Self-promotion as a supposedly master deal-maker is another major characteristic of Trump’s approach to foreign policy. It is another trait that does not make for consistently applied foreign policy principles that could plausibly be described as a doctrine. Any sense of order and consistency gets lost, as individual deals are separately hyped or castigated depending on who reached them. Hence Trump’s self-congratulation for nuclear diplomacy with North Korea that already compares unfavorably with previous diplomacy with Iran that Trump has vociferously condemned.
Hardly unique to Trump is the influence on policy of those who helped to elect the president. Even setting aside the still-under-investigation Russia dimension of this subject, such influence in Trump’s case has been readily apparent—especially when comparing Trump’s earlier rhetoric with his later positions on matters involving Israel and the Gulf Arabs .
Related to such campaign indebtedness is the priority that Trump continues to give to playing to his domestic base and seeking applause lines at home. This habit has had significant effects on U.S. foreign relations, but again the effects have had little or nothing to do with any coherent vision of America’s place in the world. The United States is embarking on a trade war with China and Europe less because a trade war had a prominent place in someone’s foreign policy doctrine than because of applause lines that get applause due in large part to domestic economic dislocations tinged with xenophobia.
A current example of the same phenomenon is how the pressure the administration has been feeling over its handling of child immigrants along the southern U.S. border has further poisoned U.S. relations with European allies—which, in any coherent foreign policy doctrine, ought to be two entirely unrelated subjects. Part of Trump’s response to the pressure has been to expound ever more forcefully about the supposed evils of immigration. This response has included an outburst about Germany that not only was factually false regarding crime but constituted an extraordinary effort to undermine the incumbent government of an important U.S. ally in favor of some of the more extreme elements in that government’s domestic opposition.
Finally, there is the possible influence on foreign policy of the private financial interests of Trump and his family. This subject so far involves a murky and incomplete picture with mostly anecdotal reporting and with many questions still under investigation. But given that this U.S. presidency, more than any other in recent decades, has unabashedly co-mingled public interests with private ones, the subject cannot be ignored.
The broader effects of all these aspects of Trump’s conduct of foreign policy do not represent objectives that flow from any foreign policy doctrine. Indeed, for the most part they are not even objectives. One such effect is a serious weakening of the North Atlantic alliance. Another is a reversal of any progress that the previous administration made (and it didn’t make much) in pivoting away from deep U.S. immersion in the conflicts of the Middle East. This pattern is illustrated by continued U.S. support for the highly destructive Saudi and Emirati intervention in Yemen, which recently expanded with an assault on the port of Hodeida.
The collective effect of the traits still leaves big uncertainties about some important questions, with different traits tugging in different directions. Prime among these is the future U.S. relationship with China—a clear vision of which ought to be part of any foreign policy doctrine worthy of the name. Trump’s initial steps regarding North Korea have been mostly to China’s liking and imply the forging of a cooperative relationship. But the trade war obviously points in the opposite direction.
One more generalization can be made about the overall effect that Trump’s approach probably will have on America’s place in the world and that involves a vocabulary often used in discussion of foreign policy doctrines. The United States will be more isolated than before. Other states, whether friend or foe, will be less willing to bargain with the United States when it is governed by an administration that reneges on previous agreements and that, other governments believe, bargains in bad faith. Such mistrust impedes the reaching not only of the sort of multilateral agreements that Trump rejects but also the sort of bilateral agreements that he says he favors. To return to Kagan’s typology, Trump’s America is moving closer to isolationism—in diplomacy, if not in the use of military force—not because isolationism is part of any Trump Doctrine but because it is a byproduct of Trump’s way of doing business.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a working lunch with governors in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis