There was a great deal of talk about a ‘Trump Doctrine’ during the first months of the current US administration, but there has been very little since. That is a measure of the obtuseness of the Establishment media and its serried ranks of experts, who failed to recognize the clear contours of a new American foreign policy as it emerged during the past several weeks. Trump will continue to hire and fire until he finds people willing to put his policy into effect.
What is the ‘Trump Doctrine’? First, it reserves the use of American military power for vital American security interests, while seeking compromise with competing powers — namely Russia and China — where such compromise is possible. Second, it puts American economic well-being first, including the first serious effort in a generation to protect American technological prowess.
That is clear from the administration’s attitude towards two rogue upstarts, North Korea and Iran. By offering to meet Kim Jong-un, Trump has effectively offered the Pyongyang regime a chance to remain in power in return for ceasing to threaten its neighbors, and offered China an opportunity to use its good offices to restrain its rogue ally. An acceptance of China’s role as a regional power is implicit – so long as China exercises its power to maintain an acceptable status quo. That means recognizing a Chinese sphere of influence, provided that China’s influence is benign. At the same time, Trump will offer China tough competition on strategic economic issues, as he made clear by forbidding the proposed Broadcom takeover of Qualcomm.
Washington also wants to drive a wedge between Iran and its Russian ally of convenience, as I reported on February 14. After the George W. Bush administration destroyed Iraq’s Sunni-dominated state and drove the region’s Sunnis into the arms of non-state actors, Russia entered Syria to quash a Sunni jihad that threatened to metastasize into the Russian Caucasus. But the alliance between Shi’ite Iran and Moscow is tenuous, and Russia has no interest in Iran’s imperial design for a Shi’ite corridor stretching from Afghanistan to Lebanon. The Assad regime in Syria, supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Shi’ite mercenaries from several countries, has conducted the largest ethnic cleansing in modern history, displacing more than 10 million Syrians and in some cases resettling Shi’ites in their stead.
Trump won’t tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran ruling a Shi’ite empire. Washington has no qualms about Russia’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, and might be disposed to concessions over Crimea in return for cooperation on Iran. But there is no way for Washington to apply pressure on Iran without breaking a great deal of diplomatic glass. For example, there is little that the US can do to counter Russian and Iranian power in Syria without reinforcing the Kurdish militias and thereby enraging Turkey. By standing aside when the Turkish army besieged the Kurdish stronghold at Afrin, in northern Syria, the United States was deeply humiliated.
Outgoing Secretary of State Tillerson was the wrong man for the job. One gets to be the CEO of a long-established company by making the fewest enemies and placating the most constituencies. Turkey hosts an American air base at Incirlik, and has its own constituency at the State Department and the Pentagon. So does Qatar, which hosts an American base. Whenever a constituency’s client – for example, Turkey – makes enough noise, the relevant people in Washington will push for concessions.
His handling of Turkey’s tantrum over America’s support for a Kurdish-dominated border force embarrassed the United States. In mid-February, Turkey’s President Erdogan explicitly threatened to attack American forces who were embedded with the Kurdish YPG militia holding the Syrian town of Manbij. American commanders were quoted in the media warning Turkey to keep clear, and Erdogan threatened them with an “Ottoman slap.” Tillerson responded by visiting Erdogan in Ankara to “ease tensions,” that is, accept the Turkish ultimatum. Assad and Russia meanwhile stepped in to the picture as protectors of the Kurds.
What is the ‘Trump Doctrine’? First, it reserves the use of American military power for vital American security interests… Second, it puts American economic well-being first
Turkey views the prospective emergence of a Kurdish state as an existential threat. So does Iran, a tenth of whose population are Kurds, located mostly on Iran’s border with Turkey and Iraq. Ethnic unrest is a lever that the US could use to put pressure on Iran, but not without upsetting the Turks. Washington will have to determine which interest takes precedence, and live with the consequences. Tillerson’s corporate style sought to appease the maximum number of constituencies, and ultimately made no-one happy, including the president.
As some press reports speculate, the replacement of Tillerson by CIA Director Michael Pompeo portends a less propitiatory approach to Turkey.
Reportedly, Tillerson also opposed moving America’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, the country’s capital, presumably because it would upset some Muslim countries (in fact, the Gulf States – for the most part – took the measure in stride). No other action by the president occasioned so much head-scratching in the foreign diplomatic corps, but its purpose is straightforward: Trump sent a message that the United States would stand by one of its closest allies, and at the same time consolidated the support of a key political constituency, American evangelical Christians.
Trump wants to limit American commitments overseas as far as possible while acting decisively to contain prospective strategic threats— for example, North Korea and Iran. His main concern is America’s well-being. His proposed 25% tariff on steel and 10% tariff on aluminum imports got more attention than his intervention in the Qualcomm takeover, but the latter action is of far greater moment. Whether the United States mills more of its own metals will not affect the fate of the American economy, nor those of Canada, Mexico, Brazil and South Korea, the largest metals exporters to the US. Semiconductors will. During the past 20 years, semiconductor production has migrated out of the United States – and Taiwan, South Korea, and to an increasing extent China, are challenging American semiconductor design.
The problem is that it is hard to find anyone with a resume who has not been vetted by the Establishment
Tariffs are not an effective way to protect American jobs. The steel and aluminum tariffs were a mistake, as I argued on March 2. They annoyed American allies and offered minimal advantages for American employment. Protecting American technology is another matter entirely. China imports a quarter-trillion dollars of chips per year and urgently wants to produce them at home. Its appetite for high-tech acquisitions is enormous. China has some excellent chip-design firms of its own – for example Canaan Creative – but the relatively small number of successful Chinese start-ups lack the depth and breadth to challenge America, Taiwan and South Korea in the field. Technological prowess is ultimately the most important source of economic well-being, and Trump is entirely right to defend America’s edge.
Chinese and Russian influence around their own borders is a fact of life, and the Trump administration has no intention of attempting to roll it back. Unlike with the permanent foreign policy consensus that ruled Washington from the Clinton administration onward, Trump’s has no illusions about re-making the world in America’s image. It identifies a number of critical matters of interest for American policy and commits resources to resolving them, while adopting an attitude of benign neglect toward the rest of the world. It has little patience for a Europe that can’t manage to spend the NATO-mandated minimum of 2% of GDP on defense, and little interest in grand schemes to counter Chinese influence in partnership with Japan and India.
Trump’s personal management style is colored by his life experience as head of a privately-owned family firm, where the CEO has no need to compromise or form coalitions. But that does not explain the rapid turnover of administration personnel. The problem, rather, is that it is hard to find anyone with a resume who has not been vetted by the Establishment. To question the inevitable triumph of democracy and the validity of nation-building in the years after the end of the Cold War meant instant career death. To get a doctorate in international relations from a prestigious graduate school, or a promotion at the State Department, Pentagon, or CIA, one had to drink the Kool-Aid.
It isn’t just that the emperor has no clothes. The empire has no tailors, as I titled my 2014 review of Angelo Codevilla’s masterful book To Make and Keep Peace.
Trump is hard put to find outsiders willing to act on the Trump Doctrine. Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn was such an outsider — the only senior US intelligence executive to challenge the conventional narrative — but enemies in the intelligence community made short work of him. Hiring an oil company CEO as Secretary of State seemed like a bold move, but unfortunately found a conventional thinker. CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a former tank commander, entrepreneur and Congressman, is an outsider who has a good rapport with the president and likely will serve his purpose better. The president may require more staff changes before he assembles the right team.