World View: What are tenets of Donald Trump’s doctrine?

Paul Gillespie: Patterns have emerged in US president’s apparently chaotic decisions

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump: Trump is well-established in power, more confident with a new team and growing in domestic support. Photograph:  Leah Millis/Reuters

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump: Trump is well-established in power, more confident with a new team and growing in domestic support. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

 

Is there a Trump doctrine? After a whirlwind two weeks in which the US president questioned Nato, defined the EU as a foe, supported Brexit, offended Germany, befriended Putin and reasserted his America First policy on trade and sanctions an answer is needed.

A doctrine is a general statement of policy and beliefs requiring consistency, coherence and durability. Many cannot believe Trump’s chaotic, impulsive and self-centred approach deserves the label; but he is now well-established in power, more confident with a new team around him and growing in domestic support. Experts following him agree that a potentially durable doctrine is emerging. It should be taken seriously in Europe.  

Consistency is a primary requirement. Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution established conclusively in 2016 that Trump has held to three foreign policy priorities since the 1980s: opposition to US alliances, to trade agreements and support for authoritarianism. These are linked directly to his domestic agenda of making America great again by restoring lost industrial jobs, cutting corporate taxes, opposing multiculturalism and stopping immigration.

Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman document and reproduce in their book Donald Trump: The Making of a World View the articles, speeches and interviews in which he set these positions. They quote Henry Kissinger: “The convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume as long as they continue in office.” With it, they are less prone to factional or contingent policy capture. Wright argues in a recent Irish Times World View podcast that Trump is following these policies in office and will not change them.

Strands of coherence

Coherence is also needed to earn doctrinal status. Many say Trump’s frequent U-turns, contradictions and changing officials disqualify him. They are readily visible on Nato, China, Putin and Theresa May as he wriggles out of outrageous statements with mollifying ones, or retreats to less extreme positions having put more radical ones out there first.

But establishing coherence is an active process and a dynamic condition. Foreign policy experts and analysts following Trump closely like Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times and Thomas Carothers of Carnegie Europe argue he is becoming more so, as he settles into power and gathers a more sympathetic team around him.

Mead says the emerging doctrine revises the post-1940s liberal internationalist regime constructed to frame US hegemony in the cold war. It boosts US military dominance and combines that with economic strength to shift the positions of other countries. Goldberg, who famously anatomised Barack Obama’s foreign policy, gives three characterisations of Trump’s, following extensive White House interviews: “No friends, no enemies”; “Permanent destabilisation creates American advantage”; and “We’re America, bitch” – which points “a middle finger at a cold and unfair world, one that no longer responds to American power and privilege”.

Goldberg gives three characterisations of Trump: 'No friends, no enemies'; 'Permanent destabilisation creates American advantage'; and 'We’re America, bitch'

Rachman usefully identifies four broad principles at play in Trump’s approach. Putting economics first blurs the distinction between allies and adversaries, given the trade surplus and subsidy costs involved in US leadership. Nations are preferred to multilateral international institutions because US power is better leveraged bilaterally. Culture or race supplant universal values, linked to his obsession with immigration damaging the US and Europe. Spheres of interest dominated by regional powers with strong rulers in a multipolar world are preferred to neoconservative impositions of democracy.

Disrupting approach

Trump says the word competitor is a complement, which is how he thinks of the EU. It is a structural term, neither good not bad politically; nevertheless US interests dictate a zero-sum approach to economic outcomes. Carothers observes of this disrupting approach: “He just wants the United States to be surrounded by a large set of potential transactional business partners with whom he can then decide what deals he wants to make. There is no gain in treating Trump as ally; his instinct is to keep friends and enemies alike at a similar distance.”

'His instinct is to keep friends and enemies alike at a similar distance'

Tracing Trump’s intellectual antecedents and allies, the Australian historian James Curran in an illuminating report for the Lowy Institute locates them in opposition to the US as an indispensable nation on the world stage. Instead as one of them, Michael Anton, put it, they should seek “secure borders, economic nationalism and America first” at home.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s white nationalist ideologue, put it like this in a Sunday Times interview: “I don’t know any policy that the president has not full-on hammered down that is not a policy of the populist nationalist movement. Tell me where I’m losing.”

pegillespie@gmail.com

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