PRESIDENT TRUMP, unlike his predecessor, does not consider nuance a virtue. He is unlikely to appear at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony anytime soon; we will not be treated to his reflections on the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas or Reinhold Niebuhr. Trump’s foreign policy has yet to crystallize into anything resembling a doctrine. It might be said that doctrines are overrated, of course. Frequently, they amount to post facto rationalizations for actions taken over the course of one or two presidential terms. The “Obama doctrine” came late in the day, as the former president entered his penultimate year in office. The “Reagan doctrine” only took shape from 1985, and even then its meaning was fiercely contested among those who styled themselves as its disciples. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May insists that political doctrines are largely the invention of an excitable commentariat too eager to intellectualize the business of politics. “There is no Mayism,” she informed the gathered media coldly as the 2017 British general-election campaign got underway, attempting to pop metaphorical balloons at the launch of her party’s manifesto.
This presents a particular problem for academics and scholars of international affairs, who are trained to believe that foreign-policy predilections exist, more or less, within predetermined paradigms. That Trump emerged from a world in which no such schools of thought prevailed means that putting a name on Trumpism can be a vexatious task. In their book on Trump’s attitude to international affairs, Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman observe that there is more consistency in Trump’s worldview than is often presumed, and that his campaign pronouncements were in keeping with these preexisting views. But even then, it is a worldview composed of instincts rather than policy prescriptions. There was no grand strategic statement of intent from a cohort of key advisers in Foreign Affairs or the National Interest at the outset of the campaign. Foreign observers were left searching for fragments of evidence to help them piece together a picture of what might come next.
After victory, it was personalities rather than principles that received the most attention. The process of assembling the president’s national-security team began with auditions in Trump Tower or over dinner in Manhattan. We know—and we can see in the form of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—that Trump sees merit in business acumen. Generals, from James Mattis to H. R. McMaster, are also deemed to bring something useful, and now that Steve Bannon has left the White House, they face less internal opposition. But even then, it is has been hard to discern a clear strategic script. Unpredictability is something that the new president seems to relish. He is not the first to attempt to make a virtue of this. President Nixon road tested the “madman theory” in his dealings with the Soviet Union, and Niccolò Machiavelli suggested that, in some circumstances, it was wise for a leader to “simulate madness” to keep his rivals and enemies guessing.
Once the Trump administration’s foreign policy has been through a succession of tests, of course, it may assume a more tangible form, or at least begin to follow a pattern. Should this happen, eager scholars will rush forward to give it a name or place it somewhere along a well-established continuum of realist versus liberal, isolationist versus internationalist or offshore balancer versus interventionist. In the meantime, it is perhaps too easy to get carried away with the idea that we are in uncharted territory, somehow without historical precedent.
Notwithstanding the lack of a doctrine, one thing we have learned already is that Trump operates within certain parameters in international affairs. The president may not do nuance, but he is more beholden to some norms than might have previously been assumed. He has “red lines” too, as his actions over Syria and North Korea seem to demonstrate. It is true that Trump has shown no interest in what Hal Brands calls the “ intellectual architecture ” of American grand strategy. More than that, a number of his key advisers have declared their hostility to some of the presuppositions that underlay the whole idea of the “liberal international order” as the leitmotif of America’s approach to the world. But even if the script has been scrapped, the White House continues to assume that there are certain rules of the game involving prestige, power and even ethics.
WHAT SETS the bounds of action, then? For Trump, it seemed to be an instinctive response in April 2017, following the latest chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime in Syria, to order missile strikes on Shayrat Air Base, from where the attack had been launched. Those who objected that the measure was merely symbolic—not part of a carefully designed strategic plan—were at once correct and missing the point. What is more, the action in Syria became a curtain raiser of sorts: a prelude to proactive behavior in other theaters, where rogue regimes were warned that certain red lines did still exist, and the United States was willing to take action to enforce them. Soon after, a decision was apparently taken to reroute the U.S. aircraft carrier strike group Carl Vinson towards the Korean Peninsula after Pyongyang’s ballistic-missile test, also in April. Within days came the dropping of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (so-called “Mother of All Bombs”) on an ISIS affiliate in eastern Afghanistan.