Trump's Perilous Path
To the extent Donald Trump has a strategy, it is one grounded in assumptions and realities that were far more relevant 150 years ago than they are today.
THERE IS A widespread consensus that Donald Trump is a highly transactional figure who has no strategic sense—much less an actual strategy. That is not entirely correct. He does have a coherent strategy, but it is one that is firmly based on a nineteenth-century view of America’s role in the world. In that regard, his strategic perspective contrasts sharply with many of the men he professes to admire such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. Like Trump, Putin is often mischaracterized as lacking a strategic worldview. Unlike Trump, however, both Putin and Xi are firmly rooted in the twenty-first century and both understand how they can best achieve their ambitions by drawing upon their respective nation’s human and material resources, which is the essence of strategy.
Putin has most clearly demonstrated his strategic acumen in the Middle East. In contrast, Donald Trump wishes to lower America’s profile in the region. Despite limited resources and a weak economy, under Putin’s leadership Russia has entrenched itself more deeply in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East than the Soviet Union ever did. Moreover, Moscow has managed to maintain good relations with states that are hostile to each other. Russia has strengthened its position in Syria with a new long-term lease on the Tartus naval base and a similar lease on an air base at Khmeimim—its first ever such facility in the Middle East.
Russia has worked closely with Iran in Syria and has ongoing contacts with Hezbollah, Tehran’s Lebanese proxy. It also maintains good relations with Iran’s (and Syria and Hezbollah’s) avowed enemy, Israel, whereas the Soviets had no relations with the Jewish state after 1967. Russia has also re-engaged with Egypt for the first time since the Soviets were expelled in 1972; like Israel, Egypt sees Iran as a security threat. Finally, Russia has moved closer to Turkey, including the expected sale of arms to Ankara, even as it also has excellent ties to Cyprus, which has long opposed Turkey’s support for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Xi Jinping, now effectively China’s president for life, has firmly established his country as an economic, political and military force to be reckoned with. Whether it is the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, which Beijing dominates, China’s One Belt/One Road Initiative or its military buildup in the South China Sea, Xi has pursued a strategy that has effectively outflanked an otherwise militarily more powerful—at least for the time being—United States. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (tpp) trade agreement has only further expanded the strategic vacuum that Xi Jinping has rapidly begun to fill.
Finally, though Trump has claimed credit for the thaw in relations between North and South Korea, any reconciliation between the two states would not have been possible without Xi Jinping’s guiding hand. China is North Korea’s lifeline to the world. It is also the Republic of Korea’s leading trading partner, with twice as many exports to the South as the United States and nearly twice as many imports. Moreover, unlike Washington, but like Seoul—and for that matter Tokyo and most likely Moscow—China has no interest in a united Korea. That Kim Jong-un’s first foreign visit since taking office was to Beijing, and that it took place just weeks before he agreed to meet with both South Korean president Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump, certainly appears to indicate that Xi Jinping had more of a hand in orchestrating the summits with South Korea and the United States than the American president’s bluster over the previous months. Indeed, if there is an agreement to end the conflict between North and South Korea, it could involve the withdrawal of American forces from the peninsula. In that case—and even if no American troop withdrawal were to take place—Xi, by virtue of China’s proximity to Korea, its economic stranglehold over the North and its powerful economic ties to the South, is more likely to be the guarantor of the arrangement than the United States. As a result, Chinese dominance of East Asia would become even more pronounced.
Trump’s relations with Mexico and Central America seem to go from bad to worse. His calls for a border wall, his preoccupation with the infiltration of drugs and gangs though America’s southern border, his imposing tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, and his determination to revamp American trade agreements—which include the Central America Free Trade Agreement—have stoked long-standing tensions with America’s neighbors. At the same time, Iran, with close ties to Venezuela, and more recently China, have expanded their influence in America’s backyard. Finally, Trump has said little about Africa, other than to describe black African countries in the most derogatory terms, even as China maintains its strong economic influence south of the Sahara.
