There Is No ‘Trump Doctrine’
Michael Anton takes a stab at trying to define a “Trump Doctrine”:
This observation forms the core of what one might call the negative formulation of Trump’s foreign policy. The president himself has an inelegant, but not inaccurate, way of putting it: “Don’t be a chump.”
Anton imagines Trump as a sort of hard-nosed nationalist who doesn’t put up with nonsense from other states, but that isn’t how Trump has governed for the last two years. If the “core” of Trump’s foreign policy is not to be a chump, that can’t account for why he has repeatedly given U.S. clients in the Middle East whatever they want in exchange for nothing. It doesn’t explain why he walked away from a nonproliferation agreement that was working exactly as intended and proceeded to wage economic war on the country that was faithfully adhering to the agreement. It definitely doesn’t explain why he has gone out of his way to insert the U.S. into a neighbor’s internal political crisis in a push for regime change that has nothing to do with American interests. The list could go on, but the point is that Trump has opted for policies that impose costs on the U.S. without having anything to show for it.
For all of his complaints about how often previous presidents let other countries rip off the U.S., he has put on a master class in getting taken to the cleaners. The simple explanation for this is that Trump believes himself to be much cleverer than his predecessors but actually understands things much more poorly than a poorly-informed average citizen, and so it is relatively easy for more skilled and knowledgeable operators to run rings around him. That goes for foreign leaders, and it also goes for the people that ostensibly work for him. He makes decisions that his predecessors chose not to make because they understood the implications and costs better than he does, and then he prides himself on having done something “nobody ever did before.”
There is no “Trump Doctrine” as such. There is a hodgepodge of competing influences and factions in the Trump administration, and depending on which ones happen to be ascendant on certain issues the capricious president will go this way or that without any pretense of consistency or overall strategy. The policy either ends up as a complete giveaway to the ideologues that obsess over a particular issue (e.g., almost anything related to Israel or Iran), or it becomes a confusing back-and-forth between opposing positions. So-called “principled realism” is as unprincipled as the president and as divorced from reality as the reality television character.
The bigger flaw with Anton’s description of a “Trump Doctrine” is that his own definition doesn’t really tell us anything. He writes:
It can be stated like this: Let’s all put our own countries first, and be candid about it, and recognize that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Putting our interests first will make us all safer and more prosperous.
If there is a Trump Doctrine, that’s it.
That isn’t a doctrine. It is a banality. Saying that Trump’s foreign policy is the pursuit of his idea of unvarnished national self-interest doesn’t give us any useful information. This would be like saying that the “Obama Doctrine” is a belief in the importance of mutually beneficial cooperation. Obama may very well believe in this, but that doesn’t explain why he made the foreign policy decisions he made, nor does it even tell us anything particularly interesting about his worldview. Despite his erstwhile “insider” status, Anton doesn’t have any inside insight to offer. He is trying to create a coherent “doctrine” out of a mish-mash of ill-informed and impulsive actions that appear to be linked only by a desire to appear “tough” and to assert dominance over weaker pariah states, but he has no more success at this than anyone else could because there is no doctrine that can be identified and described.