It’s tempting to view the recent reshuffling of Donald Trump’s foreign-policy advisers—along with the make-or-break nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, looming trade conflict with China and other countries, pending deployment of the National Guard to the border with Mexico, and threatened U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Syrian war—as merely the latest episodes in the Trump Show. But they may instead be the start of a new season.
Nearly 117 years after Teddy Roosevelt stood before a crowd at the Minnesota State Fair and stated the maxim that would come to define his foreign policy—“speak softly and carry a big stick”—the 45th American president is refashioning the doctrine of the 26th. Trump has brandished the big stick of America’s military and economic might in his dealings with America’s enemies and allies, recalling how Roosevelt built up and showed off the U.S. navy to establish the United States as a great power in the Americas and beyond. But whereas Roosevelt advocated soft-spoken diplomacy undergirded by strength and resolve—“if a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble,” he warned—Trump has placed little stock in the softer side of diplomacy. Instead, he has employed bluster and incivility as strategic assets.
Where previous presidents spoke carefully about the possibility of war with North Korea, Trump has famously threatened Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury” and his “nuclear button.” Where previous presidents expressed mild irritation with allies’ insufficient sharing of military burdens, Trump has repeatedly demanded that they pay up to preserve the alliance. Where previous presidents vowed to resolve trade disputes, Trump has proclaimed that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”
Such talk may have motivated South Korea to strike a revised trade deal with the United States and European NATO members to focus more on increasing defense spending. The president’s belligerence has arguably been most successful in the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, helping spur China to impose severe sanctions on the Kim regime and compel Kim Jong Un to enter into negotiations. “The Chinese were worried that … Trump might go crazy and really attack North Korea,” the China expert Yun Sun recently told me. Consequently, Trump “extracted more cooperation out of China on North Korea than probably all the previous U.S. presidents and administrations combined.” But so far—either because he’s secured concessions or simply been unable or unwilling—Trump has declined to follow through on many of his most extreme threats. All of which adds up to an approach that might be summarized: Flaunt a big stick as much as you can and, whatever you do, speak loudly.
The key question in the coming months is whether a more unfettered Trump will, to borrow Roosevelt’s phrasing, be “prepared to back up his words … with deeds.”
“One of the big themes of [Trump’s] foreign policy through the first year was that the policies were less radical than the rhetoric and less radical than the president, and one of the big reasons for that was the president was consistently outnumbered by advisers who in many cases fundamentally disagreed with his approach to foreign affairs,” said Hal Brands, an expert on U.S. grand strategy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. But Trump has now “settled into the job” and appears to be “tired of being told ‘no’ by his advisers,” which makes it more likely that on certain issues “the policy will catch up with the rhetoric” in year two—particularly as his campaign promises come under scrutiny ahead of the 2018 congressional elections.
Where that leads him—and the rest of America—is anyone’s guess, but his first year in office at least shows where it won’t. Trump is not the isolationist that many of his critics claim. The clearest proof is his militarized foreign policy: his appointment of military figures to top administration posts; his heavy investments in and delegation of authority to the military while degrading the State Department; his dialing up of nearly every military engagement that Obama bequeathed him, from the war in Afghanistan to the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq to air campaigns against terrorist groups in Yemen and Somalia.
Nor, however, is he straight out of the militant unilateralist wing of the Republican Party embodied by John Bolton, his incoming national-security adviser, and to a lesser extent Mike Pompeo, his nominee to lead the State Department. Like Bolton and Pompeo, Trump argues that the United States must be prepared to act forcefully—and on its own, if allies and international institutions prove incapable of neutralizing the threat—against its enemies. Like Bolton and Pompeo, and unlike neoconservatives, he considers military action a means of safeguarding national interests rather than pursuing more ambitious goals like promoting democracy or nation-building. Like Bolton and Pompeo, he values tough talk and hard power.
