President Trump talks in vacuous generalities — “America first,” “Make America Great Again” — and governs in indecipherable contradictions. He champions democracy in Venezuela but embraces a far more ruthless tyrant in North Korea. He announces a troop withdrawal from Syria and then says, “Never mind.” He claims that a “deal” with China “will happen” and then sabotages talks by ratcheting up tariffs. You almost have to pity the Deep Thinkers who trail after Trump with their rhetorical pooper scoopers, cleaning up after him and pretending, like witch doctors reading chicken entrails, to find hidden meaning in his random effusions.
The first official attempt to discern a Trump Doctrine came in the National Security Strategy released in December 2017 by then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster. He dutifully avoided references to global warming or democracy promotion and included ritualistic genuflections toward American sovereignty. But McMaster showed he was no Trumpkin by praising international organizations such as NATO and the United Nations, describing Russia as a threat and even including a coded call for nation-building. Not surprisingly, his strategy was DOA. McMaster’s successor, John Bolton, told the Atlantic the strategy is “filed away . . . and consulted by no one.”
Enter Kiron Skinner, the State Department’s director of policy planning, who seems to be more on Trump’s wavelength. Speaking at the New America Foundation, she harkened back to Samuel Huntington’s famous essay “The Clash of Civilizations” to describe U.S. relations with China. “The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family,” Skinner said. “It was a really important Western concept that opened the door really to undermine the Soviet Union, a totalitarian state, on human rights principles. That’s not really possible with China. . . . It’s the first time that we will have a great- power competitor that is not Caucasian.”
Skinner’s remarks have been widely and rightly derided. First, the United States has had competitors of color before. (Remember who bombed Pearl Harbor?) Second, China’s governing philosophy — market Leninism — borrows from two Western thinkers, Adam Smith and V.I. Lenin. Third and most important, Skinner echoes Beijing’s propaganda, and insults brave Chinese dissidents, by writing off human rights as a Western concept alien to the Middle Kingdom. Taiwan proves there is nothing un-Chinese about democracy.
But Skinner’s embrace of the “clash” thesis makes perfect sense as the foreign policy counterpart to Trump’s nativism. Just as Trump assumes that non-Norwegian immigrants are criminals who cannot assimilate into American society, so “The Clash of Civilizations” assumes that the United States cannot peacefully coexist, much less integrate, with non-Western civilizations. (Significantly, Huntington was also an alarmist about Latino immigration.) Hence the emphasis that Skinner and other Trumpian ideologues place on the “national interest.”
Trump’s former National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton takes this idea for a longer test-drive in Foreign Policy. In attempting to define “The Trump Doctrine,” he mostly resorts to vapid catchphrases: “principled realism,” “There’s no place like home,” “Don’t be a chump.”
Anton’s (and Trump’s) big idea: “Let’s all put our own countries first, and be candid about it.” Great idea — except when it isn’t. Adolf Hitler was putting his country first by invading Poland, Hideki Tojo by bombing Pearl Harbor, Josef Stalin by occupying Eastern Europe, Kim Il Sung by attacking South Korea, Saddam Hussein by annexing Kuwait, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by developing a nuclear program. How did any of these acts make America safer? They didn’t. Other countries only make us safer when they abide by international law and don’t threaten their neighbors.
And yet Anton, like Trump, evinces implacable hostility to international cooperation. He equates “globalization” with “imperialism,” as if there is no difference between Britain governing India and selling marmalade to Indians. He even claims that globalization — i.e., “the spread of products, technology, information, and jobs across national borders” — has a “stifling impact on ideas.” If true, that would make North Korea, the most insular nation on Earth, a powerhouse of ideas. Yet the only notable idea to emerge from there is the crackpot juche ideology created to justify Kim family rule.
Like other Trumpian ideologues, such as Yoram Hazony, whom he cites, Anton displays an affinity for extreme nationalism — and an aversion to facts. He claims that “the U.S. foreign policy establishment lambasts Poland and Hungary for standing up for themselves” and argues that we should encourage a “strong” Poland and Hungary “to act as a bulwark against Russian revisionism.” In truth, Poland and Hungary are criticized not “for standing up for themselves” but for destroying democracy. Oh, and Hungary’s strongman, Viktor Orban, is pro-Russian.
Perhaps the greatest howler in Anton’s silly screed is his claim that “the third pillar of the Trump Doctrine is consistency.” Only a true believer, in the Eric Hoffer sense, could possibly imagine there is any consistency in Trump’s words or actions. This is a president who is capable of changing his mind between the beginning and end of a single sentence. His foreign policy defies sense or reason. The Trump Doctrine is simply: Trump does whatever the hell he wants. His pet intellectuals only discredit themselves by crediting Trump with a compelling and comprehensive worldview.