced with the possibility of cooperating for mutual gain, states that feel secure must ask how the cost will be divided. They are compelled to ask not ‘Will both of us gain?’ but ‘Who will pay more?’

The second detached primacy-specific reason to reject alliances is that they risk entangling the United States in regional conflicts that pose no direct threat to American national interests.[12] Primacy demands its practitioners maximize their advantage over rivals, to which detached primacy appends Richard Betts’ two-and-a-half-decade-old cautionary note that “Major discontinuities in international relations are seldom predicted.”[13]

Alliances, Mr. Trump might argue, impose further, non-obvious costs on the United States, for example, the cost to deter allies as well as adversaries. This incongruous-sounding claim has an interesting provenance: the 1992 draft Defense Planning Guidance (DPG). Some elements of that controversial document — crafted by then-Defense Department staffers Lewis Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, and Zalmay Khalilzad — might find favor with Mr. Trump, for example, its call for “the use of preventive — or preemptive — force, and the idea of forsaking multilateralism if it did not suit U.S. interests.”[14] More to the point, the 1992 DPG argued the United States must deter not only adversaries, but also allies, the latter from challenging the interests of America’s adversaries. Doing so, the 1992 DPG authors claimed, was necessary to “convinc[e] potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests.”[15]

Similar calls are heard today. The authors of a February 2016 article in The National Interest wrote:

“U.S. security guarantees are extraordinary and complex commitments. The United States puts at risk its deployed forces and personnel, and potentially its homeland, for the sake of shared interests with allies. While the benefits of each alliance are unique, they provide the United States with security and economic partners that help to maintain international stability, promote economic growth and trade, and protect liberal values. But in extending deterrence to cover allies, the United States also increases its likelihood of being drawn into an unwanted war. As a result, the United States must sometimes deter its allies from undertaking certain actions and, conversely, assure its adversaries that it will behave in a measured manner. Plainly, it must balance assurance and deterrence both among and between its allies and potential adversaries.”[16] [Emphasis added]

Mr. Trump might well argue the two of the three articulated “benefits” — “promot[ing] economic growth and trade” and “protect[ing] liberal values” — are in one case imbalanced to America’s disfavor (promoting trade) and in the other, tenuously related at best to American national security (protecting liberal values).[17] As to the first — economic growth and trade — critics of Mr. Trump’s pronouncement on the imperative to restore America’s “winner” status echo what Robert Jervis wrote two-plus decades ago:

“[N]o amount of American effort, hard bargaining with its trading partners, or domestic growth will return the United States to the position of economic dominance it held in the 1950s. If a world of trading blocs is to be avoided, it will have to be through negotiations and shared understandings…”[18]

On the other hand, arguing the United States will never again regain the position it held in the 1950s and 1960s leads some to conclude the United States “may not have sufficient resources to provide public goods,” which roughly paraphrases a principle of the author’s imagined Trump Doctrine, viz.:

 “The economic burden of American legacy commitments like NATO and similar regional defense pacts — explicitly excluding America’s commitment to the defense of Israel — is unsustainable and must shift to our allies.”[19]

Moreover, Mr. Trump might argue his assertive posture vis-à-vis trade with China is underpinned by an implicit acknowledgement of Paul Kennedy’s observation that repeatedly over history, relative “economic shifts heralded the rise of new Great Powers which one day would have a decisive impact on the military/territorial order.”[20] Why, Mr. Trump might ask, would the United States adopt trade policies predetermined to accelerate economic shifts uncongenial to American national security interests?

To the second point about “protecting liberal values,” Anne-Marie Slaughter expressed the view that doing so requires the United States to eschew “preemptive war, democratization, and U.S. primacy and unilateralism.”[21] Setting aside democratization[22] (which Mr. Trump, too, rejects for altogether different reasons), the broader multilateralist argument is that alliances rightly restrain the exercise of American power. This viewpoint — anathema to Mr. Trump — derives from Fénélon’s theorem, which maintains that even a benign state must be checked by less powerful ones.[23] Multilateralists hold that a desirable distribution of power is one that precludes American action in the circumstance where only the United States believes that intervention is necessary and other countries disagree.

