Ottawa Citizen

In search of Trump’s foreign policy doctrine



Donald Trump was not going to take it any more from Kim Jong Un.

With dictator Kim’s North Korea poised to carry out another nuclear or missile test earlier this month, the U.S. president responded aggressive­ly. A naval group led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was being redirected toward the Korean peninsula, he said, a potent flexing of military muscle in the face of a volatile enemy.

The only catch, media reports later made clear, was where that carrier force actually went. For days, it in fact steamed in the opposite direction, toward a pre-arranged exercise with the Australian navy.

Whether the wandering armada’s geographic ambiguity stemmed from a communicat­ions glitch or a deliberate feint to rattle the North Koreans, some saw it as a reflection of the new president’s foreign policy generally. Despite no-nonsense assertions on the campaign trail, his internatio­nal forays so far have included surprises, flip-flops and contradict­ions. If at this early stage in the administra­tion there is such thing as a Trump Doctrine, it has been difficult to make out.

And yet, some experts — even some who were harshly critical of the president during the campaign — are beginning to glimpse consistent themes, even positive ones, emerging from the noise of Trump’s first months in office.

If Trump’s election rhetoric was all about blowing up the foreignpol­icy orthodoxy — ripping apart free-trade deals, questionin­g NATO and other alliances, giving up the role of world’s policeman — his presidenti­al actions and personnel appointmen­ts, they say, have had a decidedly more convention­al flavour.

“Since the inaugurati­on, it seems there has been something of a mainstream­ing of his foreign policy,” said Matthew Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown University and adviser in both the Obama and George W. Bush administra­tions. “I’m more optimistic than I think many in Washington are … In many ways a number of things Trump has done already, including the Syria (missile) strikes, are an improvemen­t over his predecesso­r.”

Peter Feaver was among a group of Republican foreignpol­icy experts who issued a scathing open letter during the campaign, predicting Trump “would be the most reckless president in American history.” But today the Duke University political scientist, a special adviser in George W. Bush’s national security council, isn’t so sure the president is, in fact, delivering recklessne­ss.

Each foreign-policy decision Trump has made since his inaugurati­on has actually moved him further away from the campaign rhetoric that so worried those experts, he maintains.

Trump began with his controvers­ial ban on travel from some Muslim countries — now tied up in court and barely mentioned — but moved on to say he no longer believed NATO was “obsolete,” reassure European and Asian allies and take a more measured stance on trade with China, Feaver noted.

Having to confront actual events may be reshaping Trump’s nascent foreign-affairs philosophy.

“Every president discovers that campaign rhetoric and campaign promises look differentl­y in the light of day than they did in the middle of the campaign,” Feaver said. “No president gets to impose his or her vision of the world onto reality. You have to deal with reality as it exists.”

The idea of a president’s foreign policy being guided by a unified theme is generally traced back to the Monroe Doctrine, James Monroe’s 1823 manifesto opposing European colonialis­m in the Americas.

Much later, George W. Bush’s doctrine — forged in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — was seen as giving a green light to preventive wars against countries that might attack the States.

The Barack Obama doctrine was less well-defined, though generally described as favouring negotiatio­n and diplomacy over unilateral action and confrontat­ion.

As for Trump’s grand strategy, some reports have suggested confusion about it even inside the White House.

Just three days before the missile strike against Syria, Mike Dubke, the president’s communicat­ions director, told staff that Trump lacked a coherent foreign policy, according to sources cited by Politico.

“There is no Trump doctrine,” Politico quoted Dubke as saying.

Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary, quickly tried to correct the record, insisting last week the approach remained “America first,” as touted on the election trail.

Details during the campaign were scarce, but as a candidate Trump’s worldview generally seemed to look on immigratio­n with suspicion, to disavow military adventures that had no direct benefits for the United States and to make America’s interests the central considerat­ion. He questioned the value of NATO and other alliances, decried most free trade deals, spoke highly of Putin and generally struck an isolationi­st and protection­ist pose.

Then he moved into the White House and things became muddier.

Most dramatical­ly, he ordered missiles hurled at a Syrian airbase, apparently for humanitari­an reasons despite having urged Obama to never do the same.

He left open the potential of military action against North Korea. His aides voiced criticism of Russia, even though in the past Trump repeatedly praised its president, Vladimir Putin, and mused about a new RussoAmeri­can alliance against Islamic terrorism.

And after meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at his Florida golf club he quickly backed off his pledge to label China a currency manipulato­r.

“This administra­tion … is running national defence and foreign policy a little like a pick-up team,” says Ilan Berman, senior fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council, a conservati­ve think tank. “It looks, at least for the moment, ad-hoc. That tends to heighten those fears the anti-Trump crowd have about the impermanen­ce and fickleness of their strategy.”

But those who see Trump actually slipping into the role of an establishm­ent foreign-policy president point partly to an old saw in U.S. foreign affairs, that “personnel is policy.” Like some of his actions, Trump’s appointmen­ts suggest a slide toward the convention­al, they say.

Gen. James Mattis as defence secretary, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, Nikki Haley as UN ambassador, Jon Huntsman as envoy to Moscow — all are figures who would tend to promote a traditiona­l U.S. interface with the world. Among other issues, most have voiced tougher, more skeptical opinions of Russia and its intentions than has the president.

One theme that suggests an actual doctrine may be developing is the Trump administra­tion’s more emphatic internatio­nal posture, at least compared to Barack Obama’s.

Kroenig argues Trump’s predecesso­r was not a strong foreign-policy president, leaving the world in perhaps its most dangerous state since the end of the Cold War.

Obama’s non-confrontat­ional attitude toward bellicose North Korea, for instance, amounted to “standing idly by” as it built a nuclear arsenal, Kroenig charged in a recent essay in the magazine Foreign Affairs.

There was also wide, bipartisan agreement the U.S. should have taken military action when Assad stepped over Obama’s “red line” and first used chemical weapons against his own people, said Kroenig.

As a result, Trump’s boldest move yet — the missile strike that followed Assad’s recent chemical bomb attack on a rebel town — earned him broad approval from both the Republican and Democratic establishm­ents, even if some alt-right supporters saw it as a betrayal of his isolationi­st promises.

Such moves seem “intended as demonstrat­ions of U.S. force, U.S. resolve,” said Berman.

How Trump’s thinking will evolve from here, however, remains unclear.

If the Syrian strike seemed assertive, Max Boot, a historian at the Council on Foreign Relations and former adviser to Republican­s John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, compared it to Bill Clinton’s largely ineffectiv­e use of cruise missiles against terrorists in Afghanista­n and elsewhere, attacks Bush had causticall­y dismissed. “When I take action,” said the 43rd president, “I’m not going to fire a $2-million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt.”

There were no reports of dromedary casualties this time, but the Syrians were flying missions from the Trump-bombed airbase the following day.

And while some of Trump’s advisers discussed their desire to see Assad gone, the president insisted he would not force regime change — leaving it uncertain what, if anything, the States would do to try to end the vicious war Assad has waged in Syria.

As for Korea, Vice-President Mike Pence made a surprise visit this week to the demilitari­zed zone between North and South, staring down soldiers from the north and insisting “the era of strategic patience” with the communist regime is over.

But, Berman says, “it’s not clear what the opposite of strategic patience is, in terms of what we’re actually willing to do to compel the North Koreans to behave better.”

There was some clarity in recent days, however, on the naval front. Its training with the Australian­s finished, that aircraft carrier group was reported this week to actually be heading toward Kim Jong Un’s back yard.



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 ?? MC3 BRENTON POYSER / AFP / GETTY IMAGES ?? The USS Carl Vinson, which President Donald Trump announced was sent toward the Korean peninsula, even though it was headed for Australia.
MC3 BRENTON POYSER / AFP / GETTY IMAGES The USS Carl Vinson, which President Donald Trump announced was sent toward the Korean peninsula, even though it was headed for Australia.

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