Donald Trump’s Disruptive “America First” Foreign Policy

This article originally appeared in The Atlantic, on November 19, 2016

Clues are beginning to emerge about President-elect Trump’s approach to world affairs.

By James Kitfield

By the time modern American presidents receive the keys to the White House, learn the identities of intelligence assets around the world, and obtain the nuclear-weapons codes, they have traditionally been well-defined, both by their long careers in public service and by an arduous election campaign. Their positions have been anchored to a coherent worldview and governing philosophy. Their character judgment has been revealed by the wide circle of experts and advisers drawn to the cause. Their policy positions have been detailed in extensive white papers. Their decision-making has been illuminated through close scrutiny of past votes and personal history. Yet despite dominating the spotlight of one of the most-watched and bitterly contested presidential campaigns in U.S. history, President-elect Donald J. Trump will enter the Oval Office on January 20 as an enigma in many important respects.

Trump is neither conservative nor neoconservative. Nor is he reliably realist, idealist, or neo-isolationist. His tightly drawn circle of loyal aides and adult children reflect only the light of the “army of one” at their center. As America’s first commander-in-chief in waiting never to have served in government or the military, Trump lacks the kind of biographical paper trail that might bring into sharper focus his vague convictions. But it’s not quite that simple.

In March, Eliot A. Cohen, director of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a former senior State Department counselor for the George W. Bush administration, famously helped organize a “Never Trump” letter, eventually signed by more than 120 former Republican foreign policy and national security officials and experts. Cohen explained that Trump does possess some core views—just not enough of them to give Americans a clear picture of his foreign-policy dispositions. Trump is not a traditional isolationist, although he is wary of what he perceives as lopsided alliance commitments, Cohen noted. Trump believes in a strong military, but is dismissive of past military entanglements. He is pro-Israel, supports Britain’s decision to quit the European Union, and is unusually simpatico with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. “But none of that amounts to a coherent worldview, which is one of the problems you have in judging a leader who does not read, and feels no need to fundamentally educate himself on the international system that the United States has created over more than half a century,” Cohen said.

But there are important clues to a likely Trump foreign and national security policy embedded in his business career, in the drama of the campaign trail, and in the controversial policy positions he has embraced and frequently discarded. There are also clues in the rapidly expanding circle of advisers and top officials he is now recruiting and appointing, including retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser; Kansas Representative Mike Pompeo as CIA director; Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general; Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff; and right-wing media mogul and anti-globalist bomb-thrower Steve Bannon as White House chief strategist and senior counselor.

The evidence thus far suggests that Trump is a pragmatist who possesses a mercantilist instinct and boundless confidence in his ability to negotiate trade deals that put “America First.” He is likely to be more aggressive in targeting Islamist terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, and staunching the flow of illegal immigrants. Trump also seems determined to continue stoking the fires of nationalism and aggrieved populism that swept him into office. His approach to allies and adversaries alike will almost certainly be transactional and non-judgmental of authoritarian regimes. Above all, the picture that emerges is of a commander-in-chief untethered from the orthodoxies of the post-World War II, U.S.-constructed liberal international order, suggesting the potential for one of the most disruptive presidencies in modern history.

The Trump Prism

In the personal narrative of ambitious leaders, there is often a formative period or event that crystallizes their view of how the world works. For George H.W. Bush and other members of “The Greatest Generation,” it was the twin horrors of the Great Depression and World War II. Bill Clinton and the Baby Boomers had Vietnam and the 1960s “cultural revolution.” Barack Obama and American millennials have 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Trump, the epochal moment may have been the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when his success as a real estate mogul vaulted him to celebrity. This was a period “when the joke was that the Cold War was over, and Japan had won,” Peter Feaver, director of the Program in American Grand Strategy at Duke University, and a former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration, remarked.

“That period when Japan was eating our economic lunch was the searing geopolitical event that shaped Trump’s thinking.”

In the early 1990s, America was struggling economically from the burdens of winning the Cold War, with soaring deficits and an economy on the verge of recession. By adopting a more mercantilist trade policy and benefitting from the U.S. security umbrella, Feaver said, Japan was surpassing U.S. auto industry, dominating the global electronics industry, and buying up New York City landmarks. The widely read book The Coming War with Japan, co-authored in 1991 by the U.S. strategist George Friedman, argued that with the end of the Cold War, the United States would no longer endure Japan’s economic encroachments, making a “hot war” between the two allies likely in the coming decades.