The author argues elsewhere that preemption and unilateralism are key tenets of Mr. Trump’s national defense and foreign policy doctrine.[24] This raises a set of interesting questions, the first of which is whether the cost to sustain American preeminence under a Trump Doctrine would in reality amount to less than the cost to maintain the existing alliance structure. Mr. Trump appears to believe that it would, on which basis the author earlier suggested this Trump Doctrine plank:

“The economic burden of American legacy commitments like NATO and similar regional defense pacts — explicitly excluding America’s commitment to the defense of Israel — is unsustainable and must shift to our allies.”[25]

It is, however, ultimately a question of fact, not belief, with the burden of proof falling squarely on Mr. Trump.

Another question is whether Trump Doctrine unilateralism would benefit a geopolitically astute Russia or China. It has long been argued that when a country is excessively powerful, it redounds to its disadvantage by provoking others to balance against it. Proponents often cite Sir Eyre Crowe’s c.1907 “German danger” memorandum,[26] in which he argued Great Britain must contain Imperial Germany’s rising power at any cost, even war. His correspondent, Lord Sanderson, replied famously that Imperial Germany’s leaders must see Britain as “some huge giant sprawling over the globe, with gouty fingers and toes stretching in every direction, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream.”[27] Christopher Layne suggested several years ago that China might well see the United States in the position of Sanderson’s unapproachable, sprawling giant,[28] later going so far as to ask whether the two nations were “sleepwalking to war?”[29]  

The author elsewhere suggests parallels between some of Mr. Trump’s written and spoken declarations over the past two decades and certain positions taken in the late 1930s and early 1940s by the unilateralist America First Committee (AFC), an organization often erroneously tagged as isolationist. Then as now, the belief in a robust national defense was not at the core of the American foreign policy debate. Rather, according to the leading historian of the AFC, the late Wayne Cole:

“An important basis for the America First Committee strength was the chronic dislike for Great Britain and the skepticism for British motives found among large segments of the American people.”[30]

The same might be said today regarding some or all of America’s NATO allies and possibly Japan, at least among that segment of American voters inclined to support Mr. Trump’s candidacy, from which the likely rejoinder echoes the AFC’s objection that we are not “anti-anybody. We are pro-America.”[31] This is not to say that the AFC opposed a forward-deployed hemispheric defense: its leaders maintained the United States should establish bases to enhance the effectiveness of its defenses, and no less than Charles Lindberg supported President Roosevelt’s decision to occupy Greenland in April 1941 while remaining critical of his failure to construct adequate bases in the Pacific. At the same time, the AFC opposed deployment of American ground forces outside the Western hemisphere. It argued forcefully that “aid short of war…threatens to involve America in war abroad,”[32] something many Trump supporters believe applies to the Obama (and earlier, the Bush) administration efforts to destabilize autocratic regimes and arm so-called “moderate” rebel groups in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.

Another more troubling parallel comes from Mr. Trump’s 2000 book, The America We Deserve — “America has no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries in Eastern Europe. Their conflicts are not worth American lives.” — which thankfully falls somewhat short of the AFC’s cavalier dismissal of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Luxemburg, Belgium and France as inconsequential (for America) “tiny, powerless countries on the German borders.”[33] Given the United States’ Article Six commitment to the defense of NATO member-states in the former Soviet borderlands, it is time for Mr. Trump to revise and restate this position.

It would be interesting were Mr. Trump, in restating his earlier position vis-à-vis NATO member-states in the borderlands, at the same time to revisit his c.2000 remarks regarding the American-led NATO intervention in Kosovo:

“Today we need to begin shaping events instead of waiting for events to shape our policies. Four months before the Serb army moved into Kosovo there was a summary purging of Serbian generals on record as opposing the invasion. What should that have told us? We were negotiating with the Serbs, trying to talk them out of their threats to occupy Kosovo, and when they made good on those threats we weren’t even ready. I’m delighted that there was a happy ending in Kosovo, but it could very easily have been otherwise. You can learn a lot from a near miss.”[34]

How would Mr. Trump, having internalized the lessons of Kosovo, have responded during the run up to Russia’s annexation of Crimea? Clearly, events in Ukraine shaped American policies, not vice versa. Looking forward, how would Mr. Trump respond to the evolving Iran-North Korea axis in nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development?[35] He maintains both that

“[O]ur foreign policy leaders talk too much. Endlessly. Nonstop. Around the clock. As if following some secret strategy to bore our enemies into submission…”

and that

“When I do a megabilliondollar [sic] business deal I never tell my competitors what I will and will not do.”[36]

However the case for absolute clarity is undeniable with respect to the certainty that the United States will do something when it declares an American national security interest is at stake. Strategic ambiguity, which Mr. Trump has long advocated in foreign and national security affairs, turns on the difference between, respectively, what the United States might do — an action or a sequence of actions chosen from a delimited set of options — and what it will do. There is a critical distinction between ambiguity about what the United States ultimately will do, and about whether the United States will ultimately do anything. The former is the basis of deterrence while the latter undercuts it. Deterrence requires the United States to be absolutely unambiguous that there is no chance it will do nothing.

In the case of Crimea, Mr. Trump declared, “this is Europe’s problem much more than ours,” signaling that so far as he was concerned, Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian autonomous republic threatened no vital American interests.[37] Mr. Trump’s position was congruent with his long-stated position on when the United States should intervene in foreign conflict zones.[38]

For equally as long, Mr. Trump has maintained that the North Korean (and more recently, the Iranian) nuclear weapon and ballistic missile program constitutes a direct threat to American national security. This threat animates two of the imagined Trump Doctrine’s four principles: the United States must maintain an impregnable defense that adapts agilely to an ever-evolving threat landscape; and no foreign adversary can successfully attack a prepared America. It is hard to argue with what Mr. Trump wrote c.2000:

“China is our biggest long-term challenge, but in the short term the biggest menace is North Korea. North Korea exports exactly one thing to the world — trouble. Just about anywhere America is threatened — by terrorists, by the spread of nuclear weapons and missile technology, you name it — we can count on the folks in Pyongyang to have a hand in it. This is an example of our inability to come up with reasonable policies even when we know exactly where the potential threat is.”

Fair enough, but the only references to “Korea” in Mr. Trump’s most recent book are directed at South Korea:

“We’ve got 28,500 wonderful American soldiers on South Korea’s border with North Korea. They’re the only thing that is protecting South Korea. And what do we get from South Korea for it? They sell us products — at a nice profit. They compete with us.”[39]

Mr. Trump’s effort c.2000 to envision the context and shape of threats looming over the horizon was seriously flawed. Questioning “whether it is the right defense for our times,” he proposed “diverting money” from missile defense:  

“The question isn’t whether or not such a defense can be built. The question is whether it is the right defense for our times. And I believe the answer is largely, no. Yes, outlaw regimes like Libya, North Korea, or Syria might eventually develop missile capability, though with better intelligence and the will to act when necessary we can counter those threatening developments. It’s going to be delivered in a van, a suitcase, or a fire hydrant-sized canister.”[40]

A decade and a half hence, North Korea (which Mr. Trump envisioned might “eventually” do so) and Iran (which he did not) now have a tactical missile capability. In both cases, the United States and its regional allies consider the development and proliferation of ballistic missiles to be a major security threat and a source of regional instability. Both North Korea and Iran pursued a ballistic missile capability to enable them to blunt the force projection of more powerful states, notably the United States. It is suggested Mr. Trump either misconstrued the direction of the ballistic missile threat — by design and limitations of range, both the North Korean and the Iranian ballistic missile arsenal stress the strategic importance of anti-access operations to block or erode localized force projection by the United States and its regional allies — or failed to foresee fully that the parallel development of nuclear weapon and ballistic missile technologies by North Korea and Iran would allow each to move toward the tactical deployment of paired weapon systems for the political and strategic leverage they create. It is further suggested Mr. Trump failed to fully appreciate the implications of collaboration among rogue nations. Iran now has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East, having acquired most of the platform technology from foreign sources, notably North Korea. In aggregate, Mr. Trump’s c.2000 prescription regarding the threat posed by rogue nations’ ballistic missile programs was seriously flawed, especially given his eschewal of anti-ballistic missile defenses. 

