Deciphering U.S. Foreign Policy in the Trump Era

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Deciphering U.S. Foreign Policy in the Trump Era

A narrative of power, without persuasion

Deciphering U.S. Foreign Policy in the Trump Era
Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

After nearly a year in office, and with the publishing of his National Security Strategy (NSS) on December 18, 2017, we can begin to decipher President Donald Trump’s foreign policy outlook. Upon review, we discover an uneven work-in-progress, a forceful thesis couched in the well-worn pages of realism, but with plot and main characters constrained by a narrow worldview still limited by the exuberance and defiance of the 2016 campaign. Moving forward, Trump must expand his strategic narrative; otherwise, America must be prepared to face the logical conclusion of his storyline.

The Trump Doctrine

The initial orientation and catalyst of the story is a civilizational divide. In Poland, in a speech leading to the G-20 summit, ­the president vividly invoked the “Warsaw Uprising” as part of a “civilizational call to arms for the West” against all challengers, whether “oppressive ideologies” of “terrorism and extremism” or “powers that seek to test our will, undermine our confidence, and challenge our interests.” Later, before the United Nations General in New York, Trump targeted the “rogue regimes” of Iran and North Korea that support terrorism and threaten their own people and others with weapons of mass destruction. The NSS affirms this grouping, identifying Iran and North Korea as being rogue regimes that “violate all principles of free and civilized states.” Coupled with the threat from global terrorists and rogue regimes, are the “revisionist powers” of China and Russia, which seek to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” They are determined to “make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” The NSS characterizes this struggle as being “fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies and those who favor free societies.” In short, America faces a clash of civilizations.

Trump’s response to these threats is three-fold: First and foremost, his strategy calls for building and maintaining an overwhelming and preeminent military force, as supported by his massive increase in U.S. defense spending. Under this so-called “overmatch” doctrine, the United States must maintain a “combination of capabilities in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success” and “to ensure that America’s sons and daughters will never be in a fair fight.” The United States must deter conflict or, if failing deterrence, win in war. This capability must be extended across all domains (the full spectrum of land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace) and must address and prevent all possible strategic attacks, from terrorist threats to addressing “gray zone” attacks by rival powers that blur the line between war and peace.

To reinforce America’s deterrence, the Trump administration vows to prevent adversaries from using the threat of escalation (including to nuclear conflict) as a means of coercion. The White House will be “risk informed” but not “risk averse” in taking preemptive measures in defense of U.S. vital interests. One indication of this doctrine in action may be recent White House discussions of a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea. Perhaps the president recalls the observation of Mike Tyson, the former boxing champion and early Trump campaign supporter: “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.”

Secondly and in support of military predominance, the president’s strategy focuses on strengthening the American economy. In Trump’s words: “Economic security is national security.” Therefore, the White House commits to growing, preserving and protecting U.S. competitive advantages in science, technology, and innovation that serve as the basis for extending America’s military might, with emerging technologies becoming advanced weapons, for example. A related priority is revitalizing American manufacturing, the industrial base that has grown perilously dependent on global supply chains, according to the NSS. To further insure independence and freedom of action, Trump is also embracing and expanding America’s new role as the world’s most dominant energy power, the top producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons, through such actions as the controversial decision to open nearly the entirety of U.S. coastal waters to off-shore drilling.

Thirdly and finally, Trump is seeking to renegotiate America’s external relationships. This leg of the strategy primarily relates to renewed trade relationships to achieve lower U.S. trade deficits, one of the major themes of Trump’s tour of Asia as I noted in these pages. To achieve this goal, the White House seeks to combat “unfair trading practices” such as dumping, discriminatory non-tariff barriers, forced technology transfers, non-economic capacity, industrial subsidies, and other support from governments and state-owned enterprises. Trump also expects allies and partners to proportionately contribute the capabilities, and demonstrate the will, to confront shared threats.

As part of this renegotiation, the Trump administration is offering allied “industrialized democracies” and like-minded states, “aspiring partners” presumably from the developing world, assistance in defending themselves against powerful states that threaten their sovereignty and independence through aggression, economic or otherwise. But this is not a matter of altruism: In addition to promoting U.S. economic interests, the goal of this effort is to maintain a “favorable balance of power” across the globe. As the NSS states: “We will compete with all tools of national power to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.” The prime target, of course, is China.

China Syndrome

China is the chief antagonist in President Trump’s foreign policy strategy. Within the NSS, China is characterized as a “strategic rival” that not only “challenge[s] American power, influence and interests,” but also “attempt[s] to erode American security and prosperity.” The U.S.-China rivalry extends to every geographic region, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and each common domain, from outer space to cyberspace.

For instance, in Europe, the White House vows to partner with the European Union to contest “China’s unfair trade and economic practices and restrict its acquisition of sensitive technologies.” In Latin America, the NSS criticizes China’s support of the Venezuelan regime, increasing arms sales in the region, and state-led investments and loans that threaten the sovereignty of neighboring states. In South and Central Asia, the Trump administration’s efforts to monetarily punish Pakistan for its support for militants and terrorists is being frustrated by Beijing’s “all-weather” alliance with Islamabad, and the funds flowing from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) valued at $62 billion. Similarly, in the Middle East, Chinese economic influence, as the largest purchaser of Iranian petroleum, remains an obstacle to Trump’s design to isolate Iran. In Africa, the White House plans to challenge the “extractive economic footprint” of China that undermines Africa’s long-term development “by corrupting elites, dominating extractive industries, and locking countries into unsustainable and opaque debts and commitments.”

In the “Indo-Pacific” region, a vast plain that stretches from Mumbai to San Francisco, from Anchorage to Auckland, the Trump administration views China’s efforts to change the balance of power as a strategic threat to U.S. interests. The NSS notes how Chinese “economic inducements” such as infrastructure investments and trade strategies further Beijing’s geopolitical aspirations. The White House calls out China’s aggressive land-reclamation and militarization efforts in the South China Sea, which “endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.” According to the NSS, Chinese enticements of “win-win” solutions mask the threat of a Chinese dominance that threatens the sovereignty of less powerful states in the region.

On the home front, the Trump administration targets Chinese development of advanced weapons and capabilities that could threaten America’s critical infrastructure and command and control architecture. As I wrote in these pages, China’s increasing military capacity and potential breakthrough technology is designed to limit American decision-making and access to places such as the South China Sea. In outer space and cyberspace, advanced technology and weaponry also threaten U.S. communications architecture supporting the U.S. military and economy. China’s military modernization and economic growth, according to the NSS, is due in part to Beijing “unfairly” manipulating the open nature of the “U.S. innovation economy” to steal U.S. intellectual property and technology. As such, Trump vows to protect America’s innovation base – private enterprise, academia, and national laboratories – from undue Chinese influence.

In the end, Trump has declared the liberalizing experiment of engaging China a failure. The post-Cold War period of “strategic complacency” is over. Instead, the NSS embraces the naked struggle for power with China. There is a hero and a villain, but that is largely where the story ends.

Principled Realism

In conveying his strategy, President Trump has asserted the mantle of “principled realism,” meaning, according to the NSS, that his foreign policy is “guided by outcomes, not ideology” and is based on the dual assumptions of continuous competition, particularly among great powers, and the positive influence of American values – such as the rule of law, democracy, and free market – on global affairs. Thus, the NSS proposes a clear-eyed look at “revisionist” powers such as China and Russia while offering passing inspiration from the ever-so-trendy U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton.

But any type of realism, principled or unprincipled, is ultimately reduced to viewing the world as it is, as opposed to what we wish or claim the world to be. In this case, however, geopolitics does not end with power and conflict, but includes cooperation and collective action. As Clausewitz observed: war is only an extension of politics and, thereby, not the sole means for achieving political ends. Even E.H. Carrthe realist’s realist – acknowledged a “basic fact” about human nature that “human beings do in the long run reject the doctrine that might makes right.” In turn, “politics cannot be defined solely in terms of power.”

Indeed, the origins of Western strategic thought go back to the epics of Homer, which contrasted strategic intelligence (metis), as personified by the shrewdness of Odysseus, against brute force (bie), as demonstrated by the physical supremacy of Achilles. Examining the grand strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward Luttwak observed that its lasting influence, beyond the fall of Rome, was characterized by the ability to “generate disproportionate power” by combining military strength with “all the arts of persuasion, guided by superior information.” During the Renaissance era, Machiavelli combined in his ideal Prince the cunning of the fox and the strength of a lion. When Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian statesman, sought to restore world order following the Napoleonic period, he not only relied on the balance of power, but also appealed to a sense of “legitimacy” to guide the post-war settlement. In the wake of World War II, to counter the growing Soviet threat, President Harry S. Truman relied on the military build-up called for under National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68) as well as a foreign policy doctrine grounded in the diplomacy necessary to develop a system of alliances, institutions, and multi-lateral economic cooperation. In the post-Cold War era, the bi-partisan U.S. effort to build a rules-based international order matched hard and soft power assets.

In this regard, in his first year of office, Trump has offered an incomplete and imbalanced foreign policy that centers on and, at times, promotes international discord, while ignoring or offering lip service to the reality of shared interests, the opportunity for problem-solving, and the pressing need for legitimacy. We have to look no further than to the recent easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, in spite of Trump’s inflammatory tweets and open condemnation of diplomatic efforts, which have created separation between Seoul and Washington. Or we can examine Trump’s lumbering threats to scuttle the Iran Nuclear Deal, in the face of appeals from critical U.S. allies like the European Union and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Tehran has been complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). We can also turn to the area of climate change, where China has filled the void of U.S. leadership following the Trump administration’s impulsive withdrawal from the Paris Accord. The decision of the remaining members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to push forward on the multilateral trade deal, even without the United States, is emblematic of a precarious new dynamic for the “indispensable” nation in the Trump era.

In addition to nuclear proliferation, environmental challenges, and trade, there are a range of other imminent hazards and longer-term challenges that necessitate U.S. leadership and collective action, including battling infectious disease, migration flows, global terrorism, and transformative technology. Whether the international community will accept U.S. leadership, even if offered, is a critical problem under the Trump presidency.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, since he took office, there has been a sharp decline in the trust the U.S. president receives on the world stage, particularly among some of America’s closest allies in Europe and Asia. A median of just 22 percent of foreign publics in countries surveyed has confidence that Trump will do the right thing when it comes to international affairs, with his highest marks coming from the Philippines, currently led by strongman Rodrigo Duterte. Overall, the drop in favorability ratings for the United States is widespread.

Expanding the Narrative

The chief problem with Trump’s foreign policy storyline is its myopic narrative of “America first” which, albeit a powerful rallying cry for Trump’s domestic political base in 2016, offers an insufficient national security policy for the future of a global super power. Importantly, the story offered by Trump fails to capture the full measure of international relations or offer a vision of global leadership in the best tradition of past American leaders. What is lost in the Trump doctrine is the critical importance of diplomacy, in building alliances, forming multilateral coalitions, and developing international institutions. In short, the art of persuasion – underlying collective action and the intangible quality of legitimacy – is absent.

Moreover, if the plotline is dominated by force and conflict, then we should not be surprised by the conclusion.

Thus, the challenge for Trump is to be become a statesman in addition to a politician, to enlarge the scope of his strategic story beyond his instinctive experience, based on his extraordinary electoral victory, to include a deeper appreciation of a world in flux, where American power is necessary, but not sufficient, where U.S. leadership is required, but cannot be imposed, where a confident China is offering a fresh alternative, and where mutual challenges can foster cooperation and build confidence, even among strategic rivals.

In his magisterial study on strategy, Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College London compares an effective strategy to a persuasive narrative, where the players “follow the script out of the logic of the developing situation.” In other words, the strategy must have “dramatic imperative” to borrow from Frederick Mayer of Duke University. Moreover, to be meaningful, a narrative must be absorbed and shared; and an agreeable audience begins with a shrewd story-teller with a firm grasp of where the drama is heading. In classic Greece the dramatic division was between comedy and tragedy. As Freedman describes, comedy ends with a satisfactory resolution with the main character looking forward to the future; tragedy ends negatively for the protagonist, who is largely responsible for his misfortune, even if society as a whole is restored to some sort of equilibrium. The real tragedy, under the slender frame of America first, would be an America alone. Now is the time to expand the narrative.

Roncevert Ganan Almond is a partner at The Wicks Group, based in Washington, D.C. He has advised the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on issues concerning international law and written extensively on maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific. The views expressed here are strictly his own.U