The Trump doctrine

Donald Trump is set to overthrow many, if not all, established US foreign policy basics. What could the potential „Trump doctrine“ look like?

Recent months have seen a battle of ideas, concepts and general perspectives on politics. One of the possible reasons for Hillary Clinton’s loss what that she represented the US foreign policy tradition established by Woodrow Winson and later pushed under Bill Clinton: The US, as the leader of the free world, carries a moral obligation to foster the spread of democracy worldwide and guarantee, to the extent possible, global stability.

This special role of the US has come under attack ever since, in particular during the 1999 Kosovo intervention and, even more so, the 2003 war on Iraq. In both of these instances, the US decided act in the absence of a UN Security Council authorization (in the first case, Russia threatened to use its veto power to protect Serbian interests; in the case of Iraq, France was a fervent defender of more investigations on Iraq’s weapons arsenals before proceeding to attack; anyone remember Dominique Villepin?). To a certain extent, the Iraq war was the heyday of US hegemony. It showed that the US would only let itself be restricted by the prohibition of the use of force and the UN collective security system if it acted according to its interests (as it had done in the 1991 Iraq war or the 1994 Haiti intervention).

On the long run, the Iraq operation went awry, its costs were tremendous and the success of forcible democratic regime change (i.e. replacing a dictatorship with democratic institutions) and nation-building was limited. The American people more and more wondered why their country engaged in far-away military operations as the number of those agreeing with the statement that „the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own“ steadily increased ever since it had reached a new low in the year prior to the Iraq war, peaking at 52% in 2013. Interestingly enough, the number dropped to 43% in 2016: Nevertheless, 37% think that the „’should help other countries deal with their problems,‘ while a majority (57%) say the nation should “deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their problems the best they can.“

Donald Trump’s statements on foreign policy are thus in line with the American public. But does he have a coherent plan? There may ultimately be one, as Rosa Brook argued in Foreign Policy, where she described his approach as follows:

To those who criticize his apparent contradictions, his vagueness about his ultimate strategic objectives, or his willingness to make public threats, he offers a simple and Machiavellian response: “We need unpredictability.” To Trump, an effective negotiator plays his cards close to his chest: He doesn’t let anyone know his true bottom line, and he always preserves his ability to make a credible bluff. […] Trump has little time for either neoconservatives or liberal interventionists; he thinks they allow their belief in American virtue to blind them to both America’s core interests and the limits of American power. He has even less time for multilateralist diplomats: They’re too willing to compromise, trading away American interests in exchange for platitudes about friendship and cooperation. And he has no time at all for those who consider long-standing U.S. alliances sacrosanct. To Trump, U.S. alliances, like potential business partners in a real-estate transaction, should always be asked: “What have you done for me lately?”

In the same sense, he can be described as a heir to US president Andrew Jackson as described by Walter Russell Mead in his telling 1999 essay „The Jacksonian Tradition“.  Jacksonians want the US to be left alone and in turn, it will leaves others alone. But once attacked or threatened, the US will resort to full-blown force:

It’s easy to see the Jacksonian ethic in Trump’s foreign policy. He’s against nation building. He couldn’t care less whether other countries are democratic. But when “animals” attack the US, he rejects virtually any moral limits on America’s response. Torture? Sure, because “You’re not going to win if we’re soft and…they have no rules.” Using nuclear weapons? Trump won’t rule it out. In a quintessentially Jacksonian moment, former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight praised Trump last month for being like Truman, who had “the guts to drop the bomb in 1944.”

So, what could the Trump doctrine look like? First of all, the US can be expected to disregard the principle of proportionality when acting in self-defence. It may also well be the case that there will be a temporal extension of self-defence away from the possibility of „pre-emptive self defence“, i.e. acting in cases of an imminent armed attack, towards „preventive self defence“ so as to attack to counter the remote possibility of an armed attack in years to come.

Furthermore, the US seems to move towards isolationism and denounce their self-assumed role as the „world’s policeman.“ Geographically advantaged, there is no strategic reason to intervene militarily in civil wars or engage in costly nation-building projects. Ever since the 1970s and 1980s, their „backyard“, i.e. South and Latin America, no longer poses any significant threats. Whether Trump will indeed build his „beautiful wall“ will be seen.

Trump could furthermore break with many unquestioned basic principles of foreign policy. After all, Realpolitik and historic reasons often enough lead to decisions and alliances that are hard to understand and justify. The public has long wondered about and criticised double standards and relics which no longer serve any meaningful purpose.  Why is the US still having military bases in Germany or Japan? Why is it allied with barbaric governments like that of Saudi Arabia? Why does the US carry the burden of protection for Europe, why do European states not spend more money on their defense budgets so as to be able to protect themselves?

On the other side, Trump seems to abandon the US claim to act on the basis of moral considerations and obligations. While one could imagine him agreeing on a humanitarian intervention to protect civilians abroad – at least of persecuted Christians in the Middle East –, he does not seem to have any objections to accept and deal with ruthless leaders. It is no surprise that the likes of Wladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan have already started reaching out to him. Speaking the same language and sharing the same mindset, strongmen have always respected each other.

The world has already been described as resembling that prior to the outbreak of World War I before the election of Donald Trump: Multipolarity, the rise of protectionism, global instability, insecurity, and recession. While the similarities should not be exaggerated – in particular, armed conflicts between European states are still highly unlikely; rather, the stability within states is what bother policymakers – yet another historic parallel can be added to the list: Back in the early 20th century, the US had become an imperial power after the Spanish-American War of 1898 and showed its readiness to defend the Western hemisphere (after Roosevelt had declared that he would “exercise international police power in ‘flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence”, the US intervened in Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic) against European meddling. However, it was only one (key) player among many. If it starts to retrench and focus on domestic politics, we are one major step closer towards a renewed multipolar world order in which the US no longer seems to be willing, even although it has the capacities, to assume the role of the sole global superpower.

The effects of this new new world order are yet to be seen. Some argue that the world would be much worse off without US force. As Shadi Hamid put it, „[a] world without mass slaughter, of the sort of we are seeing every day in Syria, cannot ever come to be without American power. But perhaps this will prove one of the positive legacies of the Obama era: showing that the alternative of American disinterest and disengagement is not necessarily better.“

For others, the US and its recent foreign policy itself is a major reason for global instability. Would the war in Syria have escalated as it did without Western meddling? Would the war in Ukraine have broken out, would Russia have annexed Crimea? Should the US have abstained from NATO’s Eastern expansion? Would Iraq or Libya be more stable today?

We are currently witnessing not only a battle of emotions but also a battle of ideas and (historic) conceptions of world order. US foreign policy long abhorred European Realpolitik, diplomacy and the balance of power approach. Under president Trump (it still feels surreal to write that btw), it may not (yet) embrace it, but rather simply no longer care. Denouncing or refraining from mentioning the US claim to moral leadership and its obligations towards the rest of the world, it could end up acting act like every other major power does in a (neo-)realist world: Realpolitik according to its own interest and with little to no concern for issues not directly related to their security and well-being. The new new world order essentially means a revival the old world order.

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