Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts In Search of a Trump Doctrine
In Search of a Trump Doctrine

In Search of a Trump Doctrine

Each week during the summer FPRI holds a seminar exclusively for its interns. On June 16, FPRI Senior Fellow Dominic Tierney, an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, delivered the first talk. 

The Trump Doctrine—a core of fundamental foreign policy beliefs—has so far proved elusive, said Dom Tierney in his opening talk to FPRI interns. In searching for the Trump Doctrine, Dr. Tierney categorized Trump’s beliefs into three distinct “baskets.” The first category – and the closest thing perhaps to a “Doctrine” for the president – comprises beliefs he has always had: U.S. friends and allies have taken advantage of it for years, pushing for trade deals he sees as fairer for America; he has a peculiar favorability towards autocrats and skepticism towards alliances. In 1987, President Trump even took out an ad in the New York Times criticizing U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf, where he claimed countries were taking advantage of America, comparing it to the unreciprocated military protection the U.S. gave to Japan.

The second category of beliefs are most aptly described as “recent beliefs” – viewpoints that have not been long-held but may have come while taking on a more Republican character during the 2016 election. His staunchly pro-Israel stance falls into this category, as he had long proved neutral on the subject of Arab-Israeli relations. The final “basket” is classified by Dr. Tierney as Trump’s inconsistent beliefs, where his words and actions are more mercurial than straightforward. The president’s most inconstant beliefs regard intervention in the Middle East: flipping on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the benefits of intervention in Libya, whether to pull out of the region entirely or commit more troops, how to approach Iran, and, most recently, the U.S.’s role in the Syrian Civil War.

Of similar importance to identifying the Trump Doctrine to Dr. Tierney is examining whether or not that doctrine is a threat to the established global order: is his unpredictability a challenge to a stable international liberal order? If he is pushing American protectionism – not unlike the international scene of the 1930s – what does that mean for the international system? As far as the populist movement associated with Trump, it appears to have lost significant steam in the first half of 2017. Emmanuel Macron was elected French President, and the recent general election in the UK was seen as humiliating for Theresa May’s Conservative Party. Just months ago, May and her party appeared to have political control well in hand. In the wake of these defeats and Trump’s falling support domestically, the populism sparked by Brexit shows evidence of fading. If the wave of populism has faded and his presidency is ultimately unsuccessful, is it possible that Trump may serve as an “inoculation” against a similar campaign in the future?

What does the Trump Doctrine say about a possible road to war? In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, ideology and humanitarianism drove U.S. military intervention in areas like Somalia, Bosnia, and Yugoslavia under President Bill Clinton. Neo-conservative ideology provided the underpinnings of the Bush Doctrine after 2000, but ideology seems an unlikely accelerant for Trump, who has not proven himself an ideologue. Instead, a possible concern lies with his volatile temperament and his “kinetic” vision of the military predicated on toughness, bombast, and a personal drive to be “like Winston Churchill.” A “kinetic” vision of war is not new to the American story: U.S. military intervention going back to World War II has not been short on heavy weaponry, explosives, and advanced technology. Trump’s affinity for firepower is clear: from dropping the so-called “Mother-of-all-bombs” in Afghanistan to launching fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles on an air base in Syria, President Trump has shown little compunction for unleashing the heavier end of the American arsenal.

In an era where the Middle East is embroiled in sectarian violence and Civil War, however, a “kinetic” vision of war could prove counter-productive. It’s opposite, a “war of politics,” is a more nuanced approach favored by H.R. McMaster that recognizes that every action has political consequences. For example, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military was not shy about a “kinetic” showing: General William Westmoreland referred to his strategy of combatting insurgency in one word: “Firepower.” However, Dr. Tierney has pointed to recent studies that have shown that areas bombarded during the Vietnam War often became more sympathetic to the communist regime in North Vietnam.

There may also be a fear of the president entering into a diversionary war – a war for the purpose of distracting the public, whether to combat his low approval ratings, dominate the news cycle, or challenge any investigation he perceives as threatening to his presidency. Without a clear doctrine to adhere to, the president has some flexibility in entering into such a war not unlike President Clinton’s strikes in Afghanistan in 1998 while under the cloud of an investigation. By definition, a diversionary war would require a highly symbolic target unlikely to put up much of a fight. Doing so would provide action at a low risk, perhaps to serve some merit such as a humanitarian cause. The hope for presidents who launch such a war would be to unify the American home front and galvanize the public behind him. It would be a huge gamble, however, and if the president were desperate enough to consider a diversionary war, it would axiomatically mean he had little domestic support.

Reassuringly, Trump is not alone in the decision-making process: with few “Trumpists” in Washington, D.C. to choose from, he has had to rely on more conventional, established individuals to populate his staff. H.R. McMaster, current National Security Adviser, holds a doctorate in history and has been considered a man who speaks truth to power. There is reason for confidence in McMaster being selected by Trump, as McMaster holds a favorable opinion of a “war of politics” over the “kinetic” view, as shown by his experience in Iraq. Notwithstanding, it is impossible to know the extent of his influence, but he may be trying to move Trump towards a more traditional, predictable path. Similarly, his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has affirmed the U.S.’s commitment to NATO and Article 5 despite the president’s campaign rhetoric.

Trump’s foreign policy is not without its continuities from the American story, but instead it is his tone and rhetoric are a clear break from the past: Barack Obama urged NATO members to pull their own weight and spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense as well, going as far as to commend Greece for doing so. President Trump’s approach, however, is less than subtle, and he is not afraid to ruffle the feathers of U.S. allies while pushing for them to meet the same defense goals sought by President Obama. The United States also has a long history of working with authoritarians, particularly during the Cold War, but few presidents have been as overtly positive about the individuals in power: in an interview with Joe Scarborough, who attempted to bring up the state-sanctioned killing of Russian journalists and political opponents during the interview, Trump referred to Putin as “brilliant” and even took a jab at then-President Obama by saying “at least [Putin’s] a leader.”

The Trump Doctrine may be difficult to pin down, but the President’s skepticism of alliances, fairer trade deals, and favorability towards autocrats may be an integral part of his core belief system. Trump’s fondness for firepower and the kinetic view of war draws considerable focus, but while technology and firepower have their place, they are ultimately more successful against traditional armies and countries, not counter-insurgencies. Wherever the U.S. military intervenes, particularly in the Middle East, it would behoove the president to adhere to the advice of some of his closest advisors and find the right balance between a kinetic and political vision of war for finding success while protecting America’s national interests.

The Foreign Policy Research Institute, founded in 1955, is a non-partisan, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests. In the tradition of our founder, Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupé, Philadelphia-based FPRI embraces history and geography to illuminate foreign policy challenges facing the United States. more about FPRI »

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