As presidencies approach their midpoints, pundits begin the inevitable search for that elusive creature: the doctrine. It’s often a quixotic quest, since presidents rarely boil down their foreign-policy visions—if they even have them—to some pithy essence. Then there’s Donald Trump.
Conjuring up the current president’s foreign-policy doctrine is like arguing that the Teletubbies have a theology. After all, this president approaches global affairs the way a teenager with attention-deficit disorder might tackle War and Peace. To call Trump scattershot in his approach would be generous. He doesn’t even have sufficient command of the relevant vocabulary to formulate a doctrine. His linguistic universe, with its “covfefe,” big-league malapropisms, and contradictory pronouncements, often seems to come straight out of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky.”
Yet punditry abhors a vacuum, so the search for some sort of policy coherence never ends. Many observers have suggested that the Trump doctrine, stripped to its musculature, is simply a reassertion of American power in the crudest form. In The Atlantic, for instance, Jeffrey Goldberg canvassed Trump administration officials for their take on the president’s doctrine and concluded that the most succinct formulation for it was: “We’re America, bitch.” Another possibility: Forget the doctrine; Trump is merely asserting his own authority in an increasingly empowered executive branch to do whatever comes into his head. In other words, we’re not talking unilateralism but unileaderism.
A third possibility: that Trump is defining himself and his policies entirely in opposition to his predecessor. The Obama Doctrine, according to administration insiders, boiled down to don’t do stupid shit. In his eagerness to reverse everything his predecessor ever did, Trump seems to have turned his doctrine inside out as well. His recent trip to Europe, with its falsehoods and gratuitous insults, not to speak of the near sundering of transatlantic relations, suggests that the administration continues to come up with new and creative ways of doing stupid shit on a daily basis.
There’s truth in all of this, but something’s still missing.
Although Trump’s approach to global affairs seems to have no particular rhyme or reason, it does have a certain rhythm. It has an insistent, urgent beat, something like the notorious two-note theme of the movie Jaws. The president not only wants you to believe that the world is a dangerous place, but that those dangers are approaching at a terrifying pace. Only Trump, he would have you believe, can save you from those sharp teeth inches from your throat.
Let’s call this approach Trump’s Flight 93 doctrine, after an infamous article, “The Flight 93 Election,” published in September 2016 in the far-right Claremont Review. According to its pseudonymous author, later revealed to be former George W. Bush administration staffer Michael Anton, liberals like Hillary Clinton were piloting America into catastrophe, aided, electorally, by “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.” Only Donald Trump and his conservative backers—like the heroes who charged the cockpit of hijacked United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001—could avert such a tragedy. “A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian roulette with a semi-auto,” Anton wrote. “With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”
The analogy is, unfortunately, all too apt. Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, killing all aboard. It was heroism, yes, but at a very steep price. And playing Russian roulette with any kind of weapon rarely ends well.
No surprise, then, that, as the president spins the cylinder of the gun pressed to all our heads, the Trump Doctrine of non-stop risk-taking has turned out to be the most self-defeating approach ever adopted by a modern American president. In fact, it may turn out to be the last doctrine that the White House ever has the luxury to formulate.
The Uses of Doctrine
Doctrines are inherently conservative. Among the many ways the United States could deploy its forces and resources overseas, they spell out the one that is best believed to preserve the status quo of American power and at the same time advance a select number of national interests.
Before the first identifiable presidential doctrine—the Monroe Doctrine of 1823—George Washington warned of forming anything but impermanent alliances with foreign powers. In his farewell address as president, he lauded the “detached and distant situation” that the United States found itself in and cautioned that “foreign influence” could wreak havoc upon the republic. His successor, Thomas Jefferson, spoke similarly against the dangers of “entangling alliances.”
Those warnings, though falling short of doctrinal, were influential in the early republic. In 1821, four years before he became president, John Quincy Adams famously spoke of the dangers of Americans heading overseas “in search of monsters.” The country’s glory, he insisted, “is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace.”
Stirring words, but it was not to be. A mere two years later, President James Monroe made the first effort to link US national interests to a project outside its borders. Latin America, Monroe said in 1823, was effectively part of a US sphere of influence. It was still a far cry from the kinds of imperial intervention that would come in the era of Theodore Roosevelt, more than 80 years later. Monroe, however, did cast aside the warnings of his predecessors and begin a flirtation with a new kind of imperial dominion.
