Carnegie Mellon University

The Trump Doctrine: Pressuring Adversaries and Allies Alike

September 24, 2020

The Trump Doctrine: Pressuring Adversaries and Allies Alike

By Colin Dueck

The Trump doctrine of US foreign policy, insofar as one can be discerned, is an attempt to maximize what the president views as relative gains for the United States through the applied escalation and de-escalation of American leverage. In President Trump’s diplomatic “art of the deal,” making threats at each point of escalation typically ensures that target audiences – including foreign governments – understand that he may be willing to go even further than they are. Sometimes he escalates tensions in sudden, unpredictable ways. He can also de-escalate very rapidly and unexpectedly. Indeed the president makes it clear in almost every case that he is ultimately looking for a negotiated settlement, but one he finds satisfactory, and that he is willing to walk away from the bargaining table if it is not.

Is the Trump doctrine “zero sum”? Not exactly.

For Trump, the purpose of escalation is most often to de-escalate on favorable terms. In fact, liked his predecessors President Trump regularly refers to the possibility of mutual benefit between the US and other countries. But he is attuned to the relative gains to be had from these various negotiations – or at least what he thinks of as gains – and insists that America’s material interests be pushed more aggressively within those same diplomatic frameworks. Moreover, Trump does not instinctively insulate economic issues from security concerns, nor US allies from adversaries. All are subject to the application of leverage up and down the ladder.

Trump’s foreign policy therefore involves a set of pressure campaigns on four fronts. These fronts seek to pressure adversaries and allies alike on various security and commercial issues. Let’s briefly review progress and risks posed on each front.

Front #1: Counteracting the national security threat posed by adversaries

On the first front, the administration pressures Iran and North Korea via sanctions and deterrence, asserts American naval patrols around waters claimed by China, strengthens the US military presence along NATO’s eastern border, confronts the Taliban, and forcefully rolls back ISIS. At the same time, President Trump has made clear his willingness to sit down and negotiate with all of these competitors but ISIS.

These efforts to counteract and impose costs upon numerous authoritarian adversaries are justified, and have already produced some positive results such as the rollback of ISIS as a proto-state. Of course, any foreign policy approach carries risks, and so does this one. One risk commonly noted, and a valid concern, is that of accidental military escalation with a peacetime competitor. But an equally valid concern is the risk of premature de-escalation involving American concessions, for example in relation to North Korea.

Front #2: The trade war against China’s unfair foreign economic practices

On the second front, the president levies tariffs against Chinese goods, referencing discriminatory practices under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act, and threatening additional tariffs while holding out hopes for resolution of the US-China trade war.

Trump deserves credit for drawing attention to a longtime pattern of Chinese abuses against the United States and its allies. China’s predatory economic practices include intellectual property theft, state-sponsored cybercrime, forced technology transfer, and industrial espionage on a massive scale. A forceful US response is long overdue. Punitive tariffs are an admittedly blunt tool in America’s toolkit. The US also has multiple other economic tools to use, such as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, and it is using them.

A lengthy Sino-American trade dispute carries economic costs and risks for both sides. But the risks are worth taking if they force significant policy changes from Beijing. Rather than fixate on the trade deficit per se, the goal should be to extract concessions on the above practices that unfairly tilt the economic playing field.

Front #3: Getting allies, especially in NATO, to bolster their armed forces

On the third front, the Trump administration promotes alliance burden-sharing. Given the existing range and balance of allied capabilities, this effort centers especially on getting NATO allies in Europe to spend more on their own defenses.

The central request, however roughly expressed, is not unreasonable. In fact numerous allies agree and are taking steps to adjust. At numerous NATO summits, members have agreed to keep bolstering common military capabilities. Some allies find this American request to be mostly unwelcome or unrealistic, given their own domestic politics. Germany, in particular, prefers focusing on reinforcing the rules-based order, while simultaneously buying natural gas from Moscow and relying on American troops for protection. Trump is not actually wrong about that. Liberal internationalists respond, in effect, that the United States must adopt German political preferences. But why US foreign policy should be based upon the Merkel government’s particular conception of international security is not exactly obvious.  In any case, with the current administration, that specific danger is absent.

As always with Donald Trump, there is a great deal to critique and debate on specifics. But assuming the administration looks to counter US adversaries, then all three fronts heretofore outlined are basically justified. The fourth front – trade wars with US allies – is more problematic, in part because it undermines the other three.

Front #4: Leveling the commercial playing field with US allies via trade wars

On the fourth front, Trump has levied tariffs against US allies – notably Canada, Mexico, and the European Union – on national security grounds, citing Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Act. Again, he offers to negotiate, but on his own terms.

To be clear: Neither the US nor its democratic trading partners are entirely innocent of selective commercial protectionism. Some of the specific American complaints regarding allied tariffs are well-founded. Still, lengthy US trade disputes with democratic allies carry all of the economic costs of a trade dispute with China, but with less strategic benefit. China is a great power rival, an authoritarian force, and a longtime practitioner of deeply predatory commercial practices. In terms of this unique combination, it is unlike any other US trading partner, and most Americans know it. Trade wars with US allies, on the other hand, cost all sides economically, while complicating strategic cooperation on other matters. The US should therefore de-escalate these commercial disputes with its allies, and focus on forming a common front with them against Beijing. To its credit, the Trump administration has moved in this direction more than once, signing a renegotiated NAFTA along with a trade truce with the European Union.

President Trump’s major foreign policy priorities put “America first”, but do not necessarily seek to completely dismantle the liberal international order.

Trump believes that existing international military and commercial arrangements have been disproportionately costly for the United States, and must be reoriented or renegotiated in the opposite direction. This is not the same as seeking a complete dismantling of America’s post-World War II commitments, and the distinction is crucial. There is no conclusive evidence from either his words or actions as president that Trump is utterly fixated on dismantling rules-based liberal international order, any more than upholding it. It is simply not his primary reference point one way or the other. Rather, he looks to pull existing arrangements in the direction of what he views as material US interests, and is open to either renegotiating or abandoning those arrangements case by case. 

Drawing on his experience in real-estate, he lays out attention-getting positions, sometimes extreme ones, and then states his readiness to negotiate. Needless to say, this process unnerves his negotiating partners overseas, his domestic critics, and even some of his own staff, who rarely know the president’s final reservation point in any given situation. He himself may not know. Trump reserves the right to decide, case by case. Many or perhaps even most aspects of America’s forward presence may very well survive his tenure, and in certain cases be reinforced.  In effect, the president is undertaking a kind of reassessment of America’s global commitment portfolio, and its outcome is not predetermined.

Colin Dueck is a Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism (2019).