Two years into his presidency, Donald Trump has no clear legislative strategy, no policy agenda, no plan for remedying his persistent unpopularity and a path to re-election sufficiently bleak that he’s trying to bait a political naïf, Starbucks billionaire Howard Schultz, into running as a third-party spoiler.
Also, he might be impeached.
Yet at the same time, amid all the domestic chaos and incompetence and political malpractice, this administration continues to act in foreign policy – not tweet obnoxiously, not rage behind the scenes, but act – as if it’s following a serious grand strategy, one sufficiently coherent and plausible and forward-looking that future presidents might reasonably imitate it.
This Trump doctrine, in practice, isn’t the isolationism that he sometimes promised on the campaign trail; nor is it the flailing bellicosity that many of his critics feared. It’s a doctrine of disentanglement, retrenchment and realignment, in which the United States tries to abandon its most idealistic hopes and unrealistic military commitments, narrow its list of potential enemies and consolidate its attempts at influence.
The overarching goal isn’t to cede U.S. primacy or abandon alliances, as Trump’s opponents often charge; rather, it’s to maintain U.S. primacy on a more manageable footing, while focusing more energy and effort on containing the power and influence of China.
Consider the two administration efforts in the news lately. The first is the White House’s decision to support the opposition leader in Venezuela and build a coalition to undermine the dictatorial Maduro government. The second is the advancing effort to negotiate a deal with the Taliban that would end America’s 17-years-and-counting military commitment in Afghanistan.
If a deal is struck and our forces actually withdraw, Trump’s personal skepticism of the Afghanistan intervention will have helped produce an outcome that large parts of our foreign policy establishment long resisted – an endgame that accepts the possibility of true defeat, a full Taliban takeover, as the price of reducing American commitments and bringing troops home.
The Venezuelan effort is striking in its establishment-foreign-policy normalcy. Trying to undermine a left-wing Latin American dictator while talking in flowery language about human rights is the kind of policy you might have expected from a President Marco Rubio (who is, indeed, a prime mover behind the policy), and as Uri Friedman of The Atlantic wrote, the strategy has been advanced in a very un-Trump-y way: With “a well-oiled diplomatic campaign, closely coordinated with allies and rigorously on message.” There’s even a Reagan and George W. Bush hand, Elliott Abrams, on hand to help run the administration’s policy.
To Friedman, this normalcy is strange and dissonant and hypocritical. “Here was a president who preaches America First, who rarely invokes democracy and human rights in his unscripted remarks, who has voiced admiration for dictators such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, sticking his neck out to restore democracy in a country that doesn’t usually figure among the top challenges to U.S. interests.”
But in fact the administration’s different approaches can be harmonized. No U.S. president before the end of the Cold War would have found it strange or dissonant to take an interventionist and self-righteous line where Latin America was concerned, while accepting deals with bad actors and wooing autocrats in more far-flung and global theaters.
There is a rhetorical tension, obviously, involved in defending human rights in Venezuela while you ponder a treaty with the Taliban and seek an accommodation with Kim or Bashar Assad – and Trump is not exactly the master of rhetorical finesse. But from the Monroe Doctrine onward the United States has traditionally treated our hemispheric neighbors differently than Eurasian powers – for the very sound strategic reason that they are close to us and countries like Syria and Afghanistan are not.
This reasoning was abandoned by post-Cold War presidents, and especially by George W. Bush, in the heady days when it appeared that America could project power as easily in Kabul as in the Caribbean. And despite the Iraq disaster most of Bush’s would-be Republican heirs – John McCain and Mitt Romney as well as Rubio and Jeb – maintained a similarly maximalist posture, in which every theater was supposedly a vital one, every tyrant a potential enemy, and we should be prepared to fight in Afghanistan and Syria and Libya and eastern Ukraine as readily as we would fight for a NATO ally.
Compared with that vision, the Trump doctrine aims for a more limited and sustainable view of U.S. commitments.
Along with jihadism it seeks to confront and contain two major state-based enemies, China and Iran, and it takes a harsh line toward their potential allies and clients in the Americas.
But it has no nation-building ambitions in the Muslim world, no dreams of pushing NATO into the Caucasus, and in East Asia it’s trying to woo the Kim regime into some kind of bizarre friendship instead of acting like Pyongyang is just as great a long-term danger as its patron in Beijing.
The administration’s official European goals (if not Trump’s behind-the-scenes anti-NATO grumbling) also fit plausibly into its larger framework: Building up a stronger military presence on NATO’s Russia-facing flank while getting other countries to bear more of the military burden is the most plausible way to preserve the Western alliance’s basic purposes while the United States refocuses on China.
And in the long run, Trump’s dream (whatever its motivations) of a better working relationship with Russia also fits with a retrench-and-refocus framework – with the major caveat that Putin seems too interested in disruption to make a genuine and cooperative détente imaginable for now.
Let me stress that I don’t think that Trump’s grand strategy is springing fully formed from the president’s own mind (he isn’t scribbling notes about the Monroe Doctrine, I assume), or for that matter anyone else’s; instead it’s emerging organically as a synthesis of his own blustering, quasi-isolationist impulses and the more hawkish and internationalist and status-quo-oriented views of the people working for him.
That makes it interesting for future international-relations scholars to study – but also vulnerable to sudden changes of personnel or presidential mood. (If we unleash a ground war in Venezuela tomorrow in a fit of Trumpian pique, you can disregard this column’s analysis.)
And of course it has other vulnerabilities as well.
Events often destroy even well-thought-through grand strategies, and every foreign-policy maneuver carries risks.
The hawks who fear that jihadism will surge if we pull back from Afghanistan and Syria could be vindicated. So could the institutionalists who fear that Trump’s bluster is damaging our standing and disillusioning our friends, and the human rights activists who regard this administration’s cynicism as a carte blanche for thugs and dictators, and the simple Trump-fearers (like myself) who worry that he could make a truly catastrophic blunder should, say, the North Korea negotiations blow up or a real crisis with Russia or China comes along.
But those of us who fear Trump also need to be honest when he exceeds our expectations.
Before his election, I wanted a foreign policy that was less hubristic and more calculating than what most leading Republican politicians were offering, that showed a willingness to limit foreign interventions and conduct diplomatic experiments while also trying to maintain U.S. primacy in a more multipolar, Chinese-influenced world.
Within certain limits, and with a lot of stumbling and bluster, that’s roughly what Trump has delivered.
And however his foreign policy looks by November 2020, I suspect that future administrations of both parties will often find themselves imitating the strategy of his first two years.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.