The Trump Doctrine, Explained
Colin Dueck's Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism seeks to position Donald Trump's trade, immigration, security, and foriegn policies within the past century of Republican and conservative thinking.
Dueck defines non-interventionists as having a “deep resistance to American military intervention, bases, and alliances abroad.” Yet Trump has backed away from his initial impulse to relegate NATO to the dustbin of history. Nor has he closed down a single American overseas base. Moreover, despite his famous reluctance to criticize Russia’s Vladimir Putin, he has not attempted to block the deployment of American forces to the Baltic states. Indeed, he signed an agreement with his Polish counterpart to increase the roughly 4,500 troops stationed there and to provide for a permanent division headquarters on Polish territory—a move that Russia bitterly opposes.
Neither has Trump withdrawn all American troops from the Middle East. Indeed, whereas Obama prematurely withdrew American forces from Iraq, only to redeploy them in the face of the ISIS onslaught, Trump has retained the approximately five thousand troops that were operating in Iraq when Obama left office. Similarly, despite ordering a full-blown study of American military presence in Afghanistan, presumably in order to justify their withdrawal from that country, the United States continues to support more than ten thousand troops there.
It is arguable that Trump most closely reflects the views of what Dueck calls conservative hardliners, since like they, he opposes nation-building efforts, non-military foreign aid, and humanitarian intervention; disdains international institutions; and supports a strong national defense. Yet hardliners also tend to look askance at engagement with adversaries. Trump, on the other hand, seems to relish such engagements far more than he does interactions with allied leaders. It is not just with Putin that Trump seems at ease. He flaunts his personal relationships with Kim Jong-un and China’s Xi Jinping, and has reached out to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He seems to have better relations with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan than with the leaders of other major NATO allies, although Erdogan’s commitment to NATO is questionable given his increasingly warm relations with Putin.
It is probably more accurate to say that Trump has no particular ideological perspective (though the conflation of his business and the national interest regularly draws scrutiny). It is for that reason that there is no telling what the president might decide from one day to the next. Indeed, Dueck quotes Trump’s own explanation of his modus operandi “I play it very loose … I prefer to come to work each day and see what develops … I … protect myself by being flexible. I never get too attached to one deal or one approach.” As Trump goes on to describe his negotiating approach: “The best thing you can do is deal from strength, and leverage is the biggest strength you have.” It is in that context, rather than from ideological underpinnings, that Trump’s support for strong defenses—the hallmark of conservative nationalists—must be understood.
On the other hand, a major motivating factor for the president is his determination to deliver on his 2016 campaign promises, especially as from his very first day in office he signaled his intention to run again in the 2020 election. Dueck notes that Trump’s hard line on illegal immigration, “while perhaps not foreign policy strictly speaking—certainly had foreign policy implications, and had to be considered part of an overall effort by the president to fulfill campaign promises relating to the security of U.S. borders.” Actually, Trump explicitly linked immigration to security. When he declared a national emergency in February 2019 in order to fund a border wall with monies that Congress had appropriated for other accounts, he stated: “We’re going to confront the national security crisis on our southern border, and we’re going to do it one way or the other.” It was a campaign promise he has remained determined to fulfill, come what may.
Trump’s desire to move forces out of the Middle East and Afghanistan likewise was prompted by his campaign promise to bring “endless wars” to a close. And his berating of NATO allies for not allocating sufficient funds for defense spending reflected another box in his list of campaign promises that he sought to check.
Dueck goes on to describe the team that Trump initially assembled, and some of the first changes he made to that team, which Dueck asserts “led to a somewhat more conventional policy making process.” Because he was writing at about the halfway point of Trump’s term, he mentions that the president dismissed H.R. McMaster and replaced him with John Bolton, but does not offer any in-depth analysis of the implications of Bolton’s appointment. He neither explains why McMaster was fired, nor points out Bolton’s diametrically-opposite approach to policy, notably his essential rejection of the national security strategy that McMaster, and his deputy Nadia Schadlow, who left with McMaster, jointly produced.
Indeed, Bolton was anything if not unconventional. He essentially terminated the long-standing nsc practice of convening senior agency leaders to discuss policy alternatives to present to the president. More tellingly, he advocated for a far more aggressive policy toward North Korea, Iran, and Russia that many observers, and ultimately Trump himself, worried could lead to war.
Dueck also could not have anticipated that Trump would tire of Bolton’s aggressiveness and replace him with Robert O’Brien. O’Brien’s career as an arbitrator and negotiator promised a return to long-standing government coordination processes, as well as a more deliberate approach to dealing with both allies and adversaries. In effect, Trump was to some degree returning to the approach he had jettisoned together with McMaster, whom he once called to say that he was missed, providing further evidence that the president really had no ideological moorings of any kind.
In discussing Trump’s personnel changes, Dueck asserts that despite seeming policy differences among Trump’s top national security officials, “as in any administration, the president was ultimately the one in charge of key foreign policy decisions, and no potential cabinet member or leading advisor would have either accepted or been nominated for the position had they not grasped that fact.” In the context of most administrations, Dueck’s observation would simply be a truism. It is not evident, however, that what was the case in the past applied to the first three years of Trump’s administration.
On the contrary, a number of Trump’s senior appointees believed that they could, at a minimum, moderate the president’s worst impulses. For example, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis successfully mitigated the president’s hostility toward the NATO alliance. He failed, however, to dissuade the president from attempting to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan or from trashing America’s key allies, and resigned as a result. McMaster likewise attempted to moderate Trump’s negative attitude toward America’s military presence in Afghanistan. He also was far more hostile to Russia than Trump. The president fired him. Bolton tried to pull Trump in the other direction—that is, toward a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis potential adversaries, including the North Koreans, with whom Trump was determined to negotiate. He too was fired. As it happens, Trump has also taken a swipe at O’Brien, observing on Twitter, “National Security Adviser suggested today that sanctions & protests have Iran ‘choked off,’ will force them to negotiate. Actually, I couldn’t care less if they negotiate.”
LIKE THE person who suffers from the delusion that he or she can change the behavior of a prospective spouse who has already been divorced four times, these men really do seem to have believed that they could influence Trump, in spite of his well-advertised approach to decisionmaking. Only Mike Pompeo, first as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and subsequently as secretary of state, and more recently, O’Brien, seem to have acted in accordance with Dueck’s observation regarding potential advisors and agency heads. It is likely that after three years of Trump’s management style, other potential appointees no doubt will do the same, and it is equally likely that the president will tire of them anyway.
Dueck argues that despite Trump’s preference for better relations with Russia, “the US government could not have mounted a hardline policy against Russia without the president’s own support, or at least his acquiescence.” There is no denying that the Trump administration “continued to bolster its military presence in Poland; increased American sanctions against Russia; reaffirmed its security commitments to NATO members; introduced direct military aid to Ukraine; and made no diplomatic concessions to Russia in Europe.” There is, however, a significant distinction between approval and acquiescence. Trump did not actively promote any of the aforementioned policies. Most notably, he delayed implementing additional sanctions against Russia before finally approving them under bipartisan Congressional pressure.
Trump had little to say about commitments to NATO; it was his senior agency heads who reiterated those commitments. His inaction on Crimea was certainly a concession to Russia “in Europe,” and his withdrawal of forces from Syria a concession to Moscow outside Europe. Finally, while it is true that he agreed to the Congressionally-approved transfer of Javelin anti-tank systems to the beleaguered Ukrainian military, he only did so after a whistleblower provoked a major scandal by alleging that Trump demanded that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky publicly launch an investigation of his political opponents in exchange for the delivery of the missiles. That demand, and the outcry it provoked, led directly to Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives.