Is There a Trump Doctrine?

Donald Trump attends the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Danang, Vietnam, November 11, 2017. Reuters/Jorge Silva

When it comes to Trump’s behavior, perhaps it is too easy to get carried away with the idea that we are in uncharted territory, somehow without historical precedent.

January-February 2018

There was no grand strategic master plan here in these episodic, uncoordinated and unplanned displays of U.S. military power. Nonetheless, the White House was eager to extract political capital from its actions. Thus, Trump pointedly delivered news of the missile strike in Syria to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, over chocolate cake, during dinner at Mar-a-Lago. This was intended to be a reminder of U.S. military prowess and political will. For a domestic audience, too, the president was eager to draw a distinction between himself and President Obama, on strategic and ethical grounds. On the one hand, he made clear that he was willing to tread where Obama had not. The desire to draw this contrast explains his condemnation of the Assad regime for crossing “many, many lines, beyond a red line.” On the other hand, he described the attack as nothing short of an “affront to humanity,” requiring a response on moral grounds. It was left to Secretary Tillerson to elaborate on this redrawing of red lines:

“Well, I think the message that any nation can take is, ‘If you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.’”

Those given the task of explaining U.S. national security were quick to draw attention to the fact that these actions, from Syria to Afghanistan and North Korea, came in quick succession. Visiting Seoul on a reassurance mission shortly after the two strikes, Vice President Mike Pence asserted that “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan.” The regime in Pyongyang, he warned, “would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.”

In times past, the use of limited force—and the threat of using more—to reinforce boundaries might have been construed as a species of deterrence. Yet, for the many critics of the administration, the willingness to declare an end to the era of “strategic patience” in dealing with Pyongyang—and the concomitant game of brinkmanship—risked undermining the type of long-term credibility on which successful deterrence depends. Just what type of foreign policy, then, were we witnessing?

IN RESPONSE to these concerns, it fell to the redoubtable McMaster to find the words to rationalize the new approach. The deployment of the aircraft-carrier strike group to the East China Sea, he explained to Fox News, in his first extensive interview after becoming the president’s national security advisor, was “prudent.”

Absent any coherent alternative, this idea of “prudence” soon caught on. Cdr. Dave Benham, spokesman at U.S. Pacific Command, clarified the picture in similar terms: “The U.S. Pacific Command ordered the Carl Vinson strike group north as a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific.” Should we be in any doubt, Secretary Mattis further elucidated, “She’s stationed in the Western Pacific for a reason. She operates freely up and down the Pacific and she’s just on her way up there because that’s where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time.”

When one digs a little deeper under the surface, one finds that prudence keeps popping up. Within the Trump national-security team, it is not just the so-called warrior-monks who are fond of the term. Michael Anton, director of strategic communications at the National Security Council, who has so far survived the cull of Bannonites, has also deployed it on a number of occasions since the inauguration. Acknowledging that military action against North Korea was unlikely, and would have dire consequences, he told Politico, “For reasons of prudence, it can’t be taken off the table at a juncture like this.”

When it comes to the use of prudence, in fact, Anton, one of the original palace intellectuals of the Trump transition, has been here before. In his view, it is one of a number of principles of classical statecraft that should be invoked to help America set itself back on the right track in foreign affairs. In an essay for American Affairs written before he was appointed to the administration, Anton offered a strongly worded critique of what he saw as the Washington national-security establishment’s unthinking fidelity to the idea of “liberal international order.” Rather than retreat into isolationism, however, Anton expressed the belief that powerful nations, such as the United States, had to strike a balance between “contempt” and “prestige.” Being held in contempt damaged a nation’s ability to influence others, and the only antidote was to be respected or “even a little bit feared.” Striking this delicate balance was the clue to a successful foreign policy, he argued, “which means prudence is always required.”