Is There a Trump Doctrine?

Is There a Trump Doctrine?

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.

IN RECOGNIZING the many faces of knowledge and experience, prudence ground up against the rationalism associated with the later Enlightenment, which sought to apply abstract universal rules and scientific methods to the political domain. Contra rationalism, prudential skepticism stressed the role of experience, custom and tradition. It also demanded a deeper appreciation of contingency and circumstance, and the importance of self-understanding as a guide to decisionmaking.

Edmund Burke’s political writings, in particular, demonstrate the challenges of adapting prudential reasoning to the revolutionary age, when rationalist thinking was at the height of its political influence. In his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke considered Jacobinism and scientific theories of government an affront to the practice of prudence. “Political reasoning is a computing principle,” he wrote, “adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, morally and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations.”

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.”

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.