Understanding President Trump’s foreign policy is a challenge, since he has written and spoken little on the subject for most of his life. So how to make sense of his worldview? Is there a Trump Doctrine?
Michael Anton, a former Trump national security official, believes there is, and he explains it in a recent essay in Foreign Policy. The Trump Doctrine, Anton argues, is simple: “Let’s all put our own countries first, and be candid about it, and recognize that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” But, as Daniel Larison responds in the American Conservative, “That isn’t a doctrine. It is a banality.” What country has not put its own interests first? What president has argued to give preference to global interests over American ones?
Anton outlines a certain kind of nationalist conservatism that does seem at the heart of Trump’s worldview. More important — because Trump is rarely consistent and could change his mind tomorrow — it reflects the views of the man closest to him on foreign policy, national security adviser John Bolton.
Bolton has been variously described as a neoconservative, a paleoconservative and a conservative hawk. In fact, he is simply a conservative, in the oldest, most classical sense: someone who has a dark view of humankind. As a former U.S. official told the New Yorker, Bolton believes that Thomas Hobbes’s famous description of life without order applies precisely to international life — “nasty, brutish and short.”
Bolton believes that to protect itself and project its power, the United States must be aggressive, unilateral and militant. Bolton seems to share the worldview that animated Richard B. Cheney, who after 9/11 spoke openly about the need to “work . . . the dark side” and to “use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”
There are some in the foreign policy establishment who believe that a revanchist Russia poses a grave threat to the United States. Others worry about a rising China or an ideological Iran. For Bolton, it’s all of the above and more. He has at various points warned darkly about the mortal threat posed to the United States by Cuba, Libya, Syria and, of course, Iraq. A longtime fan of regime change, he recently labeled Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua a “triangle of terror” and said the United States “looks forward to watching each corner of the triangle fall.” It seems he wants them to fall not to usher in an era of democracy, but because they resist U.S. power and influence. “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” Bolton told the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins. “It’s our hemisphere.”
This kind of conservatism believes that national interests are worth pursuing not because they are virtuous — about democracy and freedom — but because they are ours. This view originates in a cultural chauvinism and can easily morph into racism.
And sure enough, a senior State Department official, Kiron Skinner, this week explained that the challenge with confronting China is that it is “a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.” She noted: “The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family.”
Where to begin? The Cold War was an existential struggle because the Soviet Union believed it had a superior ideology of economics, politics and society that it would impose on the rest of the world. That is why it was called “totalitarian.” China’s rise to power is the standard process by which a new powerhouse economy tries to find a space on the international stage. China’s system, incidentally, is largely a mixture of two Western ideas, capitalism and communism — Adam Smith and Karl Marx — which is why the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof aptly described it as “Market-Leninism.”
By Skinner’s logic, we had more in common with Adolf Hitler’s ideology than with the Chinese because the Nazis were Caucasian, which is both historically uninformed and morally grotesque.
The more practical problem with the Cheney-Bolton worldview is that it is profoundly inaccurate. The world is not nasty, brutish and short. Life has improved immeasurably over the past 100 years. Political violence — deaths from wars, civil wars and terrorism — has plummeted. And this has happened in large part because human beings also have the genes to cooperate, to compete peacefully and to weigh the costs of war against their benefits.
Bolton says that he might well invoke the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine — which asserts that the United States can use force unilaterally anywhere in the Western hemisphere. If he does, what is the argument against Russia doing the same in Ukraine, China in the South China Sea, and Iran in Yemen? Without rules and norms, the United States would have to militarily thwart every such effort or else accept a world of war and anarchy. You see, nationalist assertiveness works as long as only you get to practice it.