Now that Donald Trump has won his unlikely bid for the White House, predicting his foreign policy has become the topic du jour, so it is only fitting that we give it a shot. What then will be the Trump Doctrine? Trump’s ideas on foreign policy can be summed up succinctly in his catch phrase “America First.” Trump campaigned against America’s powerful foreign policy community, which includes Democrats and Republicans. Trump has stated that these experts have failed and left America less safe. This was precisely the message many voters wanted to hear, and the president-elect now has the opportunity to change how the United States deploys its power around the world.
The President-elect has embraced some unorthodox ideas in foreign policy. Trump could be behaving like a typical politician by pandering to his base during the election only to pivot once in office. He has already walked back some of his more outlandish statements, and events he faces in office could change his plans. However, some of these pledges should be taken seriously as representative of Trump’s values. Trump has voiced opposition for NATO, stating that it is obsolete and expensive. He also said he would not pressure Turkey or other authoritarian allies about conducting purges of their political adversaries or cracking down on civil liberties. Trump wants to work with partners in the Middle East to eliminate ISIS and opposes nation-building abroad. More importantly, he plans to reset relations with Russia, while taking a harder line against China.
What will the Trump’s actions be like once in office? With a business-like approach, Trump will bring The Art of the Deal to foreign policy making. Using his acumen, Trump will approach every situation like one of his many business negotiations. Trump wants a military that he can use as a tool for enforcement on his own terms, not those of the global community or the foreign policy establishment. Those terms are often oriented to benefit his business. If there’s no clear benefit for the United States, Trump would prefer to stay on the sidelines. It appears, hopefully, that the Trump Doctrine will be a realist, transaction-based approach to international relations, using the military as a policing force for American economic interests - and by extension Trump’s - as a case of last resort.
According to John Mearsheimer, realism does not call for the United States to dominate the entire globe. Instead, realism is chiefly concerned with America’s position in the global balance of power. Instead of trying to garrison the world and spread democracy, the Trump administration should concentrate on maintaining the balance of power in the three regions that are vital to U.S. security: Europe, East Asia and the Persian Gulf.
Following realism, Trump should make a concerted effort to improve relations with Russia. Russia hardly has the power of the USSR and is not a serious threat to American interests. Instead, the two countries should be allies, as they have a common interest in combating terrorism and ending the Syrian conflict. Most importantly, the United States needs Russia to help contain a rising, more assertive China. Given the history of competition between Russia and China, and the long border they share, Moscow is likely to join in this effort once Washington abandons the misguided foreign policy that has driven it closer to Beijing.
Has Trump displayed a willingness to embrace realism so far? Looking at how his Cabinet is shaping tilts towards yes. Trump has nominated General Flynn as national security adviser, who has ties to Russia and sees ISIS as the world’s greatest threat. Trump named General “Mad Dog” Mattis to be the next Secretary of Defense. While Mattis may take a more hard line approach against Russia, he is a tough-minded realist focused less on politics and more on winning the fight, and someone who has qualms about Iran. At this point Trump’s pick for Secretary of State is still speculative. Picking an establishment figure like John Bolton or Mitt Romney would signal a tougher approach on Russia and a more interventionist, neoconservative foreign policy. Bob Corker or John Huntsman would signal a realist approach lies ahead. Kentucky’s own Senator Rand Paul has described Senator Corker as a foreign policy realist. Governor Huntsman, a fellow billionaire and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, was once ambassador to China and Singapore. Huntsman could provide Trump with valuable foreign policy expertise that the President-elect is lacking.
Whoever he chooses, Trump will be wise to place America first. He may be right to push our allies to defend themselves, lest America be dragged into another foreign entanglement. As President, Trump and his cabinet will face many challenges in the years to come. These challenges will not only come from fighting ISIS and combating the spread of terrorism. Should the U.S. maintain its current course of demonizing Russia, then Russia and China could form an alliance. This would be a strategic mistake that Trump should avoid. Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment. Judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not. To avoid war, both sides will need to develop a common strategic narrative. Trump should pursue a guarded, long-term, realist foreign policy. If not, we may be trapped.