Trump's Foreign-Policy Strategy Will Be Driven by Current Events

Donald Trump at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. Flickr/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Many presidents have built their foreign-policy strategy around ad hoc responses to unexpected developments.

There is something both depressing and hilarious about the way Washington’s journalists and pundits are on a never-ending search by for President Trump’s foreign-policy doctrine, or in the way political scientists are trying to figure out the “school of thought” that best describes the current White House’s set of ideas about global affairs. Equally entertaining are the attempts by foreign-affairs analysts to place the new president’s hodgepodge of foreign-policy decisions in some context, in the form of a grand political narrative, to provide it with some meaning.

Trump’s “America First” campaign rhetoric included attacking U.S. “regime change” policies, lashing at American military interventions in the Middle East, and bashing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as “obsolete.” This suggested to his internationalist critics that he was an “isolationist” and implied to his right-wing nationalist fans that he was one of them. Free traders panicked after candidate Trump pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Meanwhile, protectionists hailed his threats to designate China as a “currency manipulator” and to impose punitive tariffs on its imports, and economic nationalists hailed his challenge to the bipartisan U.S. commitment to liberalizing free trade.

Indeed, intellectuals—or those who pretend to be intellectuals—believe that national policies are based on a specific conceptual framework, and tend to examine foreign-policy decisions made by the White House as a reflection of a president’s political philosophy and the outcome of battles of ideas between his aides.

Intellectuals certainly feel in metaphysical heaven when they imagine that a president is echoing their ideas. Hence, President Trump’s talk about working together with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in the fight against the Islamic State was supposedly a clear indication to his supporters that he was a realist when it came to foreign policy. If Bismarck and Metternich had a son, that son would have been Trump, and Kissinger would have played the role of his godfather.

So now, in the name of upholding international norms against the use of chemical weapons, President Trump ordered a U.S. missile strike against a Syrian airbase. Operating under the emotional impact conjured by television images of “beautiful babies,” has President Trump been transformed into a born-again idealist?

And what’s next? After celebrating Montenegro’s joining NATO, will the internationalist President Trump lead an effort against Russia’s threats to the liberal international order?

When campaigning for the president, Trump regularly condemned China over its trade and pledged while criticizing South Korea and other U.S. military allies in the region. Now he seems to be willing to give China a pass on trade while mobilizing U.S. partners in the region as part of a possible military campaign against North Korea, aimed at safeguarding international rules against nuclear proliferation.

So it’s not surprising that many foreign-policy experts now feel a bit disoriented. So maybe Trump, who seems to relish bombing the hell out of Syria, ISIS and North Korea, is a lifelong Jacksonian? Or do his recent moves on China signal the victory of the Goldman-Sachs-allied members of the Hamiltonian wing in the White House?

And notice the way the Wilsonians in Washington, DC are now applauding his policies, including liberal internationalists who were critical of former President Barack Obama’s decision not to retaliate against President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. So what’s going on here?

The short and simple answer to that is that Donald Trump has never been a man of great ideas, and has never pretended to be one. Unlike the men who were elected as president in the post–World War II era, Trump has never embraced a coherent view of world affairs or spent a lot of time reading or being schooled about the subject before he was elected president. Unless you consider listening to the foreign-policy experts of Fox News as the equivalent of auditing courses in international relations, or chatting about Middle East policy on Howard Stern’s radio show as the appropriate forum for articulating foreign-policy doctrines.

Trump’s internationalist critics have suggested that his decision to adopt the “American First” slogan once associated with the pre–World War II anti-interventionist movement indicates that he supports an isolationist foreign-policy agenda. In fact, Trump has probably never heard about the America First Committee and decided to tag his foreign-policy approach “America First,” after a New York Times interviewer used the term.

If anything, the notion that every president has embraced a coherent and consistent foreign-policy doctrine is in itself a myth, or a form of apophenia, the propensity to see meaningful patterns in what are sometimes nothing more than random events.

Indeed, many of the important decisions on foreign or domestic policies by presidents amounted in many cases to ad-hoc responses to unexpected developments and involved a lot of muddling through, which at some point may or may not have evolved into what can be described as a grand strategy.