Mr. Trump was better at the time on the emergent CBRNe[41] weaponization threat and what he dubbed “miniwar” — the use of miniaturized weapons of mass disruption and destruction. He wrote, “As usual, the first line of defense is to try to understand the nature of the threat” and then to “decide what kind of improvements we need to make.”

“We should think of the threat not in terms of shells, bullets, and missiles, but as something that can penetrate and conventional defenses and borders without detection, then do its dirty work. We should think of the threat as a virus.”[42]

Asking rhetorically “What can we do to protect our cities?” he answers “A lot more than you think.”

Mr. Trump should be credited for framing the threat in 2000, though at the time it was more accurate to say “a lot less than you think” given the state of detection technologies. The CBRNe threat persists today full spectrum, made more problematic by the role of transnational terrorist organizations. Classic approaches to deterrence, and to attribution and retaliation, are easier to pursue against states — even rogue ones — than against proto-states like ISIS and the multitude of violent non-state actors that dot the threat landscape. The latter are not party to international conventions and treaties. They render meaningless traditional Westphalian-type war goals such as the defeat of an army or the defense of territory.[43]

The author has written extensively on the subject of nuclear and radiological threats, and how technological change has increased the acuity of the threat. It is perplexing that Mr. Trump omits from his most recent book any discussion of miniwar and CBRNe threats, save a single oblique reference (which in the author’s respectful opinion is simplistic to the point of being wrong).[44]

It is striking that the term “Islamic terrorism” appears but once in Mr. Trump’s 2015 book. His earlier one contains an intriguing passage that Mr. Trump wrote in the year preceding the 9/11 attacks on America:

“The biggest threat to our security is ourselves, because we’ve become arrogant. Dangerously arrogant. It’s time for a realistic view of the world and our place in it.”[45]

Again one might say, fair enough: better a realistic view than an unrealistic one. But it is difficult to discern in any depth from Mr. Trump’s books how he perceives the threat from radical Islamism, granting that he surely does perceive one. He twice fudges the isolationist tag in his 2000 book, begrudgingly acknowledging the need for America to remain at some level engaged in the world:

“I am not an isolationist but neither am I one of those giddy globalists who thinks we should leave everything to the IMF and the UN.”

“I am not a hard core isolationist. While I agree that we stick our noses into too many problems not of our own making and that we can’t do much about, I strongly disagree with the idea that we can pull up the drawbridge to hide from rogue nations and individual fanatics.”[46]

This returns us to Mr. Trump’s distinct variation on unilateralism, which the author earlier dubbed detached primacy. He prefers to search for answers to terrorism on his own preferred dry ground, to use Sholem Aleichem’s allusion.[47]

Writing a decade ago, Alan Johnson made a highly insightful if grossly underappreciated observation:

“Totalitarian Political Islam does not aspire to defeat us democrats on the battlefield. It seeks to demoralize democratic public opinion and divide it from democratic governments.”[48]

Terror is one of its tactics, but as Johnson elaborated “neither are we engaged in a ‘war on terror’ any more than World War Two was a ‘war on blitzkrieg’.”[49] Mr. Trump errs by proposing begrudging security solutions alone — notably, his brash promise “to bomb the shit”[50] out of ISIS — while omitting any political response. The author writes begrudging because the promise conflicts with a principle of the imagined Trump Doctrine — American military intervention in distant regional conflicts, excluding direct threats to the homeland, does not serve our national security interests and crowds out domestic priorities — and Mr. Trump’s professed preference “to rebuild our country,”[51] as if the two options are mutually exclusive.[52]

Mr. Trump (with whom the author here concurs) rejects so-called “nation-building” — he declared, The Washington Post reports, “I don’t think we should be nation-building anymore. I think it’s proven not to work, and we have a different country than we did then.”[53] — but offers no political response short of, to use his phrase, “pulling up the drawbridge.” Here, the extent of his detachment risks transmogrifying Mr. Trump, the unilateralist, into Mr. Trump, the isolationist. 

In preparation for writing this and the preceding essay, the author read the full, twenty-plus year body of Mr. Trump’s statements (both written and spoken) on foreign affairs and national security policy. So it was with great interest that the author also read the summary of his meeting with The Washington Post editorial board, during which Mr. Trump expatiated on these subjects. Much of what he said repeated long-held positions — for example, alliances (“the concept of NATO is good” but “distribution of costs has to be changed”) and nuclear proliferation (“to me the biggest risk is nuclear weapons…we don’t even know where the nuclear weapons are right now. We don’t know who has them. We don’t know who’s trying to get them.”).[54] Mr. Trump’s commentary, while interesting in and of itself is all the more so for how it illustrates the fallacy of a favored analogy of his, the chess player and the dealmaker.

In his 2000 book, Mr. Trump wrote:

“In the modern world you can’t very easily draw up a simple, general foreign policy. I was busy making deals during the last decade of the cold war. I would imagine that for employees of the state and defense departments, the world looked very different then. Foreign policy was a big chess game…I believe that the day of the chess player is over. American foreign policy has to be put in the hands of the dealmaker.”[55]

Yet within paragraphs, he wrote this:

“We’re not playing the chess game to end all chess games anymore. We’re playing tournament chess — one master against many rivals.”[56]

Chess playing and deal making are false opposites: the former denotes tactics and strategy while the later, their application to produce a desired end product. The “deal” — perhaps Mr. Trump’s favorite word of all — is the ultimate apportioning of shares, while chess playing is how that apportionment is arrived at. Indeed chess is the perfect analogy for Mr. Trump’s concept of “winning” — as Henry Kissinger wrote, “Chess…is about total victory…the decisive battle…The purpose of the game is checkmate.”[57]

Perhaps what Mr. Trump means (or ought) to say is that chess is less well suited tactically to countering the challenges that today confront the United States. As Dr. Kissinger wrote:

“In chess, the player always has the capability of the adversary in front of him; all the pieces are fully deployed. […T]he skillful chess player aims to eliminate the opponent’s pieces in a series of head-on clashes…”[58]

In contrast to this, the United States is (so far with mixed success) attempting what Corbett called “the limited form to an unlimited war” — it was “unlimited,” he wrote, in the sense that “Our object was unlimited, It was nothing less than the overthrow of Napoleon” — in which an application of limited force attains ambitious political objectives without risking escalation or defeat.[59] It is the hopeful pursuit of Sun Tzu’s observation that “one needs…but little strength to achieve much.”[60] As Michael Handel wrote, “Corbett’s theory is also the answer to the chimerical search for the decisive battle, in that he uses the ‘lower means’ of war to secure the positive results necessary for an eventual move to the “higher form” if necessary.”[61]

Mr. Trump may be wrong and right at the same time. While it is difficult to envision how “deal making” would work in the context of militarized Totalitarian Political Islam, so, too, it is not at all clear that chess (as soundly described by Dr. Kissinger) is suited to that battlefield. Dr. Kissinger makes the point:

“If chess is about decisive battle, wei qi is about the protracted campaign. The chess player aims for total victory. The wei qi player seeks relative advantage…[and] teaches the art of strategic encirclement.”[62]

“Inflexibility,” wrote the late mathematician and wei qi [sometimes called Go] scholar Richard Bozulich, “is the antithesis of Go strategy.”[63]

“Flexibility is an important attitude for a strong go player to have. There are 361 playing points on the go board. You can’t control them all. You have to expect your opponent to control a large number of them. All you have to do is to control only one more point than your opponent in order to win. You must be willing to cede territory to your opponent in such a way that you can gain more territory elsewhere on the board. This requires flexibility and compromise. Greed is the downfall of many Go players.”

One of the game’s key strategic concepts is “Influence is just as important as territory because it has the potential to become actual territory on a large scale.”[64] As Dr. Kissinger wrote, “Chess produces single-mindedness; wei qi generates strategic flexibility.”[65] While not doubting Mr. Trump’s intellect, for some his apparent disdain of nuance and subtlety challenges whether he is well suited temperamentally to play this game on the world stage.


