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

What can we salvage of these different versions of prudence for the twenty-first century? Following Aristotle, Aquinas and Burke, it is possible to distinguish between “lower” and “higher” constructions of prudence in a way that provides some useful guidance today. Lower prudence concentrates on limited goals, retraining passions and urging caution above all else. Higher prudence incorporates more ingredients of political calculation, with a place for ethics and also a higher tolerance of risk. While caution is always necessary, it should never be allowed to become an “abject distrust of ourselves.” In higher prudence, prestige cannot simply be measured by the metrics of raw military or commercial power, but by the willingness to exercise political will in specific circumstances. Respect has to be commanded rather than expected.

One can see the appeal of this idea in an era in which the president of the United States speaks of the need for his nation to “start winning again,” or regain lost prestige. Equally, however, higher prudence requires careful curation over the longer-term and does not neatly fold within a slogan. To revisit Tocqueville’s warnings about the conduct of foreign policy in democracy, it was the height of imprudence to “abandon a mature design for the gratification of a momentary caprice.”

WRITING IN February of 2017, not a month into the life of the Trump administration, David Brooks of the New York Times asked the question of his readers, “If you could give Donald Trump the gift of a single trait to help his presidency, what would it be?” Setting out to answer the question himself, Brooks described how his thoughts had first turned to prudence. “Prudence is the ability to govern oneself with the use of reason,” he explained. “It is the ability to suppress one’s impulses for the sake of long-term goals. It is the ability to see the specific circumstances in which you are placed, and to master the art of navigating within them.” In his view, “a prudent President Trump wouldn’t spend his mornings angrily tweeting out his resentments” or “spend his afternoons barking at foreign leaders and risking nuclear war.” Thus Brooks quoted the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville, who wrote that “prudence is what differentiates action from impulse and heroes from hotheads.”

The more Brooks thought about it, however, the less he wanted to hand over such a useful virtue to such dangerous hands as those of the president. Trump seemed “intent on destroying the postwar world order—building walls, offending allies and driving away the stranger and the refugee. Do I really want to make him more prudent and effective in pursuit of malicious goals?” Instead, Brooks settled upon the gift of “fraternity” to soften those jagged edges.

In the Obama administration, it was the president who set the intellectual tone of his administration’s foreign policy. It was to David Brooks, in fact, that he once revealed his fondness for the philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr. Those looking for professorial guidance from President Trump will be disappointed. Yet one of the essential elements of historical prudence is that it puts the onus on the counselor rather than the prince. Since Trump was elected, there has been a bonfire of many of the established concepts of American grand strategy. A new language is needed to make sense of America’s place in a changing world. Status matters, but there is a fine line to tread between caution and overreach. Before the mold is reset, those seeking to advise the prince could do worse than dust of some of the classical principles of statecraft—and reach for prudence once more.

John Bew is a professor of history and foreign policy at the War Studies Department, King’s College London and research fellow at Policy Exchange. David Martin Jones is an honorary reader in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland and visiting professor in the War Studies Department, King’s College, London.

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