A fortnight past, President Trump addressed a joint session of Congress, laying out his new administration’s foreign policy priorities.
In so doing, Trump may well have outlined what will become known as the Trump Doctrine.
The president did not stray too far from what every post-World War II president has proclaimed: “Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world. It is American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies across the globe.” These same words could just as easily have been spoken by JFK, Reagan, the Bushes, or Obama.
That address should put to rest all questions about whether the Trump administration will support the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). “We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two world wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism.” The 45th president recognizes that NATO has helped to ensure the European continent has yet to see a massive full-scale war since the last one ended in 1945.
Where Trump differs from previous presidents is his insistence that “our partners must meet their financial obligations.” Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has allowed NATO members to fall behind in their military commitments to the alliance as prosperity and peace flourished in the Pax Americana 1990s and early 2000s. But now, seeing rising threats, Trump wants European member-states and other allies to pay their fair share to protect the world order NATO helped to create.
Trump told Congress, “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align,” and noted that “some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite side of these world wars.” This should be viewed as an open hand extended to Russia, an American geopolitical foe for the last seven decades. Since 1945 Russia has greatly expanded its power, challenging the status of the United States as the world’s lone superpower. Trump believes that Russia could be persuaded to support the U.S. mission to defeat Islamic terrorism because it threatens both nations.
Trump is hardly the first statesman to question the importance of NATO or to try and extend an olive branch to Russia and other adversaries. A few years ago, left-wing publications like the Nation and the Guardian published articles that portrayed NATO in highly unflattering terms. The Nation claimed NATO was no longer necessary and that its post-Cold War expansion “alienated Russia and deepened divisions in Ukraine and the Caucasus.” The Guardian quoted Robert Gates, former defense secretary for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as he predicted a “dismal” future for the alliance.
The Center for American Progress, founded by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman, John Podesta, took the opposite tack, issuing a report urging NATO to become more accommodating to Russia and to facilitate military-to-military cooperation between the alliance and the Russian Federation. In 2012 when NATO held a summit in Chicago, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 protesters took to the streets. These groups all appeared to be very left-wing: anti-war, anarchists, and the Occupy Wall Street movement were among the most visible. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was there with women holding signs that said “Afghans for peace.” By the end of the protest, around 45 protesters were arrested and two were detained on charges of terrorism.
Trump’s speech makes it clear he is not merely a captive of conservative activists. The president is willing to look at America’s commitments throughout the world and ask whether they actually provide value. Trump said he wants allies in “NATO, in the Middle East, or the Pacific … to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations.” This aspect of the emerging Trump Doctrine puts world leaders on notice that the U.S. can no longer afford to write blank checks. The Trump administration will support other nations as long as they share a common interest with the U.S. and are willing to contribute to their own defense.
In his speech the president gently slapped the United Nations by saying “[w]e will respect historic institutions, but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations.” Trump has questioned the current state of relations between the UN and the U.S. and has considered halting funding for the global body. He has urged the United Nations to respect the sovereign rights of nations, which could lead to conflict between the UN and Israel.
At his inauguration, Trump declared several times that his policy will be “America First.” While he respects the United Nations, he believes that national sovereignty is of paramount importance. The echo of “America First” is repeated in his statement that “my job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” While he wishes for peace, another part of the evolving Trump Doctrine leaves much room for interpretation.
“The only long-term solution for these humanitarian disasters is to create the conditions where displaced persons can safely return home and begin the long process of rebuilding,” he said. This statement carries with it complex ramifications. A test case for the scenario is Syria. Since 2011, Syria has been ravaged by civil war: the ruthless dictator Bashar al-Assad has been killing rebels, civilians, and terrorists indiscriminately. The various factions opposing Assad are tough to make out: some are terrorists, others want democracy, some are fighting for Kurdish independence, while others are aligned with Islamic State. This conflict has seen U.S. involvement that has led to CIA-backed rebels fighting Pentagon-backed rebels, strangely enough. Iranians, Russians, the Arab Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia are supporting a wide range of combatant groups. Turkey allowed Islamic State to grow in hopes of crushing the Kurdish independence movement only to see a rise in terrorist activities at home in Asia Minor. In short, Syria is a disaster, which has led to a massive flow of civilians fleeing the conflict. This, in turn, has resulted in a refugee crisis that Europe and the United States are trying to solve.
According to the Trump Doctrine the best way to solve this refugee crisis, is to go to the source, which means not allowing in more refugees. Trump’s plan is to ameliorate the instability in Syria. When a faucet is leaking, one does not ask how many buckets are needed, but to try to stop the leak. Granted, a leaky faucet is easier to fix than a three- to four-way civil war in a ravaged nation, but that is precisely what Trump advocates as a long-term solution to this problem. How a post-war Syria will look, and what path that nation takes to get there, is for the Trump administration to decide.
The Trump Doctrine attempts to correct what the president perceives as the mistakes of the past 16 years under Presidents Bush and Obama. It recognizes the natural limitations to America’s ability to spread democracy throughout the world and nation-build. At the same time, it acknowledges that the United States will be a strong leader and a guiding force for its allies and will attempt to eliminate any direct threat to the national interest of the U.S.
At this moment Trump is still assembling a team around him and many of his supporters are on different sides of foreign policy. While learning lessons from both Republican and Democratic administrations, Trump’s foreign policy in some areas may find favor with Republicans, such as the focus on a strong military and defeating Islamism. Democrats will presumably look with favor at the prospect of ending nation-building and reaching out to adversaries.
Sens. Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Tom Cotton (Arkansas) both claim that President Trump agrees with them on foreign policy. Paul, is the leading libertarian in the Senate and advocates noninterventionism, while Cotton is one of the most hawkish on foreign policy and an advocate of projecting American strength abroad. History will judge how well the Trump administration implements its policies. The important thing is that in his well-received congressional address, President Trump outlined a cohesive foreign policy, which, like his domestic policy, may see many different groups support different components of his doctrine.
Tyler Stone received a Bachelor’s Degree from Le Moyne College, where he studied history. He is currently a freelance writer.