|May 11, 2017
By George Friedman
Following his victories in this week’s primaries, Donald Trump provided the first systematic view of his foreign policy. Given that there is a reasonable chance that he will be the Republican nominee, and that he has been constantly underestimated, the possibility of his becoming president can’t be dismissed. It may seem unlikely, but everything about Donald Trump this far has been unlikely.
In general, I don’t pay much attention to public statements of any sort, let alone campaign speeches. Political leaders are extremely limited in the shifts they can implement. They live in a world of competing nations and interests, and in general what they would like to do has little to do with what happens. George W. Bush did not think his presidency would be defined by 9/11. Barack Obama wanted to disengage from the Middle East. It is not that presidential candidates simply lie, although that’s not unheard of. Rather, they imagine they have more power than they do. So paying attention to what they say is pointless.
However, on occasion, there are fundamental shifts that take place in foreign policy, and presidents can shepherd a nation in the direction it will go anyway, rather than fighting it. In my view, as expressed in several of my books, the U.S. must execute a major shift in its foreign policy. It cannot maintain a policy in which it is the first responder to a global crisis, but must create coalitions that bear the major burden. I am not arguing that this shift should happen. I am arguing that it will happen. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have shown that the United States’ first strategy after it became the sole global power is unsustainable. Also, as I said in a recent piece on Kim Jong Un’s sanity, it is laziness on the part of analysts to dismiss political leaders as irrational. It simplifies matters but is usually very wrong.
The current consensus is to accept the post-Cold War doctrine of the U.S. as both a member of multinational institutions and treaties defining trade, as well as the U.S. using its military power to shape unstable regions. In reading his speech, should he get the nomination, Trump will be challenging that consensus and arguing against multinational agreements that limit American freedom of action and opposing the use of force except in extreme circumstances where victory can be achieved.
In his speech, Trump made a striking statement – that he was not announcing a doctrine. He said that he wanted to maintain maximum freedom of action, and doctrines lock a nation into place. At a time when U.S. doctrine has locked the U.S. into a set of policies on trade, the Middle East and other matters, Trump is not only challenging the doctrine, but taking issues with doctrines themselves. There would be two ways to present this view, neither of which he used. The first was that doctrines tend to assume a tactical predictability that isn’t there, forcing reality to make war with strategy. The second is that predictability in foreign policy gives opponents a tremendous advantage. This second point was implicit in some other comments. But Trump’s argument means that there is no preconception behind any treaty or intervention. This is a much harder foreign policy to pursue than a doctrinal foreign policy, but it has its advantages.
The single most important statement was that he rejected “the false song of globalism.” This is generally a critique of capitalism from the far left. Undoubtedly, he means something different than they do, but in some sense it tends toward that position. First, he opposes international accords that limit U.S. freedom of action. By that I assume he means the World Trade Organization and other multilateral trade organizations and agreements that limit U.S. options. These are also opposed by the left, but on the assumption that they benefit the U.S. excessively. Either way, they come out at the same point. But Trump could also mean military agreements that lock the U.S. into certain relations and actions, for example, making intervention automatic. That would include NATO, which compels action under certain circumstances. This argument is consistent with his previous criticism of NATO.
Trump also said that he would refuse to send U.S. forces into battle unless they were absolutely necessary, in the American interest and intended toward a military victory. The most important issue would be defining American interests. To Hillary Clinton, for example, the Kosovo war was an essential exercise of U.S. military power because the population of Kosovo was in danger. Trump just said that the United States must not lose sight of its core interests. If this means anything, it means that intervention in a country must be for the sake of the United States, narrowly defined. Clinton would define the American interests more broadly, which would necessitate a much wider range of actions.
Trump is adding two other elements. One is the absolute necessity of deploying U.S. forces. The other is that there must be the possibility of victory, which means that victory is definable as well as attainable. The definability is the heart of the problem in the Middle East. What victory looks like and whether it can be achieved have been at the heart of U.S. problems in the Middle East and propel shifts in behavior.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Trump’s speech was his discussion of bargaining, claiming that his experience in business will help him in foreign policy. This has been dismissed by many, but when you think about it many of those who dismissed it place a premium on diplomacy. Diplomacy is bargaining in international affairs. I doubt that skills in one are easily transferrable to the other, but at the same time, Trump’s claims on the importance of bargaining can be simply translated as a commitment to diplomacy. His claim that the U.S.-Chinese relationship can improve with hard bargaining is simply saying that we should engage in diplomacy.
When we step back, what Trump has argued for is a much more limited commitment to the world, particularly when it comes to commitments that are institutionalized in multinational organizations or in bilateral treaties that commit the U.S. to particular action. He has also made the argument that the burden of war ought to be borne by those directly concerned, with the U.S. intervening only when it is in its core interest, when the point of intervention can be defined and where the forces deployed are sufficient.
All of the post-World War II and post-Cold War foreign policy has been built around the principle of economic integration and free trade, while the military side has been built around alliances and bilateral commitments. This has been doctrine. Trump rejects both the doctrine and the idea of doctrine, in favor of defined and limited interests. His intention is to limit American exposure, except where there is advantage. Clinton will be arguing for international obligations and maintaining the fixed alliance system.
We don’t predict elections. But I am put in mind of the 1964 presidential campaign in which Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater. It led to Ronald Reagan’s election 16 years later. Whatever happens to Trump, he has in my mind laid out – in one speech and leaving much out – a foreign policy that is likely to be implemented by some future president, if not himself. The ideas of free trade as an absolute principle, of oversight by international organizations and of open-ended military alliances, are now over 60 years old. It is a set of doctrines created when the world was a very different place. It is unlikely to be sustainable as a doctrine for much longer. This is not isolationism. It is a more flexible involvement with the world.
What is most important in choosing a candidate is how that candidate will behave when the utterly unexpected happens. I don’t intend to vote for Donald Trump. But I don’t intend to vote for Hillary Clinton either. Which puts me in a personal quandary. What is apparent to me, however, is that if this election is between Clinton and Trump, basic principles of foreign policy that have been in place since the end of World War II will be at stake.
Understanding geopolitics starts here.