One might argue, as indeed his critics do, that US President Donald Trump lacks a worldview or at least a refined and/or comprehensible one.
Trump had no experience in government when he became president. His detractors also portrayed him as someone who spoke before he thought, and was impetuous rather than a planner who based his actions on a well-conceived strategy. So, it was said, he had no real worldview.
Finally, Trump, his opponents alleged, formulated his “perception of things” from his years in the business world, his ability to negotiate, and his talent for making money. This was not, they said, the legitimate basis for a coherent vision of the political world.
However, to suggest Trump is a man that never has a plan is debunked by the fact he defeated 16 quite talented and experienced Republican opponents during the primary election period. In fact, by most accounts he did them in handily.
He then took on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was the candidate of America’s biggest and best-funded political party, who had the support of the political establishment, the media, the entertainment business, academe, Wall Street, and more. The sitting president campaigned heartily for her. She was going to be the first woman president, which was progressive and exciting. The female vote (larger than the male vote) was with her. The youth organized for her. Trump defeated her.
Some say that domestic issues were the basis for Trump formulating his view of the world; this is not entirely wrong. Yet it is not correct to say that in his case the latter was simply a reflection of the former. Trump had a surfeit global experience (144 companies in 25 countries), which helped him formulate his outlook of the world.
In fact, as he was planning to become president, but in many respects long before, he developed a worldview to guide his campaign and governing strategies. He clearly understood one thing.
There were basically two choices for him: Preserve the liberal democratic globalism model, or shift to the realist, sovereign nation-state mode of maintaining world order. The two schools of thought scholars called Wilsonian idealism and realism à la Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, and others.
The former grew out of President Woodrow Wilson’s hope for peace after World War I and a world government to ensure that would happen. It failed, but was resurrected after World War II as world order to sustain the peace was seen as a sine qua non in the atomic age.
Components of the model were free trade to promote economic growth and prosperity (restricted trade and poverty were thought to be causes of war), democracy (authoritarianism was another root of war), respect for human rights, non-proliferation, and building a world community with the United Nations and other international organizations leading that effort.
Franklin Roosevelt created the system or the liberal world order based upon the above tenets. Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, William Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and others promoted and sustained it (though Obama rejected George W. Bush’s ideas of spreading democracy around the world and promoting human rights to do that).
But the liberal democratic world order model weakened over time. It became discredited, as free trade and globalism became the sources of gross inequality in income and wealth; as the Western ideal of human rights became less accepted; as non-proliferation was not seen as working; as liberal democracy failed to promote either economic growth or dynamism and lost its appeal; as Asia, especially China, became the driver of global development (and the vanguard of the future to many) and favored a realist view of the world.
Meanwhile the leadership role of the United States paled, especially under George W. Bush (who wasted American lives and treasure in ill-conceived Middle East wars) and Obama (who prolonged Bush’s wars and coined a policy of leading from behind, which to most meant not leading at all); and as the 2008-09 recession became almost permanent in the West and badly diluted the influence of the United States, Europe, and Japan.
Trump saw what the liberal democratic globalism model had done to the United States. It destroyed the middle class (diminishing it by more than 12 percent since 2000 to become the smallest of any developed nation). The establishment or the political class, which supported the model, undermined American democracy with the centralization of political authority, rule by executive orders and unelected judges, and backing from a partisan media, entertainment industry, and academe. The democratic institutions of the US government, including the three main branches of government, as polled by the public, were the least trusted ever. In the process, America lost its spirit and shrank from its heretofore leadership position in the world (such that most people in the US and its allies perceived that China had or was about to become the world’s most powerful country).
Trump thus advanced dumping the already dying liberal democratic globalist model of world order in favor of one based on nation-states pursuing their national interests while practicing diplomacy (especially the bilateral kind) as the main tool of foreign policy — something like the old or past (before the liberal model) world order — that the globalist model had never really supplanted.
It would be a world in which the United States would again play a central or guiding role. Fair trade would replace free trade, which had failed. Regional and global organizations (including the United Nations) would assume a smaller role. They were too inefficient, bureaucratic, corrupt, and had become self-serving.
The US would keep the peace through strength as Ronald Reagan had done. America would keep out of wars through the strategy of deterrence and fight only winnable ones. It would be a democracy that others would emulate — if they so choose. It would not be forced upon them. Human rights would be an ideal to pursue — not a US policy that determined who America’s friends were and were not and that engendered a distorted view of America’s national interests and global influence.
This was the realist worldview.
In his book, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (2015), Donald Trump says he is a realist. In a chapter on foreign policy, he writes of operating from strength. He cites the national interest. He propounds basing this strategy on economic strength.
Where else did Trump get his more refined ideas about world order? Where did his worldview come from?
Henry Kissinger, America’s arguably smartest and most effective secretary of state in recent times, if ever, influenced Trump. Kissinger was the penultimate realist. Trump consulted him in the past and immediately after he was elected president.
There were others. There were many realists among Trump’s friends and advisors.
Trump’s thoughts also came from his favorite books. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince headed Trump’s top twenty booklist. They offered what many consider superb advice to a leader conducting diplomacy. Their recommendations comported with Trump’s formula for negotiating as he put forward in his own writings, including The Art of the Deal.
Trump’s strategy of “peace through strength,” while associated with Reagan, who made it work, was practiced by the Romans and earlier leaders. It was based on “common wisdom” or the better-known idea of deterrence. Deterrence is a strategy common to both business and diplomacy.
Deterrence is also essential when dealing with America’s foremost challenger and friend — China. It is a central “doctrine” in Chinese strategic thinking as reflected in its essential military readings, including a white paper entitled China’s Military Strategy and a longer work, The Science of Military Strategy. Thus, the tactics of the leaders of the two countries are similar in some important ways.
With Trump and Chinese leaders following the deterrence strategy, these two dominant world powers might obviate a war that otherwise seems to be difficult to do based on the Thucydides Trap (the idea that a status quo power and a rising power ultimately collide and war results). Trump clearly signals pursuing US national interests while China does not hide its core interests.
Trump no doubt has learned from General McMaster and his book, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam about how to avoid a terrible war that happened a generation ago because of bad politics and bad leaders.
Trump’s thinking was informed by some other books he regarded as special: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. He got some basic philosophical ideas from Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions.
Trumpism’s positive and/or optimistic can-do tone and its challenging the odds likely came from Trump’s admiration for Norman Vincent Peale’s book, The Power of Positive Thinking, which Donald read as a child and he often recalls and says he practices.
Trump’s belief that decline can result in our extinction and change is best inaugurated by chaos probably comes from his own experience. But it is also to be found in Rebecca Costa’s book, The Watchman’s Rattle: A New Way to Understand Complexity, Collapse, and Correction that is on the president’s list of recommended books.
Clearly, examining what experiences and strategies and which books have become a part of Trump’s mind tells a different story from some who spin the idea that he has no worldview. It may also help understand where the world Trump is leading is going.