Can one speak of the Trump Doctrine ?

Par Aleksandra Olchowska

Agrégée d'anglais, CPGE du lycée Louis Barthou


When a business tycoon with no prior political experience entered the White House, many a commentator feared Donald Trump's lack of diplomatic knowledge and know-how would produce a disastrous outcome on the international arena. Well into his tenure, journalists and pundits claimed his foreign policy was full of inconsistencies, not to say a muddle. The following question springs to mind : is President Trump a statesman with a coherent foreign affairs philosophy ?


While on the campaign trail, the incumbent President vowed to embrace isolationism by prioritizing America's interests over those of its allies. The campaign slogan « America First » clearly encapsulated this approach. His platform seemed to be a sharp departure from the policy of Pax Americana, whereby the world's hegemon was bent on preserving the world peace, free trade and democracy, and the new agenda appeared in fact as a return to the Jaksonian brand of populism, tantamount to advancing the interests of the American people, be it at home or abroad.

During the opening months of his presidency, everything pointed to the fact that he was delivering on his campaign promises as he would often air his disapproval of entangling alliances, notably NATO partners' overdependence on Washington. He also displayed firm determination to cease the so-called « never-ending wars » in the Middle East, and more specifically in Afghanistan and Syria. In the same vein, his will to foster America's interests paved the way for a string of protectionist rules whose goal was to put an end to « the carnage » of rusted out factories and spiralling unemployment, which, as he repeatedly claimed, were the aftermath of rampant free-trade rules giving unfair advantage to America's trading partners.

Accordingly, Donald Trump took to renegotiating NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement), which he depicted as « the worst trade deal in the history of the country » insofar as it reportedly gave rise to job losses in traditional manufacturing strongholds in states such as Michigan and held back wage growth for those that have been preserved. The President imposed aggressive import tariffs on Mexican and Canadian goods as a means of goading the two countries into accepting his conditions / eliciting concessions. As of now, the new accord known as USMCA(United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement) allows Americans greater access to the Canadian dairy sector and provides for a shift in the automotive industry, whereby automotive companies are obliged to manufacture at least 75% of a vehicle’s value in North America, up from 62.5% in an attempt to move production away from China. Since he entered the White House, America's rivalry with Beijing has quite obviously been a leitmotiv on the international arena and Chinese goods have also been a target of higher tariff barriers and Trump has multiplied attempts to redifine the relationship between the two superpowers.

In this regard, his strategy seems to have paid off as the unemployment rate hit an unprecedented low and the economic growth numbers quickly turned out to be encouraging. Yet, it also entailed a blurring of distinctions between allies and adversaries given that Trump has been putting the onus on countries with a significant trade surplus with the USA even though despite their being valuable security allies(Germany and Japan being cases in point). His strategy is more often than not decried as quite short-sighted economy-wise. Indeed, the concessions granted especially by Canada are regarded as cosmetic and Mexico seems to be bearing the brunt of the changs. The talks with China appear to have reached a standstill. Last but not least, in suggesting that America's interests are not aligned with those of its trading partners and allies, Washington is undermining its « soft power », encouraging states to diversify their interests at the expense of the US.


The current President may be an isolationist at heart, some of his speeches and acts may have been quite confusing. The Syrian conflict is one of the most telling examples of what seems to be an inconsistent approach to foreign decision-making. While Donald Trump vowed to put an end to America's engagement, he ended up backpedalling on several occasions. In both 2018 and in 2019, he ordered US troops out of Syria to keep his promise of disengagement, causing alarm in Washington that he would not only compromise the war on jihadists but also leave a void enabling Turkey to launch a military operation against Kurdish forces, a long-standing ally in the Middle-Eastern campaign. He eventually had to backpedal on account of outcry at home both on the Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon. Therefore, whatever inconsitencies there may be, they can be accounted for by the constraints imposed on the President by both the establishment and the more internationalist and hawkish elements in his administration rather than by inconsistencies inherent to Trump's vision of the US role overseas.

In fact, Trump's decision-making does not correspond to the isolationism he promised on the campaign trail but to microinternationalism that implies abandoning the operation theatres where victories seem to be the least achieveable and trying to consolidate power where the goal appears to be realistic. It came as a surprise when Trump, whose speeches rarely contain any references to freedom, democracy and human rights, endorsed an opposition leader in Venezuela to topple the dictatorial Maduro regime. And yet, in this regard, he by no means stands out as an exception – from the Monroe Doctrine onward, however isolationist US Presidents may have appeared to be, the American continent was treated as a traditional zone of influence for Washington. The maximalist and inteventionist policies of the post-Cold War era that reached the heyday under Bush have to be viewed as the exception to the rule.

All in all, it would be an exaggeration to claim that there is no such thing as the Trump Doctrine in foreign affairs. They may well be hurdles and frustrations, constraints imposed by the establishment and the electorate and microinternationalism, but Donald Trump is quite steadfast in his will to avoid entanglement and to advance America's economic interests around the globe. Whatever discrepancy and backtracking there may be, they can be attributed to the aforesaid factors but also to President Trump's penchant for brinkmanship. Calling the North Korean leader « the Little Rocket Man », and then calling for a rapprochement is part and parcel of a strategy he popularized through his book « The Art of the Deal », where he tauts the merits of an approach whereby unsettling the status quo can benefit a businessman and a politician alike.

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