In the 20th century, such presidential doctrines evolved far beyond simply protecting spheres of influence. They came instead to justify US military intervention on a global scale, while attempting to discriminate between areas worth the risk of war and those beneath US concern. The Truman Doctrine rationalized US efforts to contain the spread of Communism, while spreading the US military and the CIA far and wide. In the midst of the disastrous Vietnam War, the Nixon Doctrine tried to pass on much of global enforcement there and elsewhere to subservient allies. The Carter Doctrine articulated the priority of protecting US access to oil resources in the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf. The Reagan Doctrine put forward a particularly aggressive policy of actually rolling back Communism—and recovering from a disastrous defeat in Vietnam—while George W. Bush applied Reagan’s framework to a new enterprise, the Global War on Terror.
All of these doctrines were designed to preserve and expand Washington’s preeminent imperial power and authority in the world, while justifying to an American public the increasingly enormous sums ploughed into the military budget. They also signaled to allies what to expect from the United States in terms of its big-picture allocation of resources and attention.
Barack Obama, with his preference for addressing issues on a case-by-case basis, recoiled from any attempt to develop a doctrine. If anything, he wanted to repudiate the doctrinal mistakes of the recent past: America’s fixation on the Middle East, on a borderless global war on terror, and on self-defeating attempts to isolate Cuba and Iran. There was no single theme that brought together all of Obama’s initiatives, though he did put a lot of chips into a so-called Pacific pivot, a shift in military and diplomatic focus from the Middle East to Asia (which never quite came about).
In the end, Obama remained imprisoned in the failed initiatives of the past, including an unending war in Afghanistan and Bush’s Global War on Terror, even as he tried to address new and amorphous threats like climate change. Still, he showed a sincere belief in diplomacy and the synergy of countries working together to solve global problems.
Not so his successor.
Trump Rushes the Cockpit
For the Pentagon, a notoriously risk-averse institution, doctrines are a kind of security blanket. They reassure the generals that civilian leaders will not send US soldiers into harm’s way everywhere at once. Even during the Bush era, with global counterterrorism the primary focus of the moment, the military felt reasonably certain that the administration wouldn’t also pick fights with Russia and China or send troops into Latin America.
Donald Trump doesn’t look at the world that way. He seems to have no ability to prioritize among various real and imagined threats to US national interests because he doesn’t think in any structured way about the nature of such problems. He seems to believe that the country has been, or will soon be, hijacked and so he spots potential hijackers everywhere. Because of the urgency of the situation, he’s always in red-alert mode.
For Trump, immigrants are a clear-and-present danger and so he has repeatedly pushed for extreme measures to keep them out of the United States: a wall, a travel ban, a zero-tolerance family-separation policy. For Republican Party supporters of the president, immigration may well represent an electoral challenge, the means by which the Democratic Party can eventually secure a lock on the presidency. But for Trump, the threat transcends the political. It’s a matter of blood and soil, the touchstones of extreme nationalism. Trump is eager to spend billions of dollars and undermine the American legal system in pursue of his policy of ethnic cleansing.
The global economy is another arena where he has quickly shifted to an emergency footing and taken out after everyone in sight, subjecting allies and adversaries alike to mounting tariffs. Canada, Europe, Japan: They’re all shocked to find his knife in their backs. But the trade war with China promises to be particularly costly. After an opening bid, a 25 percent tariff on $34 billion in Chinese imports, which generated a response in kind from Beijing, Trump promptly upped the ante. He’s now planning to target $200 billion in Chinese goods. China, however, has a variety of ways to retaliate, including a sell-off of the vast hoard of US Treasury bonds it holds and a potential devaluation of its own currency to make its exports more competitive globally. And keep in mind that a US-China trade war involving the globe’s two largest economies will prove to be anything but a bilateral problem. If this conflict moves to DEFCON 1, the damage will spread across all borders.
After gesturing in the direction of a more prudent, “isolationist,” “America First” national security policy during his election campaign, especially when it came to the country’s never-ending war on terror, Trump has proved to be an indiscriminately bellicose president. He has twice bombed Syrian government targets, issued a “gloves off” directive to his generals in the war in Afghanistan, and expanded the use of drones in the “war on terror.” He made an implicit threat to attack North Korea with nuclear weapons and evidently seriously considered an invasion of Venezuela. And don’t even start on Iran. His approach to war has nothing to do with doctrine. It’s all about going after the “bad hombres.” Its focus seems more to be on who insulted the president most recently rather than any assessment of genuine risk.
Trump has identified a number of hijackers—immigrants, trading partners, the Islamic State, Iran—who have used asymmetrical power to challenge the authority of the United States. But here’s what’s genuinely scary: From his actions, it’s clear that he believes it’s not just random outsiders who are trying to bring down the country. To stay with the Flight 93 image, for Trump it’s the entire global aviation system that’s conspiring against him and his cohort.
All presidential doctrines of the modern era have been predicated on a global international system—first the “Western world” and now the international community—within which the United States was to operate as the first among equals. The Flight 93 Doctrine overturns all such other doctrines. President Trump, personally and with malice, is now taking aim at the entire international architecture that liberals and conservatives helped build to serve US interests. It’s as if the president and his acolytes have commandeered that hijacked plane not to bring them safely back to the airport, but to fly them into buildings in Brussels, The Hague, and Geneva, among other places.
Michael Anton was wrong. The Trump campaign wasn’t about saving America from a suicide mission. It was about launching a kamikaze attack on the heart of globalism.
The Wages of Self-Defeat
Despite George Washington’s warnings, the United States is now so enmeshed in the international system that its prosperity depends on it. As a result, Trump’s Flight 93 doctrine is a formula for self-defeat.
Take immigrants. Whatever the president may think, the US economy runs on immigrants. Agriculture, construction, and the service sector all rely heavily on recent immigrants, many of them undocumented. Indeed, so vital are they as economic actors that the undocumented annually contribute $11.6 billion in state and local taxes and help keep Social Security afloat even though they have little prospect of ever drawing from the fund themselves. Immigrant workers, both legal and undocumented, make the US economy an estimated 11 percent larger than it would otherwise be. At a time of record low unemployment and labor shortages—and with a population that is inexorably aging—the United States should for economic reasons alone be encouraging an influx of immigrants, not trying to keep them out.
Trump, meanwhile, is fixated on the “$800 billion a year” that the United States runs as a trade deficit with countries around the world. You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn, given the source, that this number is off, since it doesn’t incorporate the net surplus in “services”—such as tourism, royalties, and banking—the United States has with other countries, which promptly brings that figure down to $500 billion. Far more important, the focus of White House attention shouldn’t be that trade deficit, which doesn’t reflect the overall strength of the US economy, but the enormous and ever-growing debt the United States has, something the Trump tax “reform” plan and his driving desire to continually boost the country’s already bloated military spending only aggravate.
In addition, tariffs are one of the worst ways of addressing trade deficits, since they almost invariably generate retaliatory tariffs so that the “cure” ends up hurting far more than the problem. “The United States will be opening fire on the whole world and also opening fire on itself,” a spokesman for the Chinese Commerce Ministry aptly noted after Trump announced his latest round of tariffs on Chinese goods. Although he may ultimately declare victory in this war, it will certainly be a pyrrhic one.
Trump’s approach to national security is equally self-defeating. It’s bad enough that Washington is applying the screws to allies to up their military spending—and their purchases of US military goods. Worse, he’s not even using the burden-sharing argument to reduce national security expenditures, which have soared above a trillion dollars a year. The wars that Washington is still fighting in Afghanistan and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa, as well as the wars it’s supporting, as in Yemen, continue to generate instability in that vast region and blowback at home. Trump’s willingness to entertain new wars with Iran, Venezuela, and (if negotiations go south) North Korea is yet more unnerving.
The most devastating impact of the Flight 93 Doctrine, however, will be on the version of the international community Washington had such a hand in creating in its moment of dominance. The organs of the global economy like the World Trade Organization set the rules of the road that have consistently preserved Washington’s privileges, including the dollar’s use as the world’s most common reserve currency. In the form of treaty organizations like NATO as well as bilateral alliances, that community similarly supports American military adventures around so much of the globe by subsidizing its bases, contributing soldiers and weaponry to its military campaigns, and purchasing huge amounts of its military exports. Even as he blathers on about making America number one, Trump is systematically drilling into the very foundations of US power.
There can be no doubt that the rules governing the global economy should be rewritten, given the widening gap between rich and poor. And yes, America should rethink its global military posture and the alliances that support it. Washington needs a radically new foreign policy doctrine that rejects the exceptionalist thinking of the past and offers a more cooperative way for the United States to interact with the world.
But Trump’s Flight 93 Doctrine is the opposite of what’s needed. It will accomplish what Osama bin Laden set out to do so many years ago. By driving a wedge between the United States and its allies, initiating trade wars that will weaken the economy, potentially driving the country toward bankruptcy through insane budget priorities, and destroying the very fabric of the international community, Donald Trump is on a suicide mission. He’s rushing the cockpit, that’s for sure, but don’t expect a soft landing. When it comes, it will be a terrible, heartbreaking crash.