Most Presidents come to office with their own ideas about foreign policy. Some even put them in writing in the form of a doctrine. President James Monroe issued the first Presidential Doctrine in 1823. The Monroe Doctrine was a statement of American foreign policy. It warned European powers not to further colonize in the Americas or interfere with independent states. Since then, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, among others, have announced their own Doctrines. In every case these Doctrines were based on carefully thought out foreign policy goals.
Trump’s Non-existent Doctrine
Sadly, our current President not only has no doctrine, but also lacks a real understanding of foreign policy. In fact, he is incapable of formulating a cohesive, consistent set of foreign policy goals. Specific policies are of no interest to him. Policies require thought, understanding and the ability to formalize them in writing. But that would require a degree of reading, and Trump has unabashedly proclaimed that’s of no interest to him.
Still, in the two and a half years he’s been in office, he’s been actively involved in foreign affairs. So, he’s given us a body of evidence that reveals some common themes in his decisions and actions.
Trump’s Foreign Policy: Trade and NATO
Trump’s foreign policy is an outgrowth of his belief that he is a “victim.” Not surprisingly, the United States is always “the victim,” too. Other countries take advantage of the United States in trade. Allies do not bear their fair share of defense costs. Only Trump can redress these wrongs.
To fix a trade imbalance, he threatens and usually imposes tariffs, unless the offending country yields to his demands.
He considers NATO an obsolete organization and disregards its vital role in our national security. He’s hinted that he might not honor our commitment to defend a small member nation. And in the process, he’s insulted virtually every other leader of an allied member state.
Trump’s Foreign Policy: Authoritarian Leaders
While insulting allies, he goes out of his way to support Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the face of overwhelming proof of Russian interference in the 2016 election, he defends Putin’s denials. Russia has earned “favored nation” status in the eyes of Donald Trump.
So have authoritarian leaders. He makes no attempt to hide his fondness for power beyond the rule of law. Not that he pays particular attention to the U.S. Constitution and laws, anyway. Trump now has nothing but kind words for North Korea’s brutal dictator Kim Jung Un. He’s proud to brag about the love letters they send each other.
On the other hand, he has no kind words for Venezuela’s authoritarian ruler, Nicholas Maduro. Perhaps because Trump needs to win over the Spanish community in Florida where Maduro is so heavily disliked.
Trump’s Foreign Policy: Transactional Approach
Trump regards foreign policy issues on a transactional basis. He refuses to take any action against Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed Bin Salman for murdering U.S. resident and journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. He claims U,S. jobs are created because the Saudis buy $400 to $450 billion of equipment from the U.S. This justifies giving the Prince a pass. But this is a boldfaced lie. Of course, there may be more to it. We don’t know to what extent Trump and Jared Kushner personally benefit from their friendship with the Prince.
Trump’s peace plan for the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians—subcontracted to Jared Kushner—is also reflective of this transactional approach. It is based on Trump’s philosophy that everything can be bought if you pay a high enough price. But it looks like Trump’s proposed $50 billion peace investment will be insufficient. When people are looking for a political solution, they just can’t be bribed with money.
Then there is Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, despite Iran’s adherence to its terms. Adding additional sanctions has brought Iran’s economy to a virtual standstill, prodding its mullahs to resume their nuclear activities. Trump’s actions and Iran’s reactions have brought the two countries to the edge of war.
Behind Trump’s Actions
So what can we deduce from Trump’s actions? All his endeavors flow from his deeply held conviction that he is a genius. He truly believes no one knows more or better understands how to deal with leaders of other countries. He is the greatest negotiator, ever. Yet he is so uninformed and so narcissistic, he cannot see the negative impact of his decisions.
Trade Wars and Tariffs
Trump boasts trade wars are easy to win. But as any knowledgeable businessman knows, they are not. Trump’s trade war with China and the tariffs applied have already inflicted great pain on American farmers in the short term. They could also reduce their opportunity in the Chinese market longer term. After all, the U.S. isn’t the only country that produces soybeans. Because the U.S. has demonstrated it is an unreliable supplier, China is likely to consider alternative sources of supply.
Beyond farming, Trump’s tariffs and threats of future tariffs can upset the global manufacturing process. His dogmatic actions could force changes in countries that are the source of components or labor going into a finished product. Businesses do not like uncertainty and Trump has thrust a basket full of uncertainty upon them.
After assessing tariffs, he proudly proclaims that the offending country—China, for example—is pouring millions of dollars into the U.S. Treasury. Of course, it is not China, but the U.S. importer and ultimately the U.S. consumer who are paying those tariffs. Yet Trump continues his false assertions. Perhaps he’s just too stupid to know better. Or, perhaps he does understand, but doesn’t want his base to know who is actually paying the tariffs.
Trump, Patsy for the United States
Trump’s relations with authoritarian leaders put U.S. security at risk. He jokes with Putin about Russian interference in the 2016 elections but does nothing to prevent such interference in 2020. Trump portrays himself as the tough negotiator when the truth is exactly the opposite. He is a patsy and Kim Jung Un plays him like a fiddle, as do others. But he doesn’t really care. They flatter him, make him feel important but give up nothing of substance that benefits the U.S. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Trump’s ego has been inflated by their pretensions.
The Saudis did this extremely well on Trump’s first foreign visit as President. They made him feel like a real potentate, not someone constrained by a ridiculous outdated document—the Constitution. He’s now returning the favor by ignoring the fact that Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is a cold-blooded murderer.
The Specter of Barack Obama: Iran
There is one constant in Trump’s tenure as President. Any Barack Obama law, regulation, executive order or agreement is no good and must be changed or repealed. Which brings us to Iran. The Iran Nuclear Agreement didn’t restrict Iran’s nuclear activities long enough and didn’t address Iran’s aggressiveness in the Middle East. It did, however, remove the immediate threat of Iran having a nuclear weapon. It was not perfect, but it was something Iran agreed to with all major powers. It could have been the basis for improvement.
But Trump decided to scuttle the agreement, invoke new and punishing sanctions designed to bring Iran to its knees. Those sanctions are hurting Iran and Trump is putting pressure on U.S. allies to honor them. But Iran rejects U.S. intimidation and threatens to restart its nuclear activities. In turn, even though it was the U.S. that walked away, Trump warns there will be obliteration like you’ve never seen before. And the chicken hawks—Bolton and Pompeo—are cheering him on. They would like nothing better than a war with Iran.
Trump’s End Game
So in the end we scratch our heads and try to understand the end game from Trump’s moves. Does he really have a plan? I think it’s fairly clear he does not. He just goes with his impulses in the moment. Unfortunately the sources that feed his impulses are severely lacking in knowledge and intellectual capacity, but overloaded with narcissism.
He enjoys chaos and is very adept at creating it. He likes to bully and brag about what a strong man he is. But like any bully, he consistently backs down when challenged. Gee, I was wrong. There is something consistent in his foreign policy.
Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State recently appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss his time in the Trump administration and the challenges he faced at the State Department and the White House. He spoke of “behind the back” actions by Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon making foreign policy. Some of his comments were unflattering to Trump.
Hearing those comments, Trump responded by describing Tillerson as “a man who is ‘dumb as a rock’ and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State.” This is Trump’s description of a man who was CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world. Based upon what I know about both men, I think Tillerson was correct when he said Trump is a “moron.”