“That time period when Japan was eating our economic lunch was the searing geopolitical event that shaped Trump’s thinking,” Feaver said. “The lesson he seems to have taken from it is that the international arena is a very competitive place, and if we’re not alert and tough, our friends as well as our adversaries will take advantage of us.”

Of course, even if theories of Trump-as-pragmatist hold up, the hard-right nationalists that helped deliver him to power are anything but. In searching for a historical antecedent to the Trump phenomenon, political scientist and historian Walter Russell Mead, professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College, harkened all the way back to the fiery nationalism and populism of Andrew Jackson. As Mead argued earlier this year in The American Interest, modern-day Jacksonians reflexively support Israel, demand an overwhelming response to terror attacks, agitate for tight immigration controls, resist diplomacy with Iran and North Korea, want the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to remain open, maintain a cynical stance towards the United Nations, doubt climate change science, and believe in torture’s effectiveness. That sounds an awful lot like an amalgam of Trump foreign policy pronouncements. “Donald Trump, for now, is serving as a kind of blank screen on which Jacksonians project their hopes,” Mead wrote. “Combining a suspicion of Wall Street, a hatred of the cultural left, a love of middle class entitlement programs, and a fear of free trade, Jacksonian America has problems with both Republican and Democratic agendas.”

Rock the World

In recasting the Republican agenda by merging hard-nosed mercantilism with Jacksonian ideals, Trump’s election has sent much of the world reeling. That was the subtext to President Barack Obama’s trip to Europe this week: to assure rattled NATO allies that his successor remains committed to the trans-Atlantic alliance. It explains why German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent Trump a pointed note of congratulations on his victory that made future cooperation contingent on his adherence to common values, such as democracy and human rights, heretofore taken for granted.

The shockwaves were felt as far away as Japan. They help explain Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to drop everything and fly to New York to meet with Trump on Thursday afternoon in order to “build trust” in a relationship that Abe calls “the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy and security.”

Authoritarian and nationalist leaders who frequently suffer the lash of U.S. criticism applauded Trump’s victory.

Meanwhile, authoritarian and nationalist leaders who frequently suffer the lash of U.S. criticism under current international norms have applauded Trump’s victory. That list includes Putin, Egyptian military coup leader and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Trump campaign’s plan to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and its new policy statement that West Bank settlements are no longer seen as an obstacle to peace, has already prompted right-wing members of the Israeli government to declare the death of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a U.S. policy embraced by Republican and Democratic presidents going back four decades. “The era of the Palestinian state is over,” crowed right-wing Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party.

Personnel Equals Policy

More clues to Trump’s core values and governing philosophy will emerge as he continues to fill out his administration. Recent turmoil does not bode well.

Last week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was unceremoniously ousted from his spot as transition chairman, reportedly due to concerns about “Bridgegate” and the fact that as a former U.S. attorney Christie was involved in the prosecution and imprisonment on tax evasion charges of Charles Kushner, father of Trump’s son-in-law and close confidant Jared Kushner. This week, former Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, was also forced out as head of Trump’s national security transition, reportedly because of his ties to Christie.

Guessing who will fill top administration jobs is a venerable Washington parlor game. These picks matter. George W. Bush’s transition team, for instance, stocked his national security apparatus with prominent neoconservatives who championed an assertive U.S. foreign policy promoting democracy and confrontation with America’s adversaries. After the attacks on 9/11, those neoconservatives and their allies forcefully and successfully advocated for the invasion of Iraq.

Trump’s personnel choices figure to be especially revealing, given his thin resume, either signaling a more incremental approach, or else a radical departure from past U.S. foreign and national security policy. The challenge for the Trump administration is also complicated by the fact that so many former Republican foreign policy and national security officials and experts signed “Never Trump” pledges. The Trump team’s willingness to offer them a potential olive branch and positions in his administration—and their response—could provide an early indication of Trump’s ability to unify the party’s divergent wings. Cohen’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post (titled “I told conservatives to work for Trump. One talk with his team changed my mind.”) is not a hopeful harbinger of fence-mending.

In Trump’s first major personnel announcement, concerning both Priebus and Bannon, the president-elect highlighted the essential duality between pragmatists and populist ideologues. Subsequent choices will provide clues to whether the pragmatists or ideological populists are ascendant. Establishment favorites being floated for Secretary of State include Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, known for reaching across the political aisle; Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations, and the highest-ranking Muslim American in the administration of George W. Bush; and even former Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney. The choice of staunch partisans like Rudy Giuliani, or a hard-right skeptic of multilateralism like former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, would be interpreted as a turn away from traditional diplomacy.

