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

To his critics, the ferocity of Burke’s response to the events of the French Revolution suggested that his capacity for cool-headed reasoning had deserted him. Stung by the criticism, Burke argued that some situations were grave enough to demand such bracing honesty. So he went to a familiar armory. “If the prudence of reserve and decorum dictates silence in some circumstances,” he argued with timeless logic, “in others prudence of a higher order may justify us in speaking our thoughts.”

Burke went much further than many critics of the revolution in advocating a counterrevolutionary war to restore Bourbon government in France. By 1796, his ire turned from his fellow Whigs and Francophile radicals to the government of William Pitt, when it considered a peace treaty with revolutionary France after three years of war. Once again, Burke argued that “the rules and definitions of prudence can rarely be exact; never universal.” In his view, the idea of seeking a settlement with a regime that had murdered its king was an example of “false” or “narrow” prudence. His Letters on a Regicide Peace acknowledged the gravity of the challenges confronting Pitt’s government. It was faced with waning public support for war, and lacking allies in Europe. Nonetheless, Burke bemoaned what he saw as a desperation for peace that came from a “false reptile prudence, the result not of caution but of fear,” the result of “abject distrust of ourselves” and “an extravagant admiration of the enemy.”

For Burke, there were no set rules in international politics to guide one’s action. Decisions had to be made on the basis of the situation at hand. “Matters of prudence are under the dominion of circumstances, and not of logical analogies,” he argued. “It is absurd to take it otherwise.” Among the contingent circumstances that states had to consider when choosing between peace and war was that of their existing status and prestige among their peers and competitors. He understood that small states would often be forced to compromise when presented with superior force. But a great state, like Britain, had a reputation to maintain, and an array of different enemies, which meant that overcautiousness could damage its long-term security.

In other words, prudence demanded a self-awareness about how others saw you, rather than simply restraining one’s own passions. As he explained,

“I do not deny that in small truckling states a timely compromise with power has often been the means, and the only means, of drawling out their puny existence; but a great state is too much envied, too much dreaded, to find safety in humiliation. To be secure, it must be respected. Power, and eminence, and consideration, are things not to be begged. They must be commanded: and they who supplicate for mercy from others can never hope for justice through themselves.”

Rationalist calculations would stress the costs of war and the dangers therein. A truly prudent council, he argued, should not enfeeble preexisting power.

After Burke, those who emphasized the importance of prudence in nineteenth-century British statecraft sought to use it to mediate between sentimental emotionalism creeping into foreign policy and a hyper-rationalist calculation of the commercial costs and benefits of every action. Henry Temple, Viscount Palmerston, argued that the policy of Britain—“apart from questions which involve her own particular interests, political or commercial”—should be to serve as “the champion of justice and right.” But his counsel was that it was necessary to pursue that course “with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world.” John Stuart Mill, in his influential 1859 essay “A Few Words on Non-Intervention,” also saw imprudence in the fetishization of self-interest in many debates on British foreign policy. He felt that it was unwise to describe one’s approach to the world in such narrowly commercial terms. As much as anything else, this was to advertise meaner motives to the world than actually guided the actions of England abroad:

“All, therefore, who either speak or act in the name of England, are bound by the strongest obligations, both of prudence and of duty, to avoid giving either of these handles for misconstruction: to put a severe restraint upon the mania of professing to act from meaner motives than those by which we are really actuated, and to beware of perversely or capriciously singling out some particular instance in which to act on a worse principle than that by which we are ordinarily guided.”