So what can we say about detached primacy under the author’s imagined Trump Doctrine? Mr. Trump wrote, “Instead of facing one looming crisis hanging over us, we face a bewildering series of smaller crises, flash points, standoffs, and hot spots.”[66] He has at least in his writing embraced flexibility, averring that “A great leader has to be flexible” and “We’re going to use the leverage we have to change the situation so that it favors America…We have several very good options but it is always important to be flexible — and never reveal our cards.”[67] Mr. Trump has the capacity to shock and surprise with respect to flexibility. Witness the transcript of his recent The Washington Post editorial board meeting and how he sidestepped a question about the use of tactical nuclear weapons against ISIS:

RYAN: You [MUFFLED] mentioned a few minutes earlier here that you would knock ISIS. You’ve mentioned it many times. You’ve also mentioned the risk of putting American troop in a danger area. If you could substantially reduce the risk of harm to ground troops, would you use a battlefield nuclear weapon to take out ISIS?

TRUMP: I don’t want to use, I don’t want to start the process of nuclear. Remember the one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counterpuncher. Rubio hit me. Bush hit me. When I said low energy, he’s a low-energy individual, he hit me first. I spent, by the way he spent 18 million dollars’ worth of negative ads on me. That’s putting [MUFFLED]…

RYAN: This is about ISIS. You would not use a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS?


TRUMP: I’ll tell you one thing, this is a very good looking group of people here. Could I just go around so I know who the hell I’m talking to?[68]

It is left to readers to decide whether Mr. Trump’s evasion was an act of strategic ambiguity or something else. And that, it seems, is the great mystery, the great frustration with Mr. Trump on matters of foreign affairs and national security. The execution of detached primacy requires, if seemingly paradoxically, an engaged leader. Do Mr. Trump’s delphic pronouncements on strategy and chess playing intentionally conceal a sophisticated understanding, or are they mere expressions of muddled thinking? After reading thousands of words written and spoken by Mr. Trump over the past two-plus decades, one can make a case for the former without fully shaking a delitescent sense that one might well be arguing for the existence of the Emperor’s New Clothes. No argument for the existence of an incipient Trump Doctrine in the realm of national security and foreign affairs — or for Trump-esque detached primacy — is made easier by  the pattern of intemperate remarks that provoked 119 Republican foreign policy notables to sign an open letter of protest (discussed at length in the companion to this essay). It ultimately may matter little what Mr. Trump actually understands if he persists in hiding the fact of it from voters.

The opening quote from John Le Carré’s novel The Russia House paraphrases the American poet May Sexton’s line, “One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.” See: Sexton (1973). Journal of a Solitude. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company) 101.

[1] “Divining a ‘Trump Doctrine’: Finding the Contours of Donald Trump’s Foreign & National Security Policy” available at

[2] Angelo Codevilla (2016). ” Why Vladimir Putin’s Foreign Policy Is More Effective Than The United States’s.” The Federalist [published online 15 February 2016]. Last accessed 19 March 2016.

[3] John G. Bolton (2009). “The Coming War on Sovereignty.” Commentary [published online 1 March 2009]. Last accessed 19 March 2016.

[4] John G. Ruggie (1996). Winning the Peace (New York: Columbia University Press) 585-593.

[5] Mackubin Thomas Owens (2009). “The Bush Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of Republican Empire.” Orbis (Winter 2009) 25.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 14.

[8] Ethan Barnaby Kapstein (1992). The Political Economy of National Security: A Global Perspective (New York: McGraw-Hill) 3. Cited in Owens (2009), op cit., 27.

[9] Owens, 27.

[10] Resentment over suspected freeriding by American allies is not unique to unilateralists. Witness President Obama, who said in a recent interview: “Free riders aggravate me,” he told me. Recently, Obama warned that Great Britain would no longer be able to claim a “special relationship” with the United States if it did not commit to spending at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. ‘You have to pay your fair share,’ Obama told David Cameron, who subsequently met the 2 percent threshold.” See: Jeffrey Goldberg (2016). “The Obama Doctrine.” The Atlantic [April 2016 online edition]. Last accessed 20 March 2016.

[11] Kenneth Waltz (1979). Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley) 105.

[12] The author developed these arguments in the earlier FPRI E-Note already referenced: “Divining a ‘Trump Doctrine.’”

[13] Richard Betts (1992). “Systems for Peace of Causes of War? Collective Security, Arms Control, and the New Europe.” International Security 17:1 (Spring 1992) 14.

[14] See:

[15] United States Defense Department (1992). Secret Memorandum dated 18 February 1992 titled “FY 94-99 Defense Planning Guidance Sections for Comment.” At I. Goals and Objectives, B. Defense Strategy Objectives, p. 2. Last accessed 20 March 2016.

[16] David Santoro & John K. Warden (2016). “America’s Delicate Dance Between Deterrence and Assurance.” The National Interest [published online 1 February 2016]. Last accessed 20 March 2016.

[17] Foreshadowing a later argument in this essay, the author points directly in the case of “protecting liberal values” to the America First Committee’s “America First Principles,” one of which reads, “Not by acts of war abroad but by preserving and extending democracy at home can we aid democracy and freedom in other lands.” See: AFC Bulletin (nos. 140 & 140A) dated 20 March 1941.

[18] Robert Jervis (1993). “International Primacy: Is the Game Worth the Candle?” International Security 17:4 (Spring 1993) 63.

[19] Haines, “Divining a ‘Trump Doctrine.’”

[20] Paul Kennedy (1987). The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House) xxii.

[21] Anne-Marie Slaughter (2009). “Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century.” In G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter & Tony Smith. The Crisis of American Foreign Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 90.

[22] She writes, “We support liberal democracy, but reject the possibility of democratizing peoples…” See: Slaughter (2009), op cit., 91.

[23] For example, Kenneth Waltz wrote, “Despite good intentions, the United States will often act in accordance with Fénélon’s theorem.” See: Waltz (1991). “America as a Role Model for the World? A Foreign Policy Perspective.” PS: Political Science and Politics. 24:4 (December 1991) 699.

[24] That tenet is “No foreign adversary can successfully attack a prepared America, which must prime to prevent, and failing that, to preempt threats posed by foreign countries and their proxies, and by proto-states and transnational terrorist groups.” See Haines, “Divining a ‘Trump Doctrine.’”

[25] Ibid.

[26] The memorandum is summarized in Appendix C. of David Lloyd George (1934). War Memories of David Lloyd George, Volume I (London: Odhams Press Limited). Available at Last accessed 20 March 2016.

[27] Quoted in Adolf M. Birke, Magnus Brechtken & Alaric Searle, eds. An Anglo-German Dialogue. The Munich Letters on the History of International Relations (Munich: K.G. Saur) 16.

[28] Christopher Layne (2012). “The End of Pax Americana: How Western Decline Became Inevitable.” The Atlantic [published online 26 April 2012]. Last accessed 20 March 2016.

[29] Christopher Layne (2015). “China and America: Sleepwalking to War?” The National Interest [published online 21 April 2015]. Last accessed 20 March 2016.

[30] Wayne S. Cole (1953). America First: The Battle Against Intervention, 1940-1941. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) 34-35.

[31] The speaker is Samuel B. Pettengill, a former Democrat congressman from Indiana and advisor to the AFC. Quoted in Cole (1953), op cit., 36.

[32] Quoted in Cole, 40.

[33] Ibid., 95-96.

[34] Donald J. Trump (2000). The America We Deserve. (New York: Macmillan). Kindle edition.

[35] The author elaborates this threat in January 2016 E-Note “Foreseeable, Foreseen, Ignored: Is Iran Advancing its Missile Program at Home While Offshoring its Nuclear Program to North Korea?”. Last accessed 21 March 2016.

[36] Trump (2000), op cit.

[37] “Donald Trump: Crimea is Europe’s problem.” CNN Politics [published online 31 July 2015]. Last accessed 20 March 2016. This statement earned Mr. Trump the number 9 spot on the website list of “agents of the.” See: “Donald Trump Named as Kremlin Agent by Ukrainian ‘Enemy List’ Website. Sputnik [published online in English 13 August 2015]. Last accessed 21 March 2016.

[38] Mr. Trump wrote in his 2000 book, “My rules of engagement are pretty simple. If we are going to intervene in a conflict it had better pose a direct threat to our interest — one definition of ‘direct’ being a threat so obvious that most Americans will know where the hot spot is on the globe and will quickly understand why we are getting involved. The threat should be so direct that our leaders, including our president, should be able to make the case clearly and concisely…”

[39] Donald J. Trump (2015). Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again. Kindle edition. He wrote, “Technology has made it possible for one or two terrorists to inflict terrible damage on us.”

[40] Trump (2000).

[41] An acronym for “Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High Explosives”.

[42] Trump (2000).

[43] The author credits this observation to Alan Johnson (2006). “Camus’ Catch: How democracies can defeat Totalitarian Political Islam.” Dissent (Spring 2006) 61. Last accessed 19 March 2016.

[44] Trump (2015), op cit. He wrote, “Technology has made it possible for one or two terrorists to inflict terrible damage on us.”

[45] Trump (2000).

[46] Ibid.

[47] Aleichem wrote:

A Chelmite once went about on the outskirts of the town, searching for something on the ground.

‘What are you looking for?’ a passerby asked him.

‘I lost a ruble in the synagogue courtyard, so I’m hunting for it.’

So what can we say about ‘You poor Chelmite,’ the stranger mocked him, ‘why are you hunting for it here, when you lost it in the synagogue courtyard?’

‘You’re smart, you are!’ the Chelmite retorted. ‘The synagogue courtyard is muddy, whereas here the ground is dry. Now where is it better to search?’

In Sholem Aleichem (1954). “The Right Spot.” In A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, Irving Howe & Eliezer Greenberg, eds. (New York: Viking Press).

[48] Johnson (2006), op cit.

[49] Ibid., 51.

[50] Last accessed 21 March 2016.

[51] “Trump questions need for NATO, outlines noninterventionist foreign policy.” The Washington Post [published online 21 March 2016]. Last accessed 21 March 2016.

[52] At the core of the political dimension of Totalitarian Political Islam is what Johnson calls”the anguished question”: “[H]ow did the very fulcrum of civilization become dependent, defeated, backward, corrupt, and poverty-stricken? The Islamists answer: ‘They did it!’ – the Jews, ‘infidels,’ ‘westernisers,’ apostate Muslims, corrupt oil sheiks, and uppity women. As Sami Zubaida has pointed out, the Islamists offer ‘action and redemption’ and ‘an honorable identity to the disenfranchised and despised.”

Johnson (2006), op cit., 53.

[53] The Washington Post, op cit.

[54] “A transcript of Donald Trump’s meeting with The Washington Post editorial board.” The Washington Post [published online 21 March 2016]. Last accessed 21 March 2016.

[55] Trump (2000).

[56] Ibid.

[57] Henry Kissinger (2011). On China (New York: Penguin Books). Kindle edition.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Julian S. Corbett (1911; 1988). Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Eric J. Grove ed. (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press) 77.

[60] Sun Tzu (1971). The Art of War, Samuel B. Griffith trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 95.

[61] Michael I. Handel (2000). “Corbett, Clausewitz, and Sun Tzu.” Naval War College Review 53:4 (Autumn 2000) 120.,-Clausewitz,-and-Sun-Tzu.aspx. Last accessed 22 March 2016. The author credits Dr. Handel’s discussion of Corbett.

[62] Kissinger (2011), op cit.

[63] Richard Bozulich (2011). ” Richard Bozulich on Kissinger on China and Go.” Last accessed 21 March 2016.

[64] Ibid., 10.

[65] Kissinger (2011).

[66] Trump (2000).

[67] Trump (2015). Mr. Trump was referring specifically to trade negotiations but the point holds as a general rule.

[68] “A transcript of Donald Trump’s meeting with The Washington Post editorial board” The Washington Post, op cit.