National Security: The Trump Doctrine

ABC News

ABC News

With a disregard toward the dangers of nuclear proliferation, an appeasing attitude towards Russian revanchism, and an almost open hostility towards the United States’ NATO allies, many in the foreign policy community fear President Trump to be making good on his promise to return to an “America First” approach to global affairs – with some even suggesting the end of the liberal world order approaching. Trump’s foreign policy views consisted of many thoughts, but few ideas, and were always subject to change. However, with the first hundred days of the new administrations tenure on the horizon, the Trump administration has made negligible revolutionary changes to foreign policy. To the delight of many Trump skeptics, the President has (after an initial setback) chosen an otherwise stellar national security staff. For one to access the genesis of the Trump Doctrine, one must navigate between rhetoric and reality.

In one of the opening acts of the Trump presidency was his phone call with the President of Taiwan – a move that startled the ruling Chinese oligarchs in Beijing. The President has questioned the wisdom of the One China policy, which insists the unity between China and Taiwan as one nation. The administration recently announced to take a harder stance on North Korea with or without China’s help, with the President stating “China will decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t.” This statement was made before a meeting between Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. All of this comes after the administration announced its intention to significantly increase defense spending, which includes the desire to raise the number of ships in the Navy to 355 – an act that poses a threat to Chinese militarism in the South China Sea. 

In a presidential campaign characterized by unorthodox views on foreign policy, the administration is thus far taking a “peace through strength” approach that will be met with applause by many in the national security establishment. In the Middle East, the President’s opposition to Iran, as well as his strategy towards ISIS has been a welcomed policy, considering the unpredictable attitudes Mr. Trump has taken toward the region while on the campaign trail. In Egypt, the Trump administration has allowed the sale of military jets to the Egyptian government. All signs indicate a divorce from the isolationist rhetoric the President promoted on the campaign trail – at least to an extent.

Ironically though, while some steps forward have been taken in checking Chinese power in the South China Sea, the President has also regressed with the abandonment of the Trans Pacific Partnership – an economic partnership designed to boost Asian economies to counter China’s economic power. This is one of many contradictory aspects of the Trump Doctrine. The contradictions go beyond the Pacific and into Europe. For example, amongst the defense spending increase is an increase in the size of the Army. This stands as a contradiction because, as the Navy is best suited to counter the primarily naval threat that is China, the Army is best suited to counter the land threat that is Russia – a geopolitical risk that has been met with almost silence (by the President at least). 

Also in the European theatre, Mr. Trump’s concerns over the defense spending of NATO allies (or lack thereof) is a common grievance of presidential administrations. However, President Trump’s attitude transcends what is an annoyance to other administrations to a quasi-reprimanding of NATO members that don’t currently meet the 2% GDP spending requirement (which other than America is every NATO member but Britain, Poland, Greece, and Estonia). This culminated with the awkward meeting between the President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – with the President purportedly giving Chancellor Merkel a “bill” for missed spending.

One of the great concerns of the Trump presidential campaign was the indication that then candidate Trump had a rudimentary – if not nonexistent – understanding of foreign affairs. However, if the President listens to his national security picks, such a lack of understanding may not be as alarming. The President’s national security picks have been met with enthusiasm by many in the foreign policy establishment that were otherwise skeptical of the President. Most notably was the selection of retired Marine General Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense, and Army General H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor. Both cabinet picks have excellent practical and intellectual experience. 

Secretary Mattis served in the Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars, with commands including the 1st Marine division, the United States Joint Forces Command, and the United States Central Command. Before serving in his current capacity, Secretary Mattis worked at the Hoover Institution, a Stanford-based think tank where he covered a variety of topics that range from foreign policy to constitutional matters. He has also become a cultural icon. After initially appointing retired General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, a move not welcomed by many, the President appointed General H.R. McMaster to be the current NSA after the resignation of General Flynn. McMaster is an excellent choice. His military career included fighting in the Battle of 73 Easting during the Gulf War, the last significant armor clash of the 20th century. During the Iraq War, McMaster advised General David Petraeus during the “Surge,” the successful effort to turn the tide of the War in favor of America and the Iraqi government. Intellectually, General McMaster has a PhD in history and has authored a book titled “Dereliction of Duty,” a book that excoriated American leadership during the Vietnam War. Like Secretary Mattis, General McMaster has also worked at the Hoover Institution

Other players in the national security sphere, such as Secrecy of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have not had adequate time or experience for one to assess their capabilities, though the latter has already begun a push for change in the UN. It would be wise for Secretary Mattis and General McMaster to acknowledge a potential power that might undercut them: that of Steve Bannon. It is common for Presidents to take the advice of campaign loyalists over their advisors, and it would be a tragedy to waste the intellectual might of Mattis and McMaster because of the maneuvering of Bannon.

In one of his Idler essays, Samuel Johnson wrote that “nature has taken sufficient care that theory shall have little influence over practice.” Reality always bonds ideas; it’s a common characteristic of Presidential campaigns to promise a revolution in American statecraft. Some administrations go farther than others, but they are always held in check by personalities, the mechanics of bureaucracies, and the general Hobbesian unpredictability that is current events – and one doubts the Trump Doctrine to be any different. Though it may already be fatiguing, the Trump Administration and the Trump Doctrine is still in its infancy. There are many issues yet to be addressed by the new administration, such as those concerning Africa, Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, and the War in Afghanistan. The effects of the Doctrine and how it will respond to the inevitable future crisis’ that will confront it will only be revealed by time.