Understanding the “Trump Doctrine”
In April 2016, I had the honor of attending a roundtable event with Dr. Charles Krauthammer. In the final question of the Q&A session afterwards, I asked the doctor what he imagined a “Trump Doctrine” would look like if Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.
To summarize, the doctor’s answer was that Trump would ultimately continue the process of scaling back American involvement overseas, much like what the Obama administration had already been doing, but with the distinct purpose of doing so in order to emphasize rebuilding efforts here at home, as part of his “America First” mantra.
While the doctor made a pretty strong point, I believe that there are two other major facets comprising a “Trump Doctrine:” One philosophically, and another historically.
With my area of emphasis being Political Philosophy, it wasn’t hard to narrow down the list of possible influences on Trump’s political ideology. Needless to say, the first time I heard him speak on the subjects of the late dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, I knew right away whose playbook he was taking a page from.
And that just so happens to be one of my all-time favorite philosophers: Niccolò Machiavelli.
In Machiavelli’s magnum opus, The Prince, he makes one particular, and surprisingly compelling, argument for a dictatorship despite the potential – indeed, the likeliness – for moral reprehensibility.
Machiavelli believes that a dictator who maintains an iron grip on his country – if he adheres to the principle of choosing to be feared over being loved by his people – is the best method for maintaining stability and security both inside and outside a country’s borders. In comparison to a more fractured government run by a fringe group, or any representative body at large – to Machiavelli – there is no comparison in terms of which one will better stabilize the land. It’s clear to see from where Thomas Hobbes got his inspiration for the concept of “The Sovereign.”
Nowhere is this theory of “ruthless, but stable” more evident than in the Middle East. As Donald Trump points out, the countries of Iraq and Syria have been severely stricken with chaos, weak replacement governments, rising terrorist groups, and general instability since these dictators were removed from power.
That is the silver lining in what appears to be his “endorsement” of Saddam Hussein’s “terrorist-killing” efforts – Hussein was a vile dictator, no question. But he kept the region in check, particularly in terms of balancing out Iraq and its long-time enemy, Iran. These two super-powers effectively cancelled each other out up until Saddam’s removal – consequently leaving Iran as the undisputed new power in the region, further advanced by the Nuclear Deal and the very recent transaction of $400 million for four American hostages, solidifying its status and swiftly rebuilding its credibility, to the point where now even the Saudis are terrified.
Trump used this line of reasoning to criticize his opponent Hillary Clinton over the merits of potentially going to war in Syria, against their similar dictator, Bashar al-Assad. He, too, is a ruthless dictator, currently maintaining an iron grip on his people even against an uprising, but could potentially be defeated with foreign intervention just as Saddam and Gaddafi were. But, Trump says, removal of Assad would lead to the exact same outcomes that we witnessed in Iraq and Syria – a further destabilization due to removal of the iron-fisted dictator.
As is the moral case, it is clear that these situations involve choosing the lesser of two evils. In a case where it is difficult to tell the magnitude of their respective evils apart, according to Machiavelli, the most practical solution should be the one that is chosen. Both Trump and Machiavelli seem to agree – whatever produces the most stability is the wisest.
The other major facet through which Trump is making his judgments on American foreign policy is on an inherent distrust of excessive involvement abroad. This can be traced back to the Founding Fathers, including President Washington, who mostly harbored a strong favoritism toward isolationism, being reluctant to get involved in other countries’ problems.
This line of thinking, subsequently, is influenced by two major costs of American over-involvement: First, America repeatedly becomes financially and militarily bogged down as a result of extensive involvement. The depletion of American resources also drains the country’s collective morale, bringing the country back to a period of “malaise” similar to the post-Vietnam era. And this couldn’t be more evident by the current national political mood.
Secondly, America can become so caught up in the issues of the day that it does not properly prepare for the future. In that sense, Trump’s foreign policy also seeks to correct the last major error in American foreign policy since World War II: The notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” philosophy.
Since World War II, when Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Nationalist Japan were public enemies #1, #2, and #3, America and the Allied forces were seeking help wherever possible. In their haste, the coalition turned to Russia under Joseph Stalin, giving him money, weapons, and diplomatic legitimacy despite his own brutal regime – which, as it should be noted, killed more people than the Holocaust. This further propped up his own power on the international stage, and, of course, basically led to the subsequent 50-year Cold War.
This birthed yet another problem due to a repeat of that same philosophy. While we initially succeeded in more “EoE” treatment of such countries as South Korea, the next big “EoE” failure came with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 70s. In our desperation, we provided funding and weapons to the Afghan resistance – the Mujahideen – to fight back against the invading Soviet forces. Despite this ultimately succeeding in driving out the Soviets, the long-term implications were fatal: that same group that was hastily funded by the US and its allies subsequently splintered off into other groups, and two in particular – the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
I think it is fair to say that these examples better highlight just exactly why the Founding Fathers held such views, and why those views have materialized in recent times even before Trump, with proudly isolationist candidates such as Ron Paul.
As Michael Hirsch of Politico noted, this “America First” mentality and distrust of over-involvement abroad is deeply rooted in America’s history. Not only is it highly likely that many of the Founding Fathers may actually have agreed with Trump, but this mentality being on full display through Trump’s election is bringing this issue back to the foreground where it should be.
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