The triumph of the Trump doctrine
An appraisal of the President’s foreign policy would find he was consistent, traditional, multilateral – and highly successful
This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
In the US presidential election season of 2016, Peter Navarro, a key international adviser to candidate Donald Trump, set out what a Trump Doctrine would look like in foreign affairs. “Peace through economic and military strength,” would be the policy. It was, wrote Navarro, “a page right out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook”.
Some find Trump’s personality distasteful. Others believe that only an outsider with the thick skin of a New York City property developer could bring real change to American politics. Either way, the time for cartoons is behind us. A measured appraisal of the record is due. In foreign policy, Trump was consistent, coherent, traditional, multilateral and highly successful.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency is the gold standard for American foreign policy since the Second World War. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama shared the combination of personal weakness and American self-abnegation that gave the world the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and Isis in 2014. Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush will retain their current judgment by history, as middling pragmatists. When George W. Bush left office in 2009, Iraq — his main foreign policy legacy — was on the path to significant success as a stable-enough American ally at peace with its neighbours, gushing cheap oil and embracing the ballot box.
From the first President Bush onward, every one of Trump’s predecessors handled China exactly wrong. Regardless of party, they embraced the absurdity that a strong and rising communist China would be a “responsible stakeholder”, to use the George W. Bush administration’s expression when the People’s Republic was ushered into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, in a liberal world order. This wishful thinking, visibly ridiculous since the Tiananmen massacre and operating everywhere against the interests of the free world, was the greatest strategic error by the Western democracies since the 1930s.
Trump’s achievements on the foreign stage compare favourably with those of Reagan’s first term
If peace-through-strength was Trump’s strategic doctrine, America First was the strategy itself. It was successful because America is exceptional.
National interest is the only standard for judging the success or failure of a foreign policy. Some countries are so important that distinctions between the national and the global interest are relatively slight. Hence the connection, for Reagan and Trump, between “peace” and “strength”. The more benign the hegemon — the more it embraces freedom, eschews empire, and desires fair trade — the more this will be true. What is good for America is good for the world and vice-versa. For an imperialist, race-based hegemon like communist China, coercive and contemptuous down to its DNA, the opposite is generally true.
Reviewed dispassionately, Trump’s achievements on the foreign stage compare favourably with those of Reagan’s first term, and are historic by the standards of the presidents who followed. The world will always have its second- and third-order troublemakers. Today these range from Vladimir Putin down in scale through the Erdogans and Kims of the world to the Assads and Maduros. Trump has handled these as pragmatically as one would expect from a man of his background. What really matters are the bigger challenges, the great strategic issues. In the twenty-first century what this means for America is China.
Trump’s most profound international achievement has been to bring into the sunlight the key foreign affairs truth of our era: for peoples everywhere who would be free, China is a threat analogous to that of the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s.
Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party is the foe of the Anglosphere, Europe, and our allies in Asia and elsewhere. When Xi speaks of China taking “centre stage” once more, the historical centrality he refers to is that of the Middle Kingdom. This means Chinese global hegemony, with Heaven above and the rest of us below. When Xi speaks of the New Era, it is one in which the Party controls, in its own words, “everything, everywhere.”
These fundamental aims are incompatible with the existence of free societies and sovereign nations. There is no point in further pretense that cheaper underwear and cellphone towers have been worth the broken towns and cities of the people who built our homes and fought our wars.
Trump’s key insight on trade was so obvious that it seemed radical only in a sadly corrupted world
Of the major figures in Anglophone politics today, Trump stands alone in having understood and articulated the threat for at least twenty years. As President, he has done a great deal about it, much of which will endure. His China accomplishments alone, even without his historic remaking of the Middle East, make Trump a Reagan-level figure.
The hard-nosed outlook at the heart of Trump’s China position has been his foreign policy touchstone since at least the 1980s. On CNN in 1987 he declared himself “tired of watching other people ripping off the United States”.
“I’d make our allies pay their fair share,” he told Oprah Winfrey the next year. A decade later, back on CNN, he hit the same themes, and spoke specifically of the presidency: “The workers,” he said, “are the ones that truly like me. I want to run one term, and I want to do the job right.”
In 2000, Trump wrote The America We Deserve, one of the more prophetic policy documents of the new millennium. “Our biggest long-term challenge will be China,” he wrote. “Though we have the upper hand, we’re way too eager to please the Chinese. We see them as a potential market … even at the expense of our own national interests.”
That same year the US Senate, with Joe Biden spearheading the Democratic side of the effort as ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee, voted 85-13 to approve China for Permanent Normal Trade Relations. A year later, Biden, now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led the US delegation to Beijing that brought China into the WTO.
As president, Trump put his pioneering China insights into action. The harbinger was his administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS), produced in 2017, which for the first time made “strategic competition” with China the primary national security concern of the United States.
Much of the action has come on the trade front. The misadventure of 2000-2001, called by President Clinton a “hundred-to-one deal,” was just that: a dramatically skewed bargain, but skewed in China’s favour. Soon enough the backbone working communities of America had been hollowed out. An aggressive geopolitical adversary had grown strong on their carcasses. The careful, American-designed and American-funded postwar multilateral architecture — Bretton Woods, the United Nations, the WTO and more — had been coopted from within, rendered moot and meaningless. Vital supply chains and the entire intricate ecosystems of production that sustain them had been offshored — not to friends like Mexico or India, but to a Communist Party devoted to ending the free Judaeo-Christian way of life.
Trump has consistently shown that communist China can successfully be countered on numerous other fronts
By 2014 China had started building military islands with impunity in vital trade lanes. Everyone was too afraid to do anything about it. The fiasco of which Trump alone warned had now came to pass, and the reaction to it made Trump president.
Trump’s key insight on trade was so obvious that it seemed radical only in a sadly corrupted world. Access to the American market is the largest prize in global commerce and finance. So if the US wants something from a trading partner, all Washington has to do is ask firmly. In 2018 Trump put tariffs on many Chinese imports, made America’s demands, raised the tariffs when the demands were unmet, and then removed some of the tariffs when various demands were met. There was no price, no retribution. Voilà, Phase One. Some Trump tariffs remain, ranging between 7.5 per cent and 25 per cent on $370 billion of annual Chinese imports. The next administration will not, politically, be able to remove these without further concessions from China.
From Taiwan, to the Asian shipping lanes, to Beijing-captured multilaterals like the World Health Organisation and the Paris climate framework, to dangerous technology exporters like TikTok and Huawei, Trump has consistently shown that communist China can successfully be countered on numerous other fronts. Carrie Lam, the CCP’s “chief executive” in Hong Kong, found the international banking system so thoroughly closed by US sanctions that she recently revealed she was taking her $672,000 salary in cash.
Even Biden’s globalist pro-Chinese left administration will find it difficult to retreat fully to Obama-era appeasement
This is American power. The only shame is in not using it to the full. Trump picked his battles, and conducted them far more peacefully than his predecessors. It should not be so remarkable when an American president understands the difference in importance between China and Syrian Kurdistan.
With China, Trump’s achievement has essentially been to call the new Cold War into the open. A new US Administration, even one like Biden’s of the globalist pro-Chinese left, will find it difficult to retreat fully to Obama-era appeasement.
A European visit last September by the Chinese foreign minister ended with the German foreign minister publicly defending his Czech counterpart from high-handed threats by Xi’s emissary. In the US Congress, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the leftist Speakers of the Senate and House, are both now forced to talk like China hawks. Justin Trudeau of Canada, paragon of anti-Trumpist Davos-man globalism, has locked up a Huawei executive on extradition charges related to espionage, and now accuses Beijing of “aggressive coercive diplomacy”. Even Biden now says his sole big difference from Trump on China will be to work more with American “allies” for “collective leverage”.
Trump has concluded trade agreements with South Korea and Japan. He has a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada that even Biden says is “better than Nafta”. Twice in November, including on election day, the “Quad” (Japan, India, Australia and the US, known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) conducted naval exercises in Asian waters for the first time since before the Obama administration.
Either Xi stops the drumbeat of ugly behaviour, or the Trump-led multilateral and bipartisan resistance to the CCP entrenches and grows. Either way, the new Cold War is now “official”, as it should be. This is lasting and fundamental change, effected by one man, on by far the most important foreign affairs matter of our era.
Closely related to the China file is North Korea. Washington’s basic North Korean policy was settled for decades when Bill Clinton essentially ratified Pyongyang’s nuclear programme with his toothless Agreed Framework in October, 1994. Clinton had sent as his emissary none other than Jimmy Carter. The signal was unmistakable: Clinton was not at all serious about preventing a nuclear North Korea.
Under the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang’s programme — initiated by the Soviets in 1963 — proceeded through its first announced weapons test in 2006. This test was probably a failure, leaving the window for action still open, but the George W. Bush administration, busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, failed to do anything about it. Three successful tests during the Obama administration led to no US response at all, with the result that by the time Trump came to office North Korea had long since achieved its goal of confirmed nuclear impunity.
North Korea’s last test, in November, 2017, ten months after Trump came to office, presented an effective argument that it can hit any city in the US with a nuclear warhead. The most the West can now achieve with Kim Jong Un is a bargain, trading economic sunshine for the nuclear weapons, but with the Kim regime relatively comfortable domestically, the North Koreans do not need it. Trump’s historic diplomacy with his “good friend” Little Rocket Man, and the greater credibility of his threats should Pyongyang resume its provocations, did as much as can be hoped, and far more than his predecessors: stopped the nuclear testing and the missile flights.
The Middle East
Trump’s achievements in the Middle East will prove durable. Biden has staffed his foreign policy team with Obama personnel, but they will not be able to re-create their agreement providing American cover and funding for a nuclear programme that was leading Tehran into a near-certain conflict. Nor can they revive the senseless, cynical Palestinian veto over progress for the region.
Trump has left a bankrupt and domestically unpopular Tehran regime alone at the Star Wars bar with Hamas, Hezbollah, Assad, and certain outdated Iraqi militias. No amount of Obama nostalgia can make this isolation go away.
The US has traditionally had two main interests in the Middle East: oil and Israel. So here was a region of great strategic importance, and yet it was characterised by seemingly intractable problems. Trump’s solution was masterful. First, through a massive deregulation-led domestic oil and gas boom, he achieved US energy independence. With Trump’s US the largest hydrocarbons producer on earth and exporting energy, the Middle East simply does not matter as it used to. Here indeed is peace-through-strength, with economic strength coming first, as Trump said from the start. In October 2019, a swarm of Iranian precision-guided missiles and $15,000 drones temporarily destroyed half of Saudi oil production capacity. Before Trump’s energy revolution, this would have been an attack on American livelihoods, demanding a robust reprisal. The response of the bloodthirsty Hitlerian lunatic in the White House? Nothing. No vital US interest had been damaged. The Saudis eventually asked for additional US troops and air defences. Trump sent them, announcing, “Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing.” This was, as he said, “a first”.
Trump has left a bankrupt and domestically unpopular Tehran regime alone at the Star Wars bar
Diplomatically, the Trump administration has achieved a second, equally historic realignment in the Middle East. Swiftly and cheaply, Trump has done what the entire bipartisan foreign policy establishment has tried and failed to do in the Middle East for decades. He has delivered Arab-Israeli peace.
In 2017, Trump flew directly from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, another first. The Abraham Accords, embodying peace between Israel and the UAE, began last August. Then Bahrain, a satellite of Saudi Arabia, signed up. In October, Israel and Lebanon, officially at war since 1948, opened maritime border talks. Then Sudan, which unlike the UAE and Bahrain had actually fought Israel and signed up to the Arab League’s “Three Noes” (no peace, no recognition, no negotiation), signed a peace with Tel Aviv. In December Morocco followed suit.
In November, Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu quietly visited Saudi Arabia with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Egypt and Jordan are already at peace with Israel. None of the recent accords are conceivable without Saudi encouragement. De facto peace between the Jewish government in Jerusalem and the guardians of Mecca and Medina has been established.
If anything has ever deserved a Nobel Peace Prize, it is Trump’s rendering redundant the Palestine Industrial Complex
“There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world …without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace,” then-secretary of state John Kerry said, a month before Trump’s inauguration. In truth, corrupt and tiny Palestine did not matter much to the real world of forward-facing Arab leaders. Trump understood this. He also understood that Iran was the common enemy that would bring the Arabs and Israelis together.
“Middle East peace” is foreign-affairs parlance for, specifically, the relations between Israel and the Arab world. If anything has ever deserved a Nobel Peace Prize, it is Trump’s rendering redundant the vast, self-perpetuating Palestine Industrial Complex in the world’s think-tanks, faculty lounges and chancelleries.
Trump’s other achievements in the Middle East and Muslim Eurasia are significant: rolling back US intercessions in Afghanistan and Syria; defeating the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; reversing the Obama diffidence on Isis and instead swiftly crushing the caliphate; liquidating the terrorist leaders Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Qassem Suleimani; withdrawing from an Iran deal that, like Clinton’s Framework Agreement with North Korea had the sole practical result of paying, hastening, and emboldening the other side.
Compared to Trump’s strategic coups in the Middle East, these subsidiary achievements are, like his brokering of the Kosovo-Serbia peace and the Egypt-Ethiopia de-escalation, mostly tactical in scope. But they are larger and more numerous than the mid-level Middle East achievements of any previous US president, and reflect a coherent strategy based on conserving US power, backing US allies, and defending the principle of national sovereignty.
Trump’s historic electoral success in 2020 among Americans of Hispanic background was mirrored by significant diplomatic successes for his administration in Latin America. Since his election in 2016, pro-Trump presidents have been elected in the region’s two key countries, Mexico and Brazil. As a result of Trump’s diplomacy, nearly 30,000 Mexican troops have been deployed to prevent illegal northerly movement across Mexico’s southern and northern borders. As Trump promised, this means that Mexico is indeed paying for “the wall”. In 2019, Trump’s diplomacy delivered bilateral agreements with the “northern triangle” countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to keep and process foreign asylum seekers claiming to have escaped persecution in their home countries.
Britain is America’s most important ally and this is so for reasons that will exist as long as the two countries exist: a shared political culture based on the three interlocking pillars of Anglo-Saxon governance: individual liberty, the rule of law, and representative democracy.
Continental Europe possesses no tradition of any of these, and the project of the European Union reflects this. Britain is inherently mercantile, outward-looking, and free in its approach to trade, with the Commonwealth and CANZUK Anglosphere to prove it. Europe is inward-looking, backward-looking, and inherently protectionist. The British people made their choice for an optimistic, global future in the Brexit vote of 2016, and then handed Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority to effect it.
Trump put America’s leading ally back where she belongs
When Barack Obama told the British people that their 2016 vote for sovereignty would put them “at the back of the queue” with the US, the message was one of deeply undiplomatic contempt. Trump, the man who returned to the Oval Office the bust of Winston Churchill that Obama had removed, put America’s leading ally back where she belongs: at the front of the queue.
The Anglo-American alliance represents the longest, most important, and most positive bilateral cooperation in history. Its denigration under Obama, which Hillary Clinton would have continued, was a radical act. Restoring the special relationship, with its spectacular contributions to the broader world as well as to the two countries, has been a signal achievement of Trump’s foreign policy.
Russia is in the death spiral of nations. Its people are unhappy and dying, its easy oil is beginning to run out, and the markets do not want to invest in its more difficult oil. But political will, as they say, is the greatest “force multiplier” of all, and Vladimir Putin has it, plus nuclear weapons and cunning. Russia remains an important second-order player.
On pure policy, Trump has been far tougher on Moscow than any president since Reagan, selling lethal weapons to Ukraine, imposing sanctions that have crippled vital energy investment, killing hundreds of quasi-official Russian mercenaries in Syria, aggressively increasing military cooperation with border states from the Baltic to Poland, massively boosting Nato defence budgets, going after Putin cronies with the Magnitsky Acts, and expelling scores of Russian “diplomats”.
Trump is the opposite of a unilateralist. He is an ardent bilateralist and a frequent multilateralist
Trump’s Russia policy is squarely within traditional US conduct towards second-order irritants: Theodore Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick”. The big stick is the unprecedented measures he has taken to counter, punish, and weaken the Kremlin. The “speak softly” part is Trump’s personal diplomacy towards Putin. Keeping the door open, so to speak, shows sound judgment: Russia’s cooperations with China and Iran are as vulnerable as any other arrangements based on honour among thieves, and Russia is a natural ally on the front lines against aggressive Sunni Islam.
Trump is the opposite of a unilateralist. He is an ardent bilateralist and — where the situation is right, as with the NAFTA replacement or the Quad in Asian waters — a frequent multilateralist. Nato is an example of his commitment to multilateralism when it suits American interests. Trump devoted significant resources to rescuing it, saving a 71-year-old body founded for a threat — Soviet Communism — that no longer exists.
Trump reasonably asked the Nato allies to “pay their share” if the alliance was to survive with any meaning. They responded: 2020 defence spending by non-US Nato members was about $313 billion, a 23 per cent increase over the average under Obama. US defence spending rose 8 period during the period, a massive increase that largely kept Trump’s promise to rebuild America’s own military.
Trump’s rearmament of the core defence organisation of the free world amounted to an additional $109 billion per annum. (These calculations use 2015 dollars.) There is ultimately little more one could say about peace-through-strength, or respect for multilateralism and alliances, than this.
As Trump made clear in winning the presidency, a rebuilt US economy would be as important as a rebuilt US military to the Trump Doctrine of peace-through-strength. At this time last year, the big story was the fruits of Trump’s return to traditional American economic virtues.
His tax cuts, trade deals and regulatory reform had created probably the strongest economy in US history. After decades of stagnation, the core measure of American economic health, real median household incomes, had risen 10 per cent in only three years to by far the highest level ever. Unemployment, at 3.5 per cent, was its best in 50 years. Then, for the man who blew the whistle on communist China, came the virus from Wuhan.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe