The Trump Doctrine and the Future of American Power
America today stands at a geopolitical inflection point from which its global power and influence might continue their recovery or once again fall, depending largely on the actions of its next president. To put that into context, following a damaging and expensive war in Iraq, the collapse of US banks, capital markets and its economy and a growing trade deficit with China, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, conventional wisdom in Washington and on Wall Street seemed to increasingly see America’s hegemony drawing to a close. However, America’s economy, corporations and capital markets have recovered their pre-eminent position despite significant domestic political gridlock, while at the same time, China’s economy, capital markets and currency have collapsed and China seems set to be embroiled in internal issues for the next decade. America’s recent technological breakthroughs have unlocked over 100 years of cheap energy and potential independence from the oil nations. The ensuing rebasing of the US cost structure promises to make American industry competitive and reset the trade deficit. However, many feel disenfranchised by the modern America that has emerged around them. Mr. Trump’s rise is a product of the failure of former administrations and also of the system to meet the needs of a significant segment of the American public. As Donald Trump’s candidacy for the Republican nomination for President of the United States continues to grow in strength, it is important to consider whether his espoused foreign policy views provide a platform for the continued growth of American geo-political power and leadership or will precipitate their decline.
The Historical Context of American Power
Answering the question of the future of American power under Mr. Trump requires placing a “Trump Doctrine”, such as it may be, into a historic context. The context has three stages; the first is the making of American hegemony, the second is the faltering of America’s power and position and the third is its return.
The making of America’s status as the sole superpower is a function of circumstance, its pursuit of a political and economic philosophy that has stood the test of time thus far and the willing followership of other major powers. In the aftermath of the Second World War, America came to represent a “force for good” in the highly fractured Cold War environment, creating what became the model, underpinned by its core values of democracy, capitalism and globalisation, that delivered superior prosperity and freedom and establishing the institutions that shaped the current world order. The Soviet Union, offering the major alternative to the philosophies that America espoused, in contrast, failed to deliver comparable levels of prosperity and freedom, and following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the world at large accepted the comprehensive superiority of the American Way in economic, scientific and military matters.
However, America risked its position of hegemony in the first decade of the 21st century. Following 9/11, the war in Iraq saw America lose the moral support of the world, with survey after survey doubting America as a “force for good” and calling for a multi-polar sharing of world power. Further, as China rose to power rapidly establishing its economy, trading prowess, and corporate scale on international platforms, the US catapulted the world markets and economies into the Global Financial Crisis, driving the conventional wisdom in Washington and on Wall Street to the belief that American power was in decline and China the likely successor. However, the US has staged a widespread economic recovery during the second decade of the 21st century, with China’s growth nearly halved to 6% (or far less, by some accounts), Europe and Japan stagnant, Russia nearly bankrupt and other oil nations facing severe financial troubles. In foreign policy, America’s “Asia Pivot” has been welcomed in non-Chinese Asia as a way to balance, if not contain, China’s power and India is aligning itself more closely with the US. All in all, American world leadership appears to be back on the rise and no other powers seem ready to form alliances that provide the international community with a better way ahead.
However, real leadership requires more than economic and military superiority; it requires the world to be willing to be led, which in turn requires moral leadership and a sense that the leader is fair, just and offers something to aspire towards, too. While America has traditionally provided this to the world and under the Obama Administration has recovered much of the ground lost during the previous government, it has not yet fully recovered this standing and so it’s next president will be key in determining whether it does or not. The considerable swing in foreign policy between the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations (and ensuring relations with the world) demonstrates the potential impact that policies pursued by the president can have even over the short-term.
Given the relative strength of America’s position in the world, the American electorate’s choice for its next president has the potential to shape the global order and determine whether America continues its pre-eminent position or sets in motion a potentially damaging decline. And while the international community does not get to vote on who will sit in the White House, it certainly has a vested interest in the outcome of the election. It is in this broader context of American power and the world order that the potential foreign policy under a President Trump is examined here. For the purposes of this exercise we are putting aside the bigger questions of the impact and merits of American power and how it might be reshaped in an ideal world, themselves topics for a much broader piece of work worth considering in its own right.
Assembling the Trump Doctrine
For much of his campaign, Donald Trump has been a foreign policy cipher, addressing international issues only at the margin of domestic, political, social and economic issues, where he has raised hackles with views that place him far beyond the pale of major political candidates. Many political observers (including some of his own supporters) have questioned whether he actually believes what he says on the campaign trail, and those that are inclined to seek the positive speculate that he is in fact a pragmatic realist. Any undisclosed true beliefs notwithstanding, the strong rhetoric of Mr. Trump’s various pronouncements to date on domestic as well as foreign policy has caused anxiety in the international community. UN diplomats are reported to be rushing to conclude outstanding deals before the end of 2016, over fears that a Trump administration could potentially reverse US policy across a number of fronts. Mr. Trump’s proclamations to date have also been sufficient to alarm America’s own foreign policy establishment. Mr Trump’s self-admitted lack of experience in foreign and security policy coupled with very bold statements on the subject has recently prompted an open letter from senior members of the republican foreign policy establishment, saying that a Trump presidency would “make America less safe” and that he is unfit for office. This sentiment may help explain why Mr. Trump’s recently announced foreign policy team lacks senior individuals with policy making track records, a situation which is at odds with his own often repeated promise of “getting the smartest people” to advise him, although this may well change if he is elected president. More recently, a series of speeches and interviews has shed further light on Mr. Trump’s foreign policy beliefs and priorities. Examining these statements, along with his previous foreign policy related statements provides some clues about what a “Trump Doctrine” might look like. The key proposals made by the candidate have a potential impact on international relations are wide ranging and profound.
Ten statements clearly do not a foreign policy doctrine make, particularly given that Mr. Trump’s foreign policy appears to be largely formulated based on emotions – likes and dislikes for institutions, nations, peoples, specific agreements and protocols – rather than a view of history, the system of the world and the realities of American power and how it is exercised in arenas as wide as the battlefield and the trade forum. Looking at Donald Trump’s pronouncements it is hard to say how much of it is merely bombastic rhetoric or calculated showmanship, designed to play to his target electorate, rather than real policy intent. The absence of a strong foreign policy team supporting him means that there is nobody in the Trump camp who can modulate or put into perspective his pronouncements. Further, Mr. Trump’s own track record of disavowing his previous statements does not rule out the possibility of many of the positions above being withdrawn or even reversed. However, two conclusions do stand out:
(i) Abandonment of US Leadership of the World Order. Given the business background of Mr. Trump, trade deals, immigration questions and US overseas military spending are seen from a more narrowly economic perspective and are seen as more important foreign policy issues than the continuation of the US led international order and the international system. Mr. Trump apparently simply does not see many of the key historical areas of US foreign policy, including the promotion of democracy, the spread of human rights, and the US protection of the global commons such as open sea lanes and open trade, as core to the US national interest. In addition, Mr. Trump does not believe in the link between geo-political leadership and geo-economic leadership or believes that America’s geo-economic leadership will continue even if another power has geo-political leadership. While it remains unclear how Mr. Trump would deal with issues outside of the scope of comments he has made on foreign policy, e.g. with regards to dealing with failed and failing states in places like Africa, his focus on economic over political issues indicates his likely preference for a hands off approach, to the potential detriment of regional, and possibly global, long-term stability.
(ii) Repositioning of America as a Merchant Trading Power. A likely Trump Doctrine regarding foreign policy consists of a mix of isolationism and American exceptionalism, which he terms as “America First”. Looking back at Mr. Trump’s statements over the years, it is clear that these are views he has held much longer than his candidacy, as evidenced particularly by a 1987 full-page ad he took out in the New York Times to espouse views remarkably consistent in substance with his current positions. Under his leadership, America’s interaction with the world would become transactional and bilateral and others would be left to set the rules of the wider geopolitical game and establish the institutions they deem necessary to enforce these. While the degree to which Mr. Trump would be able to execute a fully mercantilist foreign policy if elected to office remains an open question, the direction his policies would take the country is becoming increasingly clear.
The Potential Consequences of the Trump Doctrine
No doubt some supporters believe that Mr. Trump does not really believe many of the things that he says and will be a far more measured president than the one that comes across during the presidential campaign, just as previous Presidents have demonstrated. However, given Mr. Trump’s advertisement of his mercantilist and isolationist views long before his candidacy for the Republican nomination, it appears that he does believe many of the things he says and would like a chance to implement his views. It is worth examining therefore the consequences for America and the world under the scenario that Mr. Trump is a man who says what he means and means to do what he says, given that the office of the President of the United States has the power to make real changes to the course of America and the world. Under these basic assumptions, the consequences of a Trump Doctrine could take the world in a dramatically different direction and one that could well reduce America’s leadership position in the world, reverse the global spread of freedom and the rise in prosperity of the post-Cold War era. The key elements of this change are the following:
- Providing a Vacuum for China to Fill in Establishing Wider Influence. Mr. Trump’s focus on domestic policy will allow China to exert itself more forcefully geopolitically and steadily assert itself as a leader in international forums, a process it has already begun. Mr. Trump seems determined to renegotiate the terms of trade with China in the US’s favour. China’s strategic prize would of course be to offer the US a sweeter trade deal in exchange for things of strategic long term value, such as a freer rein to project power in the South China Sea and along the new Silk Road and ultimately at international forums, which a Trump Administration would abandon in favour of bilateral deals. However, the imposition of 40% trade penalties on Chinese imports across the board would cause catastrophic damage to China’s industry given the US is China’s biggest market and losing its position there would threaten domestic jobs and therefore lead to social unrest. This might lead China to be more conciliatory to the US in terms of trade negotiations. However, it is not clear that China has much room to offer something that would appease Mr. Trump; its economy is declining and its currency falling and allowing America to participate more freely in China is likely to cause even more damage to both. In the absence of being able to offer a win-win, China’s alternative is to be more retaliatory to US exports. However, China stands to potentially benefit from a Trump presidency even if it were to enter into a trade war with America, given its continuing ability to strike its own deals, both bilateral and multilateral, with the EU and Asia in an unhindered fashion. Given China’s need to maintain production in its domestic facilities in order to maintain employment and stability, this is likely to be at a far lower cost than Americans could possibly compete with and so is likely to see American products lose out to Chinese ones in international markets. Finally, Mr. Trump’s apparent lack of willingness to export democracy and his stated preference for divorcing trade considerations from other matters, not to mention his past praise of the crackdown in Tiananmen, will be well received in Beijing, which has in the past protested the US insistence of tying economic questions to human rights and environmental issues.
- Lost Partnership Opportunities With India. India’s reactions to a President Trump will likely be less straightforward than China’s. On the one hand, Mr. Trump has said complimentary things about the Modi government and India’s growth, on the other hand he has accused it of “taking jobs away from the US” and has vowed to end the H1B visa program for speciality occupations, a key driver of India’s service exports. PM Modi’s “Make in India” programme seeks to make India an alternative to China, this is less likely to succeed without American corporations, given their global leadership positions, supporting the idea. What is clear is that as Mr. Trump abandons or at least de-emphasises the Asia Pivot, India could well lose its standing and strategic leverage as a sought after strategic partner in America’s eyes, which would worsen the overall terms of trade it receives from the US. For example, important partnership agreements such as the US-India nuclear deal which require considerable implementation follow-through by the US may well be left to wither and die. Accordingly, India would be forced to seek strategic economic, political and security allies elsewhere, with both forfeiting one of the potentially defining partnerships of the 21st century.
- Russia Regionally Resurgent. Putin has often stated that the biggest tragedy of this generation is the collapse of the Soviet Union while his military adventures in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria demonstrate an appetite to play on a wider political arena. With Russia’s foreign policy posing less of a challenge to the American homeland than to the American led international order, a Trump administration will likely be more accommodating towards Russia than any administration since the start of the Cold War. As such it is easy to envisage the US allowing Putin a freer rein on a wide range of strategic issues deemed outside of America’s narrowly reduced core interests, such as Central Asian security and energy policy and Eastern European politics. The resurgence of Russia in Eurasia at the expense of neighbouring countries poses a growing threat to the EU, which has faced challenges in mounting coordinated responses to Russian moves in the past. There is good reason for President Putin to be happy with Mr. Trump. Even in the absence of escapades such as Georgia or Ukraine, the absence of American power creates a vacuum for Russian power to reassert itself.
- The Atlantic Bridge is Broken. US-Russian rapprochement would necessarily come at the cost of the US’s relationship with Europe, where Mr. Trump’s emergence as the Republican frontrunner has caused considerable head-scratching. In a region where politics more often than not is left to politicians, European leaders have been unusually vocal and almost universally critical of Mr. Trump, UK Prime Minister David Cameron describing his statements as “divisive, unhelpful and quite simply wrong.” Unless Mr. Trump’s policy towards Europe shifts substantially in both tone and substance, a Trump administration would likely push US-European relationships to a new low, below the low levels seen under George W. Bush. Given Europe has been the stage for two world wars, genocide in Serbia, Russian cross-border expansion and internecine disagreements, it is conceivable that less US political interest and involvement leads to greater instability and that certainly does not make for an attractive market for the US, except perhaps for armaments. Further, the power vacuum left by a weakening of NATO provides opportunities for other aspirants to increase their regional influence, among these both supranational organisations such as the Sino-Russian led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as well as individual countries.
- Japan Destabilised and Headed to Military Armament. The implementation of Mr. Trump’s stated goals in the Asia-Pacific region would destabilise Japan, whose alliance with the US is the cornerstone of its security policy, and who’s US imposed pacifist constitution severely restricts its military power. Any weakening of the US-Japan alliance would leave the latter dangerously exposed, weakened and potentially feeling cornered by an increasingly expansive China. While Japan would clearly look for other strategic allies such as India and Australia, the gap created by a weakened US alliance will be impossible to bridge by others, potentially throwing Japan into a crisis in which its existing security policies are overthrown and it feels coerced to act increasingly aggressively in response to what it sees as encroachment by China. Under this scenario, nuclear armament becomes a realistic possibility, and this is unlikely to be acceptable to China or its more erratic neighbour North Korea or indeed others in the region and has the distinct potential to trigger a security crisis with global implications.
- The Middle East Goes Dark. Mr. Trump’s statements regarding the Middle East have to date served to alienate virtually every one of America’s allies in the region. These include making ambiguous statements about its commitment to Israel, insulting emerging democracies with the statement that that the region would be better off if Saddam Hussain and Gadhafi were still in power, claiming that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would not exist without US protection and demanding substantial reimbursement for its efforts against IS and threats of suspending oil purchases. These types of statements alone risk driving a significant loss of standing for the US in the region, weakening moderate voices and strengthening extremist elements, damaging strategic relationships, and potentially negatively impacting activities such as intelligence sharing and US power projection. With reduced US intelligence capabilities and a reduced physical presence in the Middle East, the region’s militant factions will likely continue to be more effective in terrorist efforts abroad and given the US has long been the main target, the likelihood of attacks on American soil would increase. The Trump Doctrine risks critically damaging America’s ability to pre-empt and forestall these threats and ultimately this would lead to more retaliatory attacks by America in the Middle East.
- International Institutions Undermined. Under a Trump presidency, a number of supranational institutions risk irrelevance. The US already routinely ignores the UN in areas of foreign policy that it feels are of national interest and has acted militarily outside of NATO in the past as well. However, the Trump Doctrine promises to go much further and most at threat would be the UN, World Bank, WTO and NATO. A defunded and circumvented NATO would become increasingly redundant, particularly as a Trump administration withdraws the US more broadly from overseas security commitments. Trade agreements face a similar risk, with the TPP failing to ever get the traction envisaged by its architects and NAFTA weakened significantly. The resulting reduction in trade and integration will risk slowing, or possibly even reversing, the steady progress of globalisation upon which much of the world’s prosperity increasingly depends.
The world under this scenario looks much like it did before World War II or even in 1914, when the world, despite a high degree of interconnectedness, lacked the commonly accepted ground rules and multilateral institutions for managing international relations that we now take for granted. Other countries will, if they have not already, plan for that world where they will not be able to rely on American leadership.
Any predictions about what a President Trump would do if actually in office are of course highly speculative at this stage of the presidential election process which increasingly leads some candidates to move to the extremes to earn their party’s nominations. In addition to the previously stated argument that he is merely generating free publicity and pandering to the crowd with views he himself does not actually hold, observers have tried to relativise Mr. Trump’s positions by arguing that in many cases he isn’t arguing against international engagement, but simply against the US paying for it, although for all intents and purposes, the two are closely intertwined. Others believe that any dangerous positions would be avoided by the counter-weight of the US political and bureaucratic system. However, the ability of the Republican Party to counsel, rein in, undermine or replace Mr. Trump have not been effective to date. These arguments aside, Mr. Trump’s tendency to a version of “America First” which likely leads to isolationism, and exceptionalism are becoming increasingly indisputable. What is further indisputable is that he has laid bare the raw nature of a large segment of the US population’s feelings. His rhetoric has captured the hearts and minds of those that fear and the changes underway in America and who do not want to adapt to world they will share with a growing number of immigrants, Muslims, atheists and gays. But Trump also offers an attractive voice to all of those who have not benefitted from the past decades of America’s (and the world’s) growth and who feel increasingly unrepresented by the core of the two political parties.
For all of its advantages, the American dominated world order has generated winners and losers and created fault-lines that have widened over time: globalisation and the Pax America have dispersed their bounty unevenly inside America and outside. The overall world economy has benefitted and there continues to be significant progress for the world’s poorest living under US$2. However, the top income earning households in the US have grown more affluent than the middle and lower income groups, with the top 1% rising from earning 10% of total US income to 20% in the past 30 years. Mr Trump and his Democratic counterpart Bernie Sanders, have given a voice to the growing discontent in America’s lower and middle classes who feel they have not gotten a fair deal. The incoming president, Republican or Democrat, will need to comprehensively address these concerns and the underlying issues if they are to lead the American people with a popular mandate. Donald Trump’s success to date also lies in the fact that no other candidate has provided a compelling voice in this regard. Additionally, Mr Trump has provided simple answers to complex international questions on topics where no candidate has explained in convincing terms the value of the US leadership of the international system to the preservation of America’s peace, prosperity and freedom. Doing so would mean in the first instance articulating why and how globalisation, multi-lateralism, the promotion of democracy and good governance internationally, and costly overseas military and diplomatic commitments all benefit the United States and its citizens, as well as why a reversal of the world order would hurt them.
However, what Mr Trump’s mercantilist approach, for all its resonance with a considerable portion of the American people, fails to recognise is that the international system he would dismantle has enabled an unprecedented period of global growth, development and stability, of which the US has been not just the guarantor but also the major beneficiary in terms of its overall level of prosperity. And while Mr. Trump will not be able to roll-back the collective efforts of every presidential administration before him, he would be able to damage the international order and speed its decline, and with it the decline of America’s influence in the world. This has not only international but significant domestic implications as well. The values underpinning Mr. Trumps’ views appear to be sharply at odds with the ones that have led America to greatness and have enabled it to attract the world’s capital, entrepreneurs and talent, all of which were critical in building the country. America’s values have been attractive to the world in part because they were aspirational and, while America itself has not always lived up to these values, they have provided a benchmark for people world over to reach towards. And while America may have often fallen short of its own standards, a presidential candidate calling to exclude people (who represent c.20% of the world population) from entering the country on the basis of religion appears to do away entirely with the idea of fairness or meritocracy that America has espoused. Based on his pronouncements to date, Mr. Trump’s vision of America would see it lose this high ground and many of the advantages that have come with American global pre-eminence.
American power and the world order it has created is of course not perfect: America’s own actions often fall short of the standards it has set for the world, and it has not addressed many of the imbalances that have occurred under its leadership such as domestic income inequality, global environmental issues and the proliferation of democracy and freedom alongside economic development internationally, as the world would hope for from an undisputed leader. Although, Mr. Trump’s vision, despite the rhetoric, does not offer a compelling or coherent alternative to the status quo, neither for America nor for the world, the maintenance of the status quo cannot be the objective of the US president. While the new right under Mr. Trump and the new left under Mr. Sanders may attract and represent the disaffected, disillusioned, disadvantaged and disenfranchised, they have not yet presented a world view that offers something coherent and superior to the current one. However, they may well have made the compelling case for this to rise towards to the top of the agenda.
Ultimately, the US electorate today is being faced with a choice of values. America’s people as well as its presidents have in the past century accepted the responsibility that comes with being a global superpower, along with the values, despite the inevitable shortcomings, that this has entailed. Depending on what America and American’s wish to represent to the world in the next century it will either embrace or turn away from these values. What is clear is that turning away from these value will not solve America’s or the world’s problems. What is also clear is that a Trump presidency, even if it is successful in implementing only a fraction of Mr. Trump’s doctrine, risks reducing American power, its prosperity and its opportunity to positively impact the world order going forward. Even those that hope for gross incompetence in execution or for checks and balances and other constitutional safeguards cannot hope that Mr. Trump will not try to implement his doctrine and, given the nature of that doctrine and global reactions to date, this will likely be sufficient to alienate the world at large and begin the decline and transition away from American power.
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