It is certainly the case that the Trump administration has produced a National Security Strategy that establishes security priorities, confirms the importance of America’s alliances and identifies both Russia and China as major threats to U.S. and allied interests. Consistent with that strategy, Trump has successfully pressed the case for a major boost in defense spending, which should help the armed forces reverse critical readiness and modernization shortfalls. In particular, he has authorized a significant funding increase for what is now called the European Deterrence Initiative, which aims both to deter Russian encroachment and/or disruption of the small Baltic states, and to reassure those vulnerable NATO Eastern European allies. He has also authorized a significant modernization of America’s strategic nuclear forces, while increasing spending on missile defense, thereby signaling to Russia that he was serious when he asserted that the United States would maintain its nuclear superiority indefinitely.
After a rocky start, he has managed to improve relations with several key allies, notably France, Britain, Japan and South Korea, as well as with China, America’s leading Asian competitor. Indeed, the joint Franco-British-American strike on Syrian chemical facilities in April 2018 would have seemed unimaginable when Trump first took office fifteen months earlier. Until then, he had both blasted the NATO allies for insufficient defense spending and disparaged, if not ignored, Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty.
Nevertheless, Trump himself has not always acted in accordance with the document issued in his name; a number of the president’s policies belie the lofty goals of his strategy document. His expressed desire to withdraw forces from Syria would expand that country’s security vacuum that not only Russia, but Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, Hezbollah, various resistance movements including Islamists of different stripes, Israel (at least from the air) and of course the Assad regime are all trying to fill. The situation on the ground already increasingly calls forth memories of the Balkans in 1913. An American withdrawal, like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, could ignite a wider and deadlier regional war.
In contrast to the National Security Strategy’s assertion that “We remain committed to helping facilitate a comprehensive peace agreement that is acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians,” Trump’s unstinting support for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and policies, including the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, represents another potential flashpoint for more trouble in the Middle East. The president’s clear signal that his administration is not interested in entertaining Palestinian grievances may have few consequences in the short term, despite the ongoing weekly Gaza protests. Over time, however, it could prompt another far bloodier uprising by increasingly frustrated and desperate Palestinians that could force the Gulf Arabs to back away from their covert cooperation with Israel against a common Iranian threat.
Trump’s decision to walk away from the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has both rattled allies (other than Netanyahu and the Sunni Gulf), and infuriated Tehran, which has threatened to renounce its adherence to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Unless the Europeans, led by French president Emmanuel Macron, are able to convince Washington to delay full implementation of sanctions, while also convincing Iran to expand the scope of the agreement—especially by including limits on missile production and delaying the agreement’s sunset provisions—which remains an unlikely prospect, the United States will confront not only a new and urgent crisis with Iran, but also with its key European allies, whose firms would be subject to sanction if they were to trade with Iranian entities.
Finally, Trump’s support for the ongoing Saudi and Emirati operations in the Yemen civil war, as well as his inability to foster a compromise between those two states (and Bahrain and Egypt) and Qatar are further harming America’s image in the region. All in all, the president’s views on the Middle East effectively have removed the United States from its long-standing position as the power with which all in the region had to reckon. That Vladimir Putin has eagerly and rapidly sought that role and met some success in doing so should come as a surprise to no one. Moreover, once effectively sidelined in the Middle East, it may prove difficult for America to reinsert itself into that troubled part of the world.
Trump’s decision to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un represents a departure not only from decades of American policy and from his own incendiary rhetoric but also from the policy that the National Security Strategy outlined. Trump’s gamble does have considerable merit, given previous failed efforts to deflect Pyongyang from its determined effort to become a strategic nuclear power. Nevertheless, talk of Nobel Peace Prizes—which has become a new rallying cry from Trump supporters—is, to say the least, exceedingly premature.
To begin with, the summit could prove to be a disaster; Trump has already threatened an early walkout if the talks do not proceed smoothly while Kim Jong-un has made it clear that he is not prepared to accede to Washington’s demand that he terminate his nuclear program immediately. Second, as already noted, China may be the real guarantor of peace on the Korean Peninsula. Finally, it is not at all clear that the mercurial Kim would trust the word of an equally mercurial Trump, whose word, like that of North Korea, has rarely been his bond.
Other elements of Trump’s worldview, though echoed in the published strategy, actually run counter to its ambitious goals. Perhaps more than any other of its sections, the National Security Strategy discussion of immigration policy in the document’s opening pages, together with its outline of American trade policy, reflects Trump’s long-held views about these topics.