Yet to lump Trump in with Bolton and Pompeo, who both operate within the broad confines of traditional U.S. grand strategy, is to underestimate the iconoclasm of the president’s worldview. Both Republicans and Democrats have long argued that the United States should maintain the world’s most powerful military and not be afraid to use it. But what’s new is that Trump wants to apply “that military might on behalf of more narrowly defined American interests as opposed to collective security and the defense of the broader international order that the United States has erected,” Brands noted. The result, the international-relations scholar Walter Russell Mead has observed, is a “strategic crisis.” Since Harry Truman, he writes, “American presidents have believed that a global, outward-looking, order-building foreign policy was the necessary foundation for U.S. strategy and a peaceful, prosperous world. No longer.”
That still leaves open the question of what, exactly, replaces the traditional assumptions about how America should act in the world. Here, the president’s staffing moves offer only limited insight. According to the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump’s selection of Pompeo and Bolton is more about enlisting aides with whom he has personal chemistry than about signaling a coherent shift in policy or ideology. He wants advisers who “argue it out fiercely in front of him, and when the decision is made, stick to what the decision is—don’t try and undo it,” Hewitt told The Global Politico podcast, in praising the president’s personnel picks. Bolton is a “peace-through-strength, 600-[Navy] ship, Reagan conservative” while Trump “is clearly a believer in the great fleet approach to international power,” he noted, in an apparent reference to Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet.
“Pompeo and Bolton are seen as sharing some of the president’s hawkish impulses and unilateralism, but also are seen as being more effective managers of their buildings” than former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and outgoing National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, said Colin Kahl, a former foreign-policy adviser to Joe Biden and Barack Obama. “They can get the bureaucracies to respond to Trump.” And even if they don’t share all his ideological proclivities, they are also not of the earlier set of more establishment-minded advisers likely to tell Trump he is wrong—they can “enable him instead of constrain him,” Kahl said.
Bolton, who disdains diplomatic “carrots” and once appeared on the cover of National Review accompanied by the headline “Speak Boldly, and Carry a Big Stick,” may be more offensive-minded regarding military action than his new boss. “Trump, whose ears are finely attuned to the sentiments of his base, knows that they like tough talk but hate long wars,” Mead writes. But Trump has been more aggressive in his “attacks on free trade,” which rely on the conviction that “other nations depend so heavily on the U.S. market that he can win enough concessions to vindicate his stance” and which “emerge from one of the most deeply rooted beliefs of his presidency—that American foreign policy has lost sight of the national interest,” according to Mead. (Trump’s new economic adviser Larry Kudlow, in what he acknowledged as an attempt to rebrand Trump’s actions for free-traders and Wall Street, has argued that the president is actually defending free trade by countering China’s unfair trade practices with a suite of “carrots and sticks” including tariffs—essentially threatening to raise trade barriers in order to ultimately lower them.)
It’s this focus on the “primacy of the national interest,” in Mead’s words, that may be the core animating principle of Trump’s foreign policy, tying together some of his seemingly contradictory impulses like militarism and distaste for foreign intervention. Trump, for example, recently told supporters in Ohio,“We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” (“Win quickly, get the hell out” is how Hewitt once encapsulated Trump’s mentality about military force.)
The approach itself opens up an entirely new set of issues. “The fact that for a long time we thought we knew the answers to the really big questions has tended to push most official thinking down toward the second-order questions: How do we best deal with rogue states? What is our policy toward this specific country? As opposed to pushing it up to the more conceptual level of: What do we want in the world? How should the United States conceive of its role in the international environment?” Brands said. “Those sorts of questions are coming back.”
