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

Unlikely as it may sound, then, “prudence” is circulating as a working concept among the various foreign-policy groupings within the Trump White House. Does this mean that we are witnessing the green shoots of a new consensus where there was once civil war? Might a commitment to prudence as an operating principle offer the Trump administration the coherence many fear it lacks, or the intellectual basis for the next National Security Strategy? Or, as seems more likely, will the definition of twenty-first-century prudence—of considered counsel to the Prince—remain contested terrain?

PRUDENCE ASSUMES no system, schematic or strategic script. Therein lies much of its merit. It has both classical and Christian antecedents, but it is by nature ambivalent, historically conditioned and somewhat elastic.

Nor is its exercise something that sits easily with the character of modern democracy. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the democratic system seemed to grind against the traditional requirements of statecraft. He warned that “foreign politics demand scarcely any of those qualities which a democracy possesses; and they require, on the contrary, the perfect use of almost all those faculties in which it is deficient.” When it came to its dealings with other states, a democracy

“cannot combine its measures with secrecy, and it will not await their consequences with patience. . . . [Democratic polities] obey the impulse of passion rather than the suggestions of prudence, and . . . abandon a mature design for the gratification of a momentary caprice.”

Such fears of imprudence weighed heavily on the minds of American strategists during the Cold War. One of the greatest challenges faced by the United States was always assumed to be the management of its passions and its purse. Thus Dwight Eisenhower’s “New Look” emphasized strategic patience, cautious containment and long-term sustainability as the best means of outlasting the Soviet Union. This implied caution in fiscal, temperamental and military affairs, as a counterbalance to the irrationalism and emotionalism that led to foreign-policy misadventure.

It was in this context that Cold War prudence was often taken to denote frugality or restraint, with which it was only situationally connected. Prudence was seen as the antidote to unwieldy idealism or democratic excitability, and thus was assumed to be the handmaiden of realism writ large. Its definition was narrowed to never exceeding the pragmatic bounds set by the national interest. This was how it lived on in much academic literature on realism thereafter, notably in the work of Hans Morgenthau, who wrote that “there can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action.” In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, John Mearsheimer went one step further. For states in an anarchic system, “prudence dictates that they behave according to realist logic.” Understood in this way, prudential reasoning implied the tethering of ideological excess, or concomitant military overstretch.

And yet the essential point of prudence is that it rarely dictates. As is often the case, Reinhold Niebuhr provided a more nuanced perspective in his writings. He agreed that there was an important role for “prudent self-regard” in shaping nations’ foreign policy. But he also objected to what he saw among some realists as an attenuated understanding of prudence, as some sort of “procedural standard” for foreign-policy decisions—or an aide-memoire to keep the national interest paramount at all times. The real purpose of prudence was to mediate between the three other cardinal virtues—temperance, courage and justice. In many circumstances, it was true that prudential reasoning would advise self-restraint. But true prudence would also consider the demands of courage and justice. Thus, in Niebuhr’s view, “any kind of prudence which estimates common problems from the perspective of a particular interest will define the interest too narrowly.” Human beings could not escape a feeling of “loyalties and responsibilities to a wider system of values than that of the national interest—to a civilization for instance, to a system of justice, and to a community of free nations.” This broader sense of justice, Niebuhr suggested, “must prevent prudence from becoming too prudential in defining interest.” Its job was to secure some sort of equilibrium, to “safeguard against both sentimentality and moral cynicism.”