The strategy pulls no punches regarding immigration:
Strengthening control over our borders and immigration system is central to national security, economic prosperity and the rule of law. Terrorists, drug traffickers and criminal cartels exploit porous borders and threaten U.S. security and public safety.
What the document does not explicitly spell out—but what Trump’s tweets, public statements and executive orders have made clear—is that the targets of his administration’s immigration policies are non-European peoples based on racial and/or religious grounds. These include Muslims, Africans, Hispanics and Haitians, all of whom the president has at one time or another made disparaging remarks.
In a similar vein, the National Security Strategy asserts that:
We will address persistent trade imbalances, break down trade barriers, and provide Americans new opportunities to increase their exports. The United States will expand trade that is fairer so that U.S. workers and industries have more opportunities to compete for business.
Here too it is consistent with Trump’s pronouncements on trade before, during and since his presidential campaign and the tariffs that he has authorized since he took office.
Trump’s tariffs on imported materials are the first that have been imposed in seven years and the second in sixteen. Those earlier efforts, both aimed primarily at China, did not succeed. The 2002 tariffs imposed by the George W. Bush administration on Chinese steel products were dropped in the face of international pressure. The 2011 Obama administration tariffs on Chinese tires resulted in more jobs lost than saved. Yet, as noted, Trump’s orders for tariff increases have been aimed not only at China, a potential adversary. Indeed, Trump has reversed himself regarding penalties to China’s giant zte corporation, and has indicated a willingness to reconsider his aggressive tariffs policy toward Beijing.
On the other hand, his tariff policy is also aimed at Japan and the European Union—notably Germany, among America’s closest allies. Similarly, his determination to renegotiate the North Atlantic Free Trade Area agreement and to impose tariffs on Canadian and Mexican products is aimed not at an adversary but at America’s closest neighbors.
Trump’s tweets, his public statements, as well as official policy, have borne some fruit. South Korea, anticipating Kim Jong-un’s summits with both Presidents Moon and Trump, made a series of concessions regarding steel exports and auto imports in a new trade agreement with Washington that was inked in late March 2018. Early in April, Xi Jinping also seemed to indicate a willingness to compromise on trade. Though making no explicit commitments, Xi pledged to “significantly lower” tariffs on auto imports and to ease restrictions on foreign investment in China. The European Union, however, has shown no signs of backing down on its threat to increase tariffs on American products if Washington were to press ahead with increased tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Europe. On the contrary the European Union’s response has been to impose tariffs on products made in states represented by key Republican leaders.
Trump is frustrated because he is forced to work with the twenty-eight member European Union—unlike bilateral negotiations with China and Korea. Despite its inclusion in his strategy document, his refusal in practice to see trade as integral to national security—like his views on immigration and his uneasy relationship with European powers—reflects what can only be described as a mid-nineteenth-century understanding of national security and international affairs. His worldview is most deeply rooted in that earlier period of American history.
To the extent that he has given strategic matters any thought, Trump’s approach is not drawn from that of Andrew Jackson, the president he professes to admire most. Instead, it can more accurately be traced to a combination of policies variously associated with two other antebellum presidents: Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan.
Millard Fillmore was in many ways an accidental president. Fillmore was elected vice president in 1848 as the junior member of a ticket headed by Gen. Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Mexican-American War. Sixteen months after Taylor’s inauguration in March 1849, Fillmore was catapulted to the presidency when Taylor died suddenly in June 1850.
Fillmore, a New Yorker like Trump, was an exceedingly conservative politician. He turned a blind eye to slavery, publicly asserting that he was not an abolitionist. While Fillmore claimed to be personally opposed to slavery, he felt that the issue was a matter that the federal government could not legislate away. In that spirit he supported the 1850 Missouri Compromise, which his predecessor had opposed. This act both permitted the expansion of slavery to western states and spawned the Fugitive Slave Act that formed the starting point for the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case. Fillmore’s trade policies were both protectionist and aggressive. He sought trade advantages in Asia, supporting Commodore Perry’s efforts to open the Japanese market to the United States.
Nineteenth-century America witnessed the mass immigration of white Europeans, especially the Irish who sought to escape the ravages of the Potato Famine that had begun in 1845. White Protestant America was hostile to the overwhelmingly Catholic immigrants, and Fillmore—leaving the White House—openly aligned himself with the virulently anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party. Indeed, his only campaign for the presidency was as that party’s candidate, which had been renamed the American Party. He won only one state.
There were four leading contestants for the 1852 Democratic Party nomination for the right to seek to succeed Millard Fillmore—James Buchanan, Stephen Douglas, Lewis Cass and William Marcy. When a bitterly divided party could not agree on a candidate it nominated Franklin Pierce after thirty-four ballots. The Whig Party rejected Fillmore and instead nominated Gen. Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican-American War. Foreshadowing Trump’s own victory, Pierce was elected as much because of Scott’s inept campaigning as on his own merits.
Buchanan’s road to the presidency in 1856 was smoother. He won a plurality of votes on the first ballot, and then went on to win the Democratic Party’s then-required two-thirds majority on the seventeenth ballot. Running against John Fremont of the newly organized anti-slavery Republican Party, Buchanan won both because of Fremont’s vague platform and because the Know Nothing Party ate into Fremont’s potential vote.
Buchanan, even more than Fillmore, was indifferent to the expansion of slavery to states entering the Union. He considered slavery a matter for the states to decide; since blacks had no vote, the decision was left totally up to the white population. In that regard, he supported a constitution put forward by the pro-slavery faction in Kansas, which had become a battleground between those forces and abolitionists since the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act three years earlier.
Moreover, Buchanan appears to have influenced the outcome of the Dred Scott decision, which was handed down two days after his inauguration, by urging a justice from the Northern states to vote with his Southern colleagues. Having learned that the Southern view would prevail, Buchanan then included a request in his inaugural address that all abide by the court’s decision. The thinly veiled racist hint would not be the last of its kind emanating from a president.
Buchanan’s foreign policy, like that of Fillmore, was generally hostile to Europe but bullying toward Latin America, especially Cuba and Mexico. In particular, he employed the navy to pressure Britain to limit its presence in Central America; Britain controlled the colony of British Honduras, as well as numerous Caribbean islands.
Buchanan sought unsuccessfully to annex Cuba. As for Mexico, Buchanan tried to pressure America’s neighbor to the immediate south in a number of ways. He proposed to launch another attack on Mexico so as to seize its northern states, but the Congress would not go along. He asked Congress for funds to police both Mexico and Central America. Again, Congress did not cooperate. Finally, the Senate would not ratify a treaty that his administration had negotiated for American transit rights through Mexico. In the end, Buchanan managed to get Mexico—as well as Costa Rica and Colombia—to cover damages to American property and won transit rights from Nicaragua.
Buchanan, as a Northerner, was a strong supporter of his region’s still fledgling industries. Whereas several of his predecessors supported lowering tariffs, a policy that the free-trade oriented South supported, Buchanan sought to raise them. He sympathized with opponents of the U.S.-British Elgin-Marcy Treaty of 1854, which provided for the reciprocal tariff reductions between the United States and Britain’s five Canadian provinces. One of his last acts in office was to sign the Morrill Tariff, which reversed fifteen years of Washington’s low-tariff policy.
In seeking and winning the presidency, and as president, Trump, like both Fillmore and Buchanan, has evinced indifference to racial and religious tensions and hostility toward immigrants. That the United States has long since formally abandoned its indifference to racial and religious intolerance does not seem to have affected the president’s thinking. Like Fillmore, and possibly Buchanan, Trump apparently does not personally harbor racist and anti-Semitic sentiments. Nevertheless, his not so heavily veiled attacks on Muslims, his countenancing of the hate-filled rants of the Charlottesville demonstrators and his snide remarks about Haitians and Africans hark back to the Know Nothing Party’s platform and to Buchanan’s willingness to support Southern racism. Ironically, Trump’s hostility to immigrants in particular flies in the face of countless studies that have demonstrated that immigrants are a boost to the national economy and that most are at least as well educated as average Americans. In addition, Trump’s veiled attacks on minorities have stoked racial tensions and the culture wars that have plagued the United States for the past several decades.
