During the presidential election campaign, the US media parsed, assessed and attempted to categorize Donald Trump’s foreign policy statements. They have done so again for his pronouncements and actions since he became president. They have endeavored to reach some conclusions about a Trump strategy or even a “Trump Doctrine.” They have not been very successful so far.
There are several ways to explain this.
First, President Trump does not want to signal what he will do or what decisions he is likely to make in the realm of foreign affairs. He said so. He wants to be unpredictable and inscrutable. That is his modus operandi. He also perceives that President Obama made a big mistake in announcing what his next moves were to enemies abroad, who could then prepare countermoves.
Second, President Trump feels it is all right to change his mind in foreign policy making. He should keep his promises domestically as Americans elected him president. External affairs are a different matter.
Third, he seeks to use bluff and intimidation to realize his foreign policy goals. This works better if the opponent is off-guard.
Fourth, to President Trump foreign policy should be conducted through negotiations. Diplomacy means talking and reaching deals, and using pressure and threats with military power as a backup to get things done.
Having said this, Trump’s foreign policy activities — how he interacts with foreign leaders, deals he has attained, his missile attack on a base in Syria, his meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago — all give further evidence about how President Trump thinks about foreign affairs and perhaps even how he views the world.
Judging from his focus on making deals and building up US military forces to facilitate negotiations, President Trump espouses a realist view of the world. Power and influence are the essence of foreign policy making.
He is not an idealist. He puts little stock in promoting lofty principles. He doesn’t talk of human rights. He is not intent on promoting democracy. He even denies wanting to orchestrate regime change or getting involved in other countries’ domestic affairs.
He doesn’t mind talking to leaders of other countries — no matter their or their country’s moral turpitude. He has met with Russian leaders. He even said he would meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. His goal is to advance the US national interest, not proselytize. This is further evidence of Trump’s realist thinking.
During the campaign, President Trump was labeled an isolationist and a nationalist president. He was also seen as a Russophile that sought to use close relations with Moscow to help expand US global influence.
His missile attack on Syria changed this narrative. He is now seen as an internationalist. His military budget has done that also; he has proposed the biggest increase in military expenditures of any president for some years. In particular Trump wants more ships for the navy — which is the main instrument for showing the US flag abroad. This seems to come straight from Admiral Alfred Mahan, who linked naval power and global authority in his famous book The Influence of Sea Power upon History.
In the wake of the missile attack, President Trump spoke favorably of alliances. During the campaign, he questioned the value of NATO and some other defense agreements. But since then he has promoted ties with allies.
Allies will help President Trump employ pressure to realize foreign policy goals. Also, they will strengthen his hand if he needs to use military force.
Trump cited a moral argument when justifying his missile attack on Syria (the Assad regime killing civilians, even babies, with poison gas), indicating the president will make legal and ethical behavior an issue if and when needed. This can complement realist policies — they are not antithetical.
President Trump has declared he wants to work with China to build and maintain a stable global financial system.
President Trump’s meeting with China’s President Xi at this time indicates Trump seeks good relations with the world’s rising power and its predominant economic player. Trump accomplished productive negotiations with Xi. The two countries now appear to be working together and may even be seen as allies.
One may even discern something about President Trump’s worldview from all of this.
His realism and his new relationship with President Xi suggest he is seeing the world as bipolar. The two global powers are the US and China. The US is the military power. (Trump’s increasing the military budget, perhaps even faster than China, ensures this will last — not to mention the fact the US has numerous allies while China has few.) China, the world’s number one trading nation, with immense financial clout and a reputation for building all over the world, is the global economic leader.
This may suggest an asymmetric system. But China needs the US to protect its far-flung trade, aid, and building. Anyway, Chinese leaders deny China is ready to be a world military power. The US needs China’s financial cooperation and even its help. President Trump has declared he wants to work with China to build and maintain a stable global financial system. (President Obama opposed doing this.)
There has been talk of the international system evolving into a multipolar structure. But the other powers are all in decline. Russia suffers from a shrinking population and its economy is in the doldrums. Japan and Europe have the same problems. India, which is doing well economically, is still way behind the US and China in economic size and is basically a regional power militarily speaking.
Might Trump seek to return the global system to a unipolar one? No! He has shown no inclination to favor the neocons’ view of the world. Anyway, the time for that has passed.
A universal system? Trump views the United Nations as effete, corrupt, wasteful, useless and even hopeless. He found the UN “blockaded” from acting to help him deal with the Syria crisis, so he acted alone. He does not want to put more money into the UN or rely on it for much.
What about what international relations scholar Morton Kaplan once called a “unit-veto system”? Kaplan suggested countries with nuclear weapons had special prerogatives. Trump’s statements of wanting to go further with keeping Iran from nuclear weapons than the Obama deal and his calls to denuclearize North Korea, suggest that he does not accept such a system (or such a characteristic of the global order) and instead wants non-proliferation — which top world leaders have advocated for some time.
What about the Thucydides Trap? The lesson from historians, reinforced by scholars pushing game theories and others, says the major power (and status quo regime), meaning the United States, will be challenged by the rising power (especially a fast-rising power), which is China, and war will result. This means that a bipolar (the US and China) system will be unstable and ultimately dangerous.
But there are two reasons to believe this will not prove to be the case.
First, this proposition applies to the past better than to recent history. The bipolar system of the Cold War period did not result in war. Mutual Assured Destruction seemed to have precluded that. Or collusion.
Second, China and its leaders (in particular President Trump and President Xi) respect each other much more than the US and the Soviet Union and their leaders did during the Cold War. Also, they have some important things in common: Both are castigated by the Western media that does not want them to succeed. Both have read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and both looked at his instructions before their meeting and in arriving at some trade deals since then.
To answer the original question of whether Trump’s foreign policy is a strategy or a doctrine, President Trump does not want to tell us what he is thinking. But in some ways he has.
In summary, President Trump’s worldview as it is evolving seems to hinge on US-China relations, as it should, given these are the two major global powers — present and future.