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'Our Brand is Chaos': The Trump Doctrine at One Year

By Austin Mistretta 

Just hours before President Trump arrived on Capitol Hill to deliver his first State of the Union address, a panel of experts convened at the Cato Institute’s headquarters in D.C. to discuss the past year of American foreign policy. Their conversation hit upon a variety of important issues, from the latest in global political turmoil to America’s stewardship of the liberal international order, but mainly revolved around Trump’s performance so far as the primary executor of U.S. policy abroad. 

The reviews were unfavorable. 

“Let’s just start out by saying, this is a man whose own secretary of state called him a bleeping moron,” said Politico’s Susan Glasser. “This is a guy who, the chairman of his own party, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he’s going to ‘lead the world into World War III and nuclear Armageddon’ folks.”

Another panelist, Kathleen Hicks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, joked that the administration’s foreign policy approach reminded her of “a movie title, which is ‘Our Brand is Chaos.’” 


President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room
President Donald Trump meets Chinese President Xi Jinping during his Asian tour last November. Trump’s approach to China has been somewhat erratic, veering from condemning Beijing for unfair trade practice to courting it to help solve the North Korean nuclear crisis. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Hicks blamed the pandemonium partly on “the internal struggle in [Trump’s] own mind,” which “is then compounded by the struggle between members of his Cabinet and him, between members of his Cabinet and each other, between members of Congress and the administration.” 

Constant tumult and infighting have both colored and greatly impeded the day-to-day functioning of this White House, at home and abroad. Rows between President Trump and leading members of his national security team and State Department have become disconcertingly commonplace, and continue to hamstring American diplomacy.

Last October, word leaked that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had privately insulted the president’s intelligence after a meeting in July; around the same time, the president publicly undercut Tillerson’s diplomatic efforts in North Korea by way of a series of tweets saying, “Save your energy, Rex!” and that “our wonderful Secretary of State” was “wasting his time” trying to keep the peace on the 38th parallel.

Such relentless dysfunction, experts argue, renders it virtually impossible to implement policy, including Trump’s “America First” agenda.

America Abroad

In the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump successfully marketed himself as a populist who would “shake things up” in Washington. So far, he has lived up to his reputation as a disruptor, although not generally in the ways his base might have envisioned. Such is especially the case regarding his foreign policy.

“A year in we can see that a number of Trump’s policies have been less radical than one might have expected in November 2016,” asserted Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands, citing a multitude of unfulfilled campaign promises such as a diplomatic rapprochement with Russia, a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports and a withdrawal from multilateral agreements like NAFTA or the Iran nuclear deal.

Brands warned, however, that while the administration has fallen in line with the establishment on certain policies, the president himself has “systematically set about undermining what you might think of as the intangibles, or the ideas or the traditions that have in many cases made U.S. foreign policy over the decades.” 

These include “the idea that we are diplomatically competent — that we’ll serve as a source of stability in a dangerous world.” 


President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

From Left: Hal Brands, a Johns Hopkins professor and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments; Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; James Goldgeier, an American University professor and visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Susan Glasser, chief international affairs columnist for Politico; and the Cato Institute's Trevor Thrall, who hosted the panel discussion. (Photo by Austin Mistretta)

America’s diplomatic influence has indeed withered under Trump’s leadership. Since February 2017, the State Department, lacking top-down direction from the president or his seemingly estranged secretary of state, has been steadily losing top diplomats and fighting hard to stave off a looming sense of anomie. Numerous key ambassadorial and administrative positions remain vacant.

Those vacancies are problematic and in some cases downright dangerous. As Trump ramps up his rhetoric against the North Korean regime, whose nuclear capabilities have grown exponentially, the top American posting in South Korea remains empty. Trump’s leading pick to fill that position was recently sidelined over his discomfort with the prospect of a “bloody nose” strike against the North. With no clear runner-up, American diplomacy lacks a regional figurehead. 

Quipped James Goldgeier of the Council on Foreign Relations, “So far, America first looks like America alone.”

The Trump Doctrine

“To the extent that a Trump doctrine has emerged, it’s basically an awkward, unstable and frequently incoherent blend of traditional and narrowly nationalistic approaches,” Brands argued.

Glasser was even less generous in her own assessment. 

“When we have a nice, reasonable, rational foreign policy conversation about Donald Trump,” she said, “there’s just one problem, which is that we’re talking about Donald Trump. And I do think that we still are working very hard, even after a year — understandably — to fit him into the conventions of policy analysis.”


President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

During his Asia trip abroad last November, President Donald Trump meets Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who stands accused of gross human rights abuses. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Also present at the Cato event was Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-host of the Rational Security podcast, who was there to participate in a subsequent panel on Trump’s Middle East policy. Her evaluation was not far afield from the rest.

“I don’t think there is a Trump doctrine as it relates to the Middle East,” she said. “Trump administration foreign policy, on a lot of subjects, is driven more by domestic politics than by considerations of national interest.”

According to Wittes, America’s pragmatic interests and obligations abroad often clash with the more nationalistic, non-interventionist tendencies of Trump and his political base. As a result, “We are subject to these contrary impulses, and I think that’s why you see so much incoherence in the Trump administration policy.”

If expert opinion is anything to go by, it seems that incoherence is the defining characteristic of Trump’s foreign policy to date. Whatever the reason for that may be — rifts within the executive branch, resistance from establishment politicians and bureaucrats, or the president’s own cognitive dissonance — analysts worry it is doing grievous harm to America’s standing on the world stage. Faith in America is eroding. To restore it, diplomacy needs to become a higher priority for the Trump administration, which should give the State Department the personnel and resources it needs to promote America’s global interests instead of slashing its budget. 

Above all, Trump and his team should chart a course and stick to it. Decisive action is what has always made America great, and what it will take to keep it that way.

Austin Mistretta is an editorial intern at The Washington Diplomat.



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