Like Millard Fillmore, Trump has pursued an aggressive trade policy: Fillmore supported Commodore Perry’s “opening” of Japan’s markets; Trump has pressed Japan, China, the European Union and America’s immediate neighbors to the north and south to “open” their markets to more American goods. Additionally, like James Buchanan, Trump has been a strong advocate of protectionism; he seeks impose quotas on the importation of foreign goods and tariffs on those that do enter the United States.
President Trump does not appear to recognize that it is the reality of international supply chains, even more than the benefits of international free trade agreements, that underpins America’s transformation from the nineteenth-century nation of infant industries, to the postindustrial, electronic and cyber service-driven economy that is America’s future. Moreover, his inability to see trade policy as yet another facet of national security policy stands in contrast not only to Xi Jinping in particular, but also to the leadership of the European Union and its member states, as well as the eleven signatories of the tpp.
Trump’s desire to renegotiate trade arrangements with Mexico is but one aspect of his very aggressive stance toward America’s southern neighbor that conjures up the policies of James Buchanan. While certainly not advocating any military incursions into Mexico—as Buchanan did—Trump’s repeated demands for Mexico to finance a wall between the two countries smacks of the earlier president’s bullying tactics. So too does Trump’s decision to deploy the National Guard along the U.S.-Mexican border. His posture toward Mexico is hardly designed to promote comity on America’s southern border, and opens the way for foreign antagonists to exploit ongoing tensions with Washington. At the same time, like Buchanan’s belligerence toward Britain, Trump’s manifest coolness toward Germany, Europe’s most powerful state, can only result in unwanted friction with an important ally. Moreover, it offers new opportunities for Vladimir Putin’s Russia to undermine Germany’s democratic norms, as it is already doing elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.
Trump has evinced considerable admiration for authoritarian rulers, such as Putin, Xi, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Neither Fillmore nor Buchanan, indeed none of Trump’s predecessors, appears to have shared the same degree of sympathy for foreign leaders who had such little truck with democracy. Yet Trump’s positive disposition has not prevented Erdogan, Duterte or Hungary’s Victor Orban—leaders of treaty allies of the United States—from cozying up to America’s rivals: Erdogan and Orban to Putin’s Russia, Duterte to China. The president simply may not realize how counterproductive his personal inclinations are toward American strategic interests.
Ultimately, it is not at all clear that Trump actually has formulated a coherent strategy for the twenty-first century, his administration’s strategy document notwithstanding. Yet even if, despite the assertions of his critics, Trump has actually read the National Security Strategy that bears his name, one must wonder whether he takes it seriously—especially since, H. R. McMaster and Nadia Schadlow, the strategy’s principal authors, no longer lead his National Security staff. McMaster and Schadlow are both establishment figures who could have served in an administration headed by most of Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. On the other hand, John Bolton, McMaster’s successor as National Security Advisor, has prided himself on not being part of the Republican foreign policy establishment. He is unlikely to be bound by a document that he neither authored, nor to which, at least to all appearances, he made any significant contribution.
The same might be said for Bolton’s new deputy, Mira Ricardel, who transferred from the Department of Commerce where she served as under secretary for export administration. If anything, Ricardel’s contribution to the National Security Strategy would have focused on the document’s aggressively protectionist pronouncements on trade, which, despite its inclusion in the National Security Strategy, the president treats as an entirely separate matter from other aspects of national security.
In sum, to the extent Donald Trump has a strategy, it is one grounded in assumptions and realities that were far more relevant 150 years ago than they are today. In the mid-nineteenth century, America was still grappling with slavery, was welcoming immigrants by the hundreds of thousands—if not millions—was still a heavily agricultural society and was continuing to expand to the west and southwest. It had no formal or even informal alliances, and viewed international security primarily through the prism of the Monroe Doctrine. None of these considerations apply today. President Trump has repeatedly evoked the importance of national security as a justification for many of his policies. Unless he can divorce himself from antediluvian thinking about domestic and national security, he runs the risk of being ranked with Fillmore and Buchanan as among America’s worst presidents.
Dov S. Zakheim was an under secretary of defense (2001–4) and a deputy under secretary of defense (1985–87). He is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest.