Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Divining a “Trump Doctrine”: Finding the Contours of Donald Trump’s Foreign & National Security Policy
Divining a “Trump Doctrine”: Finding the Contours of Donald Trump’s Foreign & National Security Policy

Divining a “Trump Doctrine”: Finding the Contours of Donald Trump’s Foreign & National Security Policy

Donald Trump at a Campaign Rally in Las Vegas (Source: Flickr/gageskidmore)Donald Trump at a Campaign Rally in Las Vegas (Source: Flickr/gageskidmore)


“Governments and peoples do not always take rational decisions.
Sometimes they take mad decisions…”
          -Winston Churchill


The ancient Greeks maintained that divination — how mortals learn the will of the gods — requires inspiration in the form of phrensy or madness. It was thought especially useful when some calamity shows the gods to be displeased. Today, simply imagining Donald Trump as Commander-in-Chief prompts many political oracles to the requisite condition.[1]

A group of Republican foreign policy notables published an open letter in which they harshly rebuked Donald Trump for some of his recent pronouncements on foreign policy and national defense.[2] Two open letter signatories associated with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Dov Zakheim and Colin Dueck, subsequently penned thoughtful essays in which each elaborated his respective position vis-à-vis Mr. Trump.[3]

The open letter itself reads more like a series of rejoinders than a policy rebuttal per se, to which its authors’ likely response is that Mr. Trump so far has expressed his position in aphorisms, not doctrine. Aphorisms of course have their place in American political discourse — the clarity of Benjamin Franklin’s “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” is undiminished after 230 years — and collected aphorisms can, like with Epicurus’ Sovran Maxims, efficiently summarize a larger doctrine.

One is on one’s own, however, so far as collecting Mr. Trump’s aphorisms and synthesizing them into a coherent doctrine. “Incoherent” is the likely response of Mr. Trump’s critics, but his detractors should be required to demonstrate that claim, not merely assert it. This essay sets out to explore whether the body of what Mr. Trump has said and written over the past two decades suggests a coherent doctrine regarding national security and foreign policy. It is not an apologia for Mr. Trump. It is intended as a fair reading of Mr. Trump’s not inconsiderable record of public statements — one that, to be fair, is infrequently read in its entirety, and most often cherry picked for incendiary phrases. The essay concludes by suggesting some analogous positions from contemporary American politics that are intended to provide useful historical context.

The author takes no position here one way or another on Mr. Trump’s candidacy. That is not the intent of this essay. No expressed position means just that, none expressed here. The same goes for the referenced open letter. The author admits to sympathizing with some of its authors’ objections, especially with regard to demagogic and inflammatory language, and a penchant for oversimplifying complex problems to a point of near-unintelligibility. On the other hand, many of Mr. Trump’s critics in the foreign policy and national defense establishment are encumbered by a legacy of policies that today seem misguided and that have proved dysfunctional to the national interest.

Now to the question: is there a “Trump doctrine” for the national security and foreign policy of the United States?


The final objection leveled by the open letter authors is a direct shot at one of Mr. Trump’s long-held positions: “His equation of business acumen with foreign policy experience is false…”[4] The open letter authors’ implied argument — the only thing that equates to foreign policy experience is…foreign policy experience — is not altogether uncontroversial itself, but that distracts from the more interesting question of what Mr. Trump meant.[5]

For that, we turn first to Mr. Trump’s 2000 book, The America We Deserve, written during his period of involvement with the Reform Party (which itself collapsed some years later). What Mr. Trump wrote in 2000 differs meaningfully from the implication that he subscribes to some symmetric property of equality between business and foreign policy experience:

“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. Two great dealmakers have served as president — one of them was Franklin Roosevelt, who got us through World War II, and the other was Richard Nixon, who began our dialogue with communist China and forced the Russians to the bargaining table to achieve the first meaningful reductions in nuclear arms.”[6]

Taken at face value, that decade and a half old statement seems qualitatively different from the one critics attribute to Mr. Trump. He goes on with an observation about the nuclear nonproliferation treaty — “All the major powers may sign such a treaty, but no one will obey it but us”[7] — a statement that mutatis mutandis could apply to a number of recent agreements, the Iranian nuclear one among them. In Mr. Trump’s view c.2000, American “generosity” — in defending allies, in mediating international disputes, in international trade, in immigration — “leads to very poor deal making.”[8]

Mr. Trump looks disdainfully upon foreign policy “experts,” who as a class are a favorite straw man of his. His comments seem to anticipate criticisms like those in the open letter:

“I can hear the experts now: Where does Trump, the real estate guy, get off thinking he knows more than we do about the international scene? Experts are always on the defensive — and for good reason. They’re wrong so often.”[9]

He continues in a way reminiscent of his reaction today to critics of his promised destruction of ISIS:

“A little humility would do these people good. During the cold war, for example, the newspapers and policy journal were full of geopolitical deep thinking explaining why America could never hope to prevail over the Soviet Union. The best we could expect was to ‘contain’ communism, these learned people insisted.”[10]

However grudgingly, even critics must credit some of what Mr. Trump wrote at the time:

“And as late as 1991 there was a great deal of fashionable theorizing about ‘the end of history’. The idea was that with the demise of the Soviet Union and the victory of capitalism we were entering a trouble-free period of peace and guaranteed prosperity. These guys apparently hadn’t heard of Islamic fundamentalism, miniaturized weapons, terrorism, or the People’s Republic of China.”[11]

So, while giving “experts” a nod — “This isn’t to say that I don’t study what knowledgeable people have to say” — there has never been a particularly warm feeling between Mr. Trump and what is sometime called the foreign policy establishment.  

So what would he do? Mr. Trump dedicated a dozen or so pages in his 2000 book to the paired threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs, writing “I can tell you negotiation with these madmen will be fruitless once they have the ability to lob a nuclear missile into Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York.” Citing the “resolve” and unambiguous stance “of Roosevelt and Reagan” in the face of comparable threats, Mr. Trump proposed negotiations backed up by the promise of a preemptive — and he is at pains to stress, conventional — strike to destroy targets within North Korea. Mr. Trump would likely extend his c.2000 position vis-à-vis North Korea to the threat posed today by Iran — in 2000, he identified Iranian missiles explicitly as a coming threat to the United States — either in the event of Iran’s failure to comply with the recent nuclear agreement or its continued noncompliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions directed at Iran’s ballistic missile program? He may have answered that question some time ago: as he wrote in 2000, “Here is the fundamental difference between Donald Trump and our current crop of presidential wannabees: I do have the will.”

It is worth noting the contours shared by Mr. Trump’s position c.2000 with respect to the North Korean nuclear and missile threats; and President George W. Bush’s September 2002 National Security Strategy, in which “preemptive and preventive action” was a key concept.[12] “Terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogue states have made preemption more attractive as a policy option” read one analysis of President Bush’s September 2002 NSS, “but it does not lay out specific criteria or guidelines for determining when the U.S. should carry out preemptive attacks.”[13] Similar is not the same, to be sure, but it is disingenuous to argue that Mr. Trump’s position on the question of the nuclear weapon and ballistic missile threat posed by rogue nations was (is) unhinged or somehow out of the Republican mainstream.

Later in his 2000 book, Mr. Trump turned to the question of the then-raging Balkan conflict, and to the more general one about American intervention in regional conflicts. He wrote, “It should be clear by now that when we intervene in these conflicts we do little more than temporarily tilt the balance of power.” Mr. Trump continued:

“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…”

 With specific application to many of today’s conflicts, he wrote:

“[W]e must not get involved in a long-festering conflict for humanitarian reasons…We will provide humanitarian assistance, but when our men and women volunteer in our armed forces it should be with the strict understanding that they will be sent into danger’s way only incases where our national survival is directly affected.”

Many of his current positions are largely unaltered from 2000. For example, “In the Middle East, America must stand by our only ally in the region: the State of Israel.” So, too, Western Europe. While writing “I don’t think that we should abandon Europe completely,” Mr. Trump proposed:

“Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous, and these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.”

And so, too, conflicts in Russia’s near abroad:

“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.”

He made a broader point in rejecting a c.2000 argument by Pat Buchanan that Nazi Germany could have been appeased:

“Buchanan’s position seems to come from a weird cloudcuckooland [sic] where left and right meet each other. His recommendation of appeasement toward the Nazi regime sounds exactly like what liberals…today are saying about rogue states like North Korea.”

The same consistency is evident in his discussions of trade policy, missile defense, state-sponsored terrorism, emerging WMD threats (which he called “miniwar”), and civil defense and counterterrorism.

The author is in no position to assess how deeply Mr. Trump’s knowledge runs across the gamut of national security and foreign policy issues mentioned above, but there seems little basis on which to argue peremptorily that he lacks conversancy in them. In truth, Mr. Trump’s arguments c.2000 arguments on rogue nation nuclear weapon and ballistic threats, and emerging WMD threats, demonstrate an element of foresight.

So, can we discern from Mr. Trump’s writing and statements the contours of a coherent national defense and foreign policy doctrine? Here are four principles that comes to mind:

  • The United States must maintain an impregnable defense that adapts agilely to an ever-evolving threat landscape.
  • No foreign adversary can successfully attack a prepared America, which must be primed to prevent, and failing that, to preempt threats posed by foreign countries and their proxies, and by proto-states and transnational terrorist groups.
  • 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. Efforts at “aid short of war” in such conflict zones such as Iraq-Syria and Libya misserve American national interests, and threaten to entangle the nation in war abroad.
  • 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.[14]

These four principles fairly represent what Mr. Trump has written and pronounced on questions of foreign policy and national defense over the past two decades. Since the author’s intent is neither to channel Mr. Trump nor to act as a (uninvited) proxy, there is a larger point: these principles are based on four others articulated in the early 1940’s by the America First Committee.[15]

The author hastens to abjure simplistic efforts that paint Mr. Trump as “isolationist”. As the historian Wayne S. Cole wrote, the term isolationist “became [then and later] a smear word used to connote much that was evil and even subversive in America and foreign affairs.”[16] Unilateralist is a fairer description if indeed any is necessary.[17] That being said, it seems fair to speculate that Mr. Trump would not much disagree with Charles Lindberg when he wrote in late 1941:

“We are at war all over the world, and we are unprepared for it from either a spiritual or material standpoint. We haven’t even a clear idea of what we are fighting to attain.”[18]

Nor is it likely that, in the context of recent short-of-war type campaigns to destabilize autocratic regimes in Syria and Libya, Mr. Trump would take exception to John Quincy Adams’ maxim that “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”[19]

Part of the uncertainty over Mr. Trump’s national security doctrine — indeed, whether he has one — derives from him holding two seemingly discordant views. On the one hand, this paragraph seems to encapsulate one element of Mr. Trump’s thinking:

“The lessons to be learned from the two Great Wars of the 20th century are absolutely opposite each other. World War I tells the Great Powers to stay out of local quarrels. World War II says the Great Powers should become involved. The record of the last half-century indicates that American foreign policy is following the wrong lesson…”[20]

Consider now Mr. Trump’s prescription vis-à-vis the paired threat of North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. His forceful denunciation of efforts to “appease” the North Korea government — he uses the word as what Hans Morgenthau called an absolute term, where “no appeasement” means “no negotiation”.[21] Substituting in the paragraph below “Kim Jong-un” and “North Korea” for “Stalin” and “the Soviet Union” yields a fair approximation of Mr. Trump’s position on what was earlier described as negotiations backed up by the promise of a preemptive strike:

“Having shown good will, we now ‘get tough.’ Since one cannot deal with Stalin by legal contract and without regard for the realities of power, we will now deal with him with the instruments of power alone, without concern for legal stipulations to be agreed upon through mutual suasion. Just as the only alternative to appeasement of Germany, Japan, or Italy without power had been war, so the alternative to appeasement of the Soviet Union is another kind of war.”[22]

Dr. Morgenthau anticipated by several decades what Michael Gerson recently called Mr. Trump’s “dangerous politics of pride.”[23] He cites the “disastrous political and military consequence” that ensue when we fail “to separate our pride in our own moral superiority from our historical judgment,” concluding:

“If we find it so difficult to learn from history, the fault is not with history, but with the pride and the intellectual limitations of men. History, in the words of Thucydides, is philosophy learned from examples.”[24]

The “avoid local conflicts” anti-interventionists assert the straw man argument that “It has come to be expected that America should have a foreign policy position on all foreign issues.”[25] The unilateralist counterargument is that American interests are best served by a policy of “strategic ambiguity” (sometimes called “essential ambiguity”). Strategic ambiguity is the practice of being intentionally vague on certain aspects of foreign policy or intended actions and carries a deterrence aspect involving will and capacity.

It is sometimes said that Mr. Trump relies on strategic ambiguity[26] and admires those who practice it well. Russian President Vladimir Putin, an artful practitioner, is sometimes held out as an example for American policymakers:

“NATO should take a page from the Kremlin’s own playbook. Instead of warning that there is no military solution to Europe’s biggest crisis in decades, suggest to Putin that there might indeed be an armed response and mobilize military power as a demonstration of will. As geopolitical competition intensifies in both Eurasia and the Pacific, it is time to pull the art of strategic ambiguity off the Cold War shelf.”[27]

Put another way, “Russia doesn’t need to control Kiev in order to exert influence over Ukraine.”[28]

Strategic ambiguity is not a risk-less policy. Indeed, it depends upon messaging — and it should be stressed artful messaging — to allies and adversaries alike. In many cases ambiguity reflects an underlying genuine political incoherence between rhetorical declarations and behavior, and gives rise to dangerous misperceptions. When asked by Hugh Hewitt what he would do “if China were to either accidentally or intentionally sink a Filipino or Japanese ship, what would Commander-In-Chief Donald Trump do in response?” Mr. Trump responded:

“I wouldn’t want to tell you, because frankly, they have to, you know, somebody wrote a very good story about me recently, and they said there’s a certain unpredictable, and it was actually another businessman, said there’s a certain unpredictability about Trump that’s great, and it’s what made him a lot of money and a lot of success. You don’t want to put, and you don’t want to let people know what you’re going to do with respect to certain things that happen. You don’t want the other side to know. I don’t want to give you an answer to that.”[29]

Strategic ambiguity deters an adversary by delimiting the option to escalate and creating uncertainty about the extent of the response, but is not the possibility of a response. Here, Mr. Trump is mistaken: you want the other side to know clearly what you are capable of doing ‘and willing to do. Mere vagueness is not strategic ambiguity. Moreover, strategic ambiguity is at odds with Mr. Trump’s c. 2000 declaration that the United States must “switch from chess player to dealmaker.” It risks — returning to Mr. Trump’s chess analogy — being maneuvered into a position of Zugzwang, in which any possible move worsens the player’s position.[30]

Whether Mr. Trump can effectively practice strategic ambiguity in national security and foreign policy affairs is a matter of considerable dispute. As one detractor put it:

“Winston Churchill once described the essential attributes of a great commander as having ‘massive common sense and reasoning power, not only imagination, but also an element of legerdemain, an original and sinister touch, which leaves the enemy puzzled as well as beaten.’ Trump may have the legerdemain, but he sorely lacks the rest.”[31]

That caustic appraisal may be unfair, but competency in national security and foreign affairs is better evinced than claimed.


This essay began by assessing the final objection leveled by the open letter authors so it is fitting that it should conclude by considering its first objection, viz., that Mr. Trump’s “vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle. He swings from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence.”[32] Here it seems — and it is by no means unfair to do so — the open letter authors rely heavily on Mr. Trump’s recent spoken declarations. A less convincing demonstration is found in Mr. Trump’s written work, but that does not necessarily negate or diminish the open letter authors’ point.

This essay has sought to discern the contours of a “Trump doctrine” in national security and foreign affairs — indeed, whether one exists at all. The author believes Mr. Trump’s record over two decades of oral and written pronouncements do give at least the contours of such a doctrine, although here, “doctrine” may be far too formal a term. Mr. Trump has, for certain, a set of beliefs, which tend toward an inward-looking brand of unilateralism. These beliefs parallel in some interesting ways those advanced by the America First Committee during the run up to World War Two, though the author hastens to reject the “isolationist” epithet in the case of Mr. Trump.

Perhaps what Mr. Trump considers a prime virtue in the management of national security and foreign affairs — unpredictability — is his most unsettling instinct, as it truly does conflate what is efficacious in business negotiations with what can be existentially perilous when armed force is implicated.

Each open letter signatory is in her or his own respect a serious and experienced actor in the realm of national security and foreign affairs. The mere of act of getting 119 persons to agree to anything, let alone a set of nine forceful objections itself demands attention. The author takes these women and men and their objections seriously. Whether the weight of what Mr. Trump has written or said in the past can, or should, outweigh what he says in the current political season is left to each voter to decide. The burden is squarely on Mr. Trump, however, to establish clearly whether he is the man of the incipient Trump Doctrine sketched in this essay, or of the man of the intemperate remarks that so provoked the open letter authors.

The Churchill quote is from his book The Grand Alliance, 603.

[1] Regarding direct divination by the ancient Greeks, see: Leonard Whibley (1931). A Companion to Greek Studies. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 422.

[2] See: “Open Letter on Donald Trump from GOP National Security Leaders” (2 March 2016). Last accessed 13 March 2016.

[3] Their articles can be accessed here and here

[4] Open Letter, op cit. The full claim by the open letter’s authors reads “His equation of business acumen with foreign policy experience is false. Not all lethal conflicts can be resolved as a real estate deal might, and there is no recourse to bankruptcy court in international affairs.”

[5] The author cautions that so far as he is aware, Mr. Trump never made this claim verbatim but as will be shown, has made many public statements roughly congruent with it. Whether the observation is bolstered or diminished by the sentence that follows it in the open letter (Not all lethal conflicts can be resolved as a real estate deal might…) is left to the reader to decide.

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

[7] Ibid. The reference is to commitments made by the Clinton Administration during the calendar year 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference regarding ratification by the United States of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), as well as certain issues under the SALT II agreement and a contemplated SALT III process.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] For example: “The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”

[13] “The Bush Administration’s Doctrine of Preemption (and Prevention): When, How, Where?” Council on Foreign Relations [published online 1 February 2004]. Last accessed 13 March 2016.

[14] Adapted from Wayne S. Cole (1953). America First: The Battle Against Intervention, 1940-1941. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) 15. Cole summarized the four main planks of the America First Committee’s foreign policy platform as:

  • The United States must build an impregnable defense.
  • No foreign power or group of powers can successfully attack a prepared America.
  • Only by remaining out of a European war can America preserve the vital elements of democracy.
  • “Aid short of war” (meaning to Britain and France) weakens the American national defense at home and threatens to involve the nation in war abroad.

[15] Published under the heading “American First Principles,” the AFC articulated five foreign policy planks in its AFC Bulletin (nos. 140 & 140A) on 20 March 1941:

  1. Our first duty is to keep America out of foreign wars. Our entry would only destroy democracy, not save it. ‘The path to war is a false path to freedom.’
  2. Not by acts of war abroad but by preserving and extending democracy at home can we aid democracy and freedom in other lands.
  3. In 1917 we sent our American ships into the war zone and this led us to war. In 1941 we must keep our naval convoys and merchant vessels on this side of the Atlantic.
  4. We must build a defense, for our own shores, so strong that no foreign power or combination of foreign powers can invade our country, by sea, air or land.
  5. Humanitarian aid is the duty of a strong, free country at peace. With proper safeguards for the distribution of supplies, we should feed and clothe the suffering and needy people of England and the occupied countries and keep alive their hope for the return of better days.

The AFC further elaborated its position on humanitarian aid in September 1940, stating “Aid short of war weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.” Cited in Wayne S. Cole (1951). “The America First Committee.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. 44:4 (Winter 1951), 308

[16] The late Wayne S. Cole (1923-2013) is the author of several definitive historical studies of the America First movement. The quoted text is from Cole (1983). Roosevelt and the Isolationists. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press:) 530.

[17] This likely merits further consideration in its own right, but is beyond the scope and purpose of this essay. In using the term unilateralist, the author references Bradley F. Podliska analytic separation between respectively, a president’s decision to use force, and the decision whether to use this force in a unilateral or multilateral manner. See: Bradley F. Podliska (2010). Acting Alone: A Scientific Study of American Hegemony and Unilateral Use-of-Force Decision Making. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books). As Phillip W. Gray noted in his review of Posliska’s book [], “While this may seem a simple distinction, [Podliska] rightly notes that most previous research blurs these two decisions together.”

[18] Charles Lindberg diary entry dated 11 December 1941. Quoted in John Toland (1982). Infamy: Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.) 20.

[19] Quoted in Walter McDougall (1997). Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776. (New York: Houghton Mifflin) 36.

[20] Donald E. Schmidt (2005). The Folly of War: American Foreign Policy 1898-2005. (New York: Algora Publishing) 12.

[21] Hans J. Morgenthau (1952). “The Lessons of World War II’s Mistakes: Negotiations and Armed Power Flexibly Combined.” Commentary (1 October 1952). Last accessed 16 March 2016.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Michael Gerson (2016). “Donald Trump’s dangerous politics of price. The Washington Post [published online 25 January 2016]. Last accessed 16 March 2016.

[24] Morgenthau (1952), op cit.

[25] It is explicit in Schmidt (2005), op cit., 13

[26] See for example: Dan McLaughlin (2015). ” Military Strategist Explains Why Donald Trump Leads — and How He Will Fail.” The Federalist [published online 15 December 2015). Last acessed 16 March 2016.

[27] Chris Musselman (2014). “Strategic Ambiguity: Speaking Putin’s Language.” The National Interest [published online 4 September 2014].’s-language-11201. Last accessed 16 March 2016.

[28] Mark Melton (2016). “State of the Incoherent Foreign Policy.” Providence [published online 15 January 2016]. Last accessed 16 March 2016.

[29] Max Fisher (2015). “We painstakingly annotated Donald Trump’s strange and revealing foreign policy interview.” VOX World [published online 4 September 2015]. Last accessed 16 March 2016.

[30] Alexander Motyl made the argument vis-à-vis Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine. See: Motyl (2014). “Putin’s Zugzwang: The Russia-Ukraine Standoff.” World Affairs (July/August 2014).’s-zugzwang-russia-ukraine-standoff. Last accessed 16 March 2016.

[31] McLaughlin (2015), op cit.

[32] Open Letter, op cit.