The Trump Doctrine
With two years of the Trump administration's tenure now behind us, a clear picture has emerged of how this administration plans to secure the United States and preserve the post-WWII international order.
At the end of 2017, the Trump administration released secretary of defense James Mattis's National Defense Strategy, the unclassified version of guidelines the administration intends to follow on issues of national security. That document listed two primary threats to the security of the United States: increasingly powerful, anti-democratic states like Russia and China and a weakening post-WWII international order.
The Trump administration's solutions to these two threats are intended not just to make America safer, they are intended to remodel the post-WWII order.
Pax Americana in Peril
Since 1945, America has been the pre-eminent power on the globe and has, with the help of its vast alliance network and intergovernmental institutions like the United Nations, created the most peaceful and prosperous period in recorded human history — Pax Americana.
Pax Americana has relied heavily on America's military and guarantees to provide security across the globe from South Korea to Germany. But with so many allies relying on the U.S. and the effects of budget cuts during the Obama years, the American military has been stretched thin. The U.S. has also expended too many resources on ongoing fights in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have distracted America from adequately addressing the threats posed by states like Russia and China.
Two recent studies from The Heritage Foundation and the National Defense Strategy Commission reveal that the technological advantage America has enjoyed for the better part of a century has eroded. Even worse, the reports warn that there are serious reasons to doubt that the U.S. can win a direct military confrontation with either of its competitors: Russia and China.
The three pillars of the post-WWII order — America, the alliance system, and intergovernmental institutions — are not ready to face the threats of the future without revision and adaptation.
The First Pillar: America
The Trump administration views America as one of the core foundations of the international order. If the international order is to remain stable into the future, America must be strong both economically and militarily.
The administration has prioritized a pro-economic growth agenda not simply because it is good for the administration's political fortunes; Trump's people understand that economic strength is a weapon all on its own and is also a necessary precursor to political and military strength. Their economic agenda is intended to provide the country with more resources to invest in technological advances and improve the military's readiness so that America can maintain its military advantage.
The Trump administration's National Defense Strategy emphasized a critical need to improve the function and lethality of the U.S. military so it can match competitors like Russia and China. Priorities include improving management structure and practices within the Department of Defense (DoD), improving financial stewardship and logistics, and strengthening the industrial base. Further, the Trump administration aimed to increase the size of the military, increase lethality with an aggressive modernization regimen to replace Cold War–era equipment, and improve soldier training.
In practice, the Trump administration's military rejuvenation plan has been executed in alignment with the stated objectives. Trump has been pushing increased funding for the DoD, he ordered the first ever audit of the DoD at the end of 2017, and he ordered an extensive look into gaps and vulnerabilities within America's military-industrial base, which most recently resulted in $250 million in investments to address supply chain issues. The administration has also pushed for a larger surface fleet, which recently led to the Navy contracting a block buy of two new aircraft carriers.
These people are not mucking about. The administration is deeply concerned about future uncertainty and is taking decisive action to meet that uncertainty head on by strengthening America's economy, industrial base, and military. Trump's people have also prioritized reorienting the military away from counter-insurgency conflicts and toward a renewed focus on countering great powers like Russia and China. However, Trump and his team are aware that the U.S. cannot preserve Pax Americana alone.
The Second Pillar: Alliances
The Trump administration views America's allies not just as important to preserving Pax Americana — it considers them more vital. The administration's National Defense Strategy was straightforward: "Mutually beneficial alliances and partnerships are crucial ... [and] will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order."
The administration rightly believes that the international order relies too heavily on the American military. The solution, according to the National Defense Strategy, is to "develop new partnerships around shared interests to reinforce regional coalitions and security cooperation" and to "encourage alliance and coalition commitment, greater defense cooperation, and military investment" among allies.
In plain terms, the strategy is to increase the defense capabilities of allies so they can secure their own respective regions without (or at least with less) American military commitments. This strategy is intended to strengthen the alliance system and the international order as whole, lessen the strain on the U.S. military, give the alliance system more flexibility to respond to threats as they develop, and allow the U.S. to dedicate more resources to countering Chinese and Russian aggression.
In practice, the Trump administration has followed this blueprint for a more powerful and harder-hitting alliance system in earnest. The Trump administration has made serious attempts to form an "Arab NATO" intended to counter Iran's ambitions and spearhead efforts against ISIS and other jihadist organizations in the Middle East.
The administration has also streamlined the process for foreign arms sales and been pushing hard for allies to increase their defense spending, which resulted in a 33-percent increase in foreign arms sales in 2018 over the previous year. Twenty-nineteen is expected to be an even bigger year. Already, Saudi Arabia has signed a $15-billion deal for a THAAD missile defense system, and Japan's government approved a purchase of 105 American F-35s.
The administration's campaign for increased defense spending among allies hasn't always gone so smoothly. Where conversations have gone sideways, however, Trump demonstrated dogged commitment to his vision of a stronger alliance system and showed a willingness to sacrifice significant political capital for the advancement of security.
A particularly rocky episode took place in July 2018, when Trump's unleash fury on some NATO members (particularly Germany) over their failure to follow military spending commitments, their "free-riding" problem, and what he ostensibly sees as an unacceptable lack of urgency in the face of an increasingly capable and aggressive Russia. Trump received a bombardment of ferocious political and personal attacks from foreign leaders and the press.
While causing some of the NATO allies to lose face may have been a questionable approach, Trump's criticism was justified. Even more importantly, they were successful. According to the Associated Press, "[n]ine NATO members will reach the 2 percent of GDP benchmark for defense expenditure in 2019 — compared to just four members in 2014." Some of that growth was already expected. NATO's Eastern European members have been rapidly increasing spending ever since Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine. But some of it is a direct result of the Trump administration setting its strategy in motion. German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen has stated that defense spending will increase 80% by 2024.
The Trump administration is neither isolationist nor a threat to longstanding alliance networks like NATO. Quite the opposite. Trump simply wants serious partners who will "step up" to provide increased security for themselves, their regions, and the post-WWII international order.
The Third Pillar: Intergovernmental Organizations
The Trump administration sees value in continuing the modern American tradition of engagement and leadership in organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank. There is one notable exception, however: the United Nations.
The administration's 2017 National Security Strategy articulated no significant role for the United Nations in the preservