National Security & Defense

The Trump Doctrine: American Interests Come First

President Trump speaks about his national-security plan in Washington, D.C., December 18, 2017. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
The president recognizes important new realities in world affairs.

Ever since Donald Trump took office, Americans have wondered if he has a coherent vision of America’s place in the world, or if he sees foreign affairs the way he sees Twitter: as a space where emotion and instinct roam free from the restraints of rational discourse.

Now we have an answer. The speech he gave Monday at the Reagan Center was the curtain-raiser for his new National Security Strategy, a 55-page document that gives us more insight into Trump’s view of the world than has any text since his speech to the U.N. in July — and a far more comprehensive insight than we’ve ever had before.

The Trump Doctrine can now be summed up as follows: America and American interests will always come first, globalist agendas second. But don’t think you can cross us, or our allies, with impunity. America’s not looking for trouble, but if you come after us or them, we will hurt you like hell.

Various commentators have remarked on the four vital national interests, or pillars of the National Security Strategy, that Trump listed: protect the homeland, the American people, and American way of life; promote American prosperity; preserve peace through strength; advance American influence in the world (Trump’s version of soft power). Also widely covered is that he named China and Russia as strategic competitors (China was mentioned 22 times), argued that economic security is part of national security, mentioned climate change as a security threat, and pushed American “energy dominance” as a tool for foreign-policy leverage.

Many have further highlighted the president’s concept of “principled realism” in foreign affairs: “realist” because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics, and affirms that strong and sovereign states, including our own, are the best hope for a peaceful world; and “principled” because the Trump Doctrine is ultimately grounded in advancing American principles, which are the conduits for spreading peace and prosperity around the globe.

But it’s important not to miss the broader philosophical underpinning of the Trump Doctrine, which is that we live in a world where competition is natural, especially among the great powers. Nothing separates him and his foreign-policy team from his liberal critics, and many of his presidential predecessors, more than this assumption — which certainly reflects his experience in the business world, where battling rivals for dominance and market share is a way of life.

According to the Trump Doctrine, America can work with Russia and China on matters of common interest, such as the war with radical Islam. But friction and conflicting interests are inevitable; the purpose of diplomacy is to keep that friction from spilling over into armed conflict, but the job of a president — like that of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company — is to keep America on top. Indeed, according to the National Security Strategy, “an America that successfully competes is the best way to prevent conflict.”

For the last 100 years, America has had to confront foes driven by ferocious and vicious ideologies — Fascism, Nazism, Communism, radical Islam. We’ve responded by trying to give the world an ideological counter-scaffolding, whether it was Wilsonism or Progressivism or neoconservatism or compassionate conservatism. For 100 years, America has found itself forced to think and act in global terms, seeking to create and sustain a world order based on democracy and free trade and collective security — and ending up doing most of the heavy lifting.

Now, Trump states, “we . . . understand that the American way of life cannot be imposed on others, nor is it the inevitable culmination of progress.” This not a formula for isolationism. Instead of either withdrawing from the world or taking on the role of “globocop,” under the Trump Doctrine the U.S. will pursue what we can call transactional engagement: focusing on what America can, and can’t, do to help itself as well as to help others, and moving away from trying to shape a global vision.  

A new era of international anarchy is coming.

Everywhere we look, the liberal international order that every president since Woodrow Wilson has tried to establish and prop up is coming to an end. The Trump Doctrine recognizes this reality: that a new era of international anarchy is coming, where every nation-state, including the U.S., will have to rely on its own military and economic strength, diplomacy, and alliances for its security. It’s not a world that will make liberals or globalists or even many conservatives very happy. But paradoxically, it’s a world that will have more stability and predictability in international affairs than we’ve seen in a century.

The Trump Doctrine tries to see this world for what it really is, not what we think it should be — and that’s an important step forward.

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Arthur L. Herman — Arthur L. Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of 1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder.

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