Most of the names floated for secretary of defense carry an establishment pedigree. Moderates likely favor former National Security Advisor and Iraq War architect Stephen Hadley, former New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte, and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, while conservatives are likely to prefer former Arizona senator Jon Kyl, one of the chamber’s most conservative members.

Art of the Deal

Trump’s choice of retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and his chief national adviser during the long campaign, to serve as his national security adviser is also telling. As DIA chief from 2012 to 2014, Flynn pushed back against the White House narrative that al-Qaeda’s “core” was “decimated,” and that ISIS was the “junior varsity” team of terrorism.

“I came to believe that when people in Washington, D.C., talked about decimating ‘core Al Qaeda’ after Osama bin Laden and many of his top lieutenants were killed, they were missing the point,” Flynn told me in an interview in October. For years, Flynn had served as the chief intelligence officer for Joint Special Operations Command as it hunted Islamist terrorists and insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We killed and captured a lot of al-Qaeda leaders, but they were always replaced by other true believers. … The claim that this enemy was on the run was a lie.”

In our interview, Flynn forecast how some of Trump’s counterterrorism and national security positions might actually manifest as policy. Understanding that intelligence and military communities were likely to resist his pledge to return to “waterboarding and much worse,” possibly exposing intelligence operatives to charges of war crimes, Flynn said that “enhanced interrogation techniques” of the type used by the Bush administration in its first term would likely be reserved only for extreme cases, such as when the safety of the nation is threatened by an imminent terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction. Many national security officials and congressional leaders, such as former POW John McCain, have equated those techniques with torture and reject them outright.

Citing intelligence that roughly one-third of the terrorist suspects released from the Guantanamo Bay detention center have rejoined Islamist extremist groups, Flynn and a majority of congressional Republicans have argued for keeping it open indefinitely. He would not support Trump’s call for killing the families of terrorists, but he does believe the Obama administration has been too cautious when it comes to civilian casualties in fighting ISIS. Flynn did not support Trump’s controversial call to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Trump backtracked on that pledge, but it has resurfaced in recent days after a member of Trump’s transition team, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, said Trump’s policy advisers were weighing a proposal for a national registry of Muslim immigrants and visitors. Trump was right to call for the “extreme vetting” of those seeking to enter the United States from war zones, Flynn believes.

The dealmaker remains an enigma, and the world is anxiously awaiting his opening gambit.

Flynn also backs Trump’s call for a “reset” with Russia. Among the president-elect’s many controversial foreign policy positions, none has shaken traditional U.S. allies more than his enduring affinity for Putin. When asked if, as president, he would come to the aid of NATO allies attacked by Russia, he waffled. At the Republican National Convention this year, members of his campaign also fought to remove U.S. military support for Ukraine from the party’s platform, and Trump himself repeatedly cast doubt on the consensus conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia was behind the embarrassing email hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

NATO allies are especially worried that in recalibrating relations, Trump might bargain away Western sanctions on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and support for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. They also worry that he will not back NATO pledges to deploy more troops to eastern European member states frightened by Putin’s aggression next door. This week, Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Putin, and the two leaders spoke of developing a “strong and enduring” relationship. It now seems clear that part of Trump’s “secret plan” to defeat ISIS has been to align with Russia in combating the group, which could upend current U.S. policy supporting Syrian rebels against the regime of Russian ally Bashar al-Assad.

In our interview, Flynn insisted that Trump will enter negotiations with his Russian counterpart with eyes wide open. “Putin is a totalitarian dictator who does not have U.S. interests in mind, and Trump knows that,” he said. “But Trump is smart and savvy, and he realizes that Russia also has a problem with radical Islamist terrorism, and if we can work together on that threat maybe we can leverage that cooperation to address other issues. So this outreach is all about creating options in his dealings with Russia, just as he wants to create more options in dealing with China. That’s where Trump’s real strength lies—he’s a master negotiator, and that requires having options.”

Trump may come to a better understanding of the international system and the burdens of maintaining a liberal order through his close interactions with experienced military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials. Or perhaps not. No one really knows if Trump’s supposed negotiating prowess will translate to the more complex realm of geopolitics, where the third- and fourth-order effects of any decision can spell catastrophe. The dealmaker soon to be at the center of that Great Game remains an enigma, and the world is anxiously awaiting his opening gambit.

“You know, the U.S. presidency is unlike any other job on earth, and only God knows what it’ll do to Donald Trump,” Cohen said. “Or him to it.”

James Kitfield is senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and author of the recent book “Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies and Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American Way of War.”  He is a former senior correspondent for National Journal and has written about defense, national security and foreign policy issues from Washington, D.C., for more than two decades.


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