U.S. policymakers have long perceived the country’s principal national-security challenges as emanating from great powers, rogue and failed states, and stateless terrorist groups. But, despite what the administration’s formal strategy documents may claim, Trump doesn’t hew to the old categories, Kahl told me. He sees the primary challenges to the United States as either direct dangers to the homeland or “all of these ways in which the dark side of globalization seeps across our borders”: through immigrants who steal jobs and commit crimes, radical Islamic terrorists who aim to infiltrate America, unfair foreign trade that plunders American wealth. He didn’t describe North Korea’s nuclear weapons as a dire threat when they could target South Korea and Japan, and even suggested that those U.S. allies consider developing nuclear weapons of their own to defend themselves—until, that is, it became evident that Kim Jong Un was close to perfecting nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach the United States. He speaks of rectifying trade imbalances with China, but not of competing with the Chinese for influence in Asia and around the world. (The dark side of globalization as it relates to Russia—most prominently, hacking and interfering in U.S. politics—is a sensitive subject for the president and does not draw his ire.) During a national-security meeting last year, Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly tried to ease Trump’s exasperation with repeated requests for troop deployments around the world by explaining, “We’re doing it to prevent a bomb from going off in Times Square.”
“The things that he defines as security challenges do not actually require much American leadership” in the world, Kahl said. They “call for us to build walls through protectionism, physical barriers to protect our borders. … Trump has no ambitions to order-build. … He just wants us to be left alone. And by ‘us’ that means our economy, our culture, and our security.”
What happens, then, when those challenges do require leadership? A case in point is the U.S.-directed international sanctions campaign against North Korea. Trump “told the Chinese from day one that ‘I have two priorities: North Korea and trade. If you help me on those, I will be very happy [and] the bilateral relationship will be in good shape. You will know you want to make me happy because when I’m not happy I could attack North Korea and that’s not in your interest,’” Yun Sun told me. Trump approaches problems like this as “a coercive, transactional exchange in which we use our power to maximize our benefit in every interaction,” Kahl said. As a result of his transactionalism, Trump hasn’t sought to associate American leadership with American values to the extent that his predecessors have. “What distinguishes Trump is his celebration of” authoritarianism, Kahl said. “Putin. Erdogan. Xi Jinping. Duterte. Sisi. It’s one thing to say, ‘Look, we don’t like what they’re doing but we have to work with them for expediency’s sake.’ ... It’s another thing to say, ‘You gotta respect that guy for consolidating total power. You gotta respect that guy for mass executions of drug dealers.’”
Transactionalism also helps explain Trump’s approach to alliances. While U.S. presidents have long complained about free-riding allies and the burdens of America’s global leadership—and unilateralists like Bolton have long argued for bypassing U.S. allies and international institutions when they don’t serve U.S. interests—Trump is unique in casting all these thing as “net negatives” for the United States or even direct threats, Kahl said. When it comes to free trade, Trump declared in his Ohio speech, “our friends did more damage to us than our enemies.”
The interplay between his inclinations, his rhetoric, and what he can actually achieve may change with his personnel—or it may not. Brands notes that the president’s bark—his blustery rhetoric on North Korea ending in a planned meeting with the North Korean leader, for instance, or his steel and aluminum tariffs getting diluted by exemptions—has often been greater than his bite. “The question is: How credible are some of these threats that the administration is making?” he asked.
A related question is whether Trump is, at his core, a man of more talk than action—or whether action that was stymied in his first year as president could materialize in his second. Speaking loudly, of course, has impact enough. “What you’ve seen over the past 15 months is that just in his ideas, in his words, in his behavior, he has managed to upset a bunch of the more intangible qualities that have long made U.S. foreign policy effective,” Brands said. “I would include here the perception that the United States is after something greater than its own naked self-interest in world affairs; the idea that the United States is a reliable ally that treats its friends with respect; the idea that the United States and particularly the president of the United States should be one of the world’s foremost promoters of human rights and democracy.”
“There’s no way to read [Trump’s] public statements over the past 30 years … in a way that makes you think he really believes that pursuing this grand strategy [of promoting democracy and world order] has been good for the United States,” Brands told me. “He thinks ... that it’s enriched and empowered other countries at our expense. This was the intellectual core of the America First doctrine: that we had to stop looking out for the world and we had to start looking out for the United States.” The restraints imposed on the president so far by his advisers, Congress, the courts, and geopolitical realities haven’t changed his outlook on the world, as Trump’s unscripted rhetoric often attests, even if they’ve frequently blunted it.
“It’s entirely possible that the blowup is just yet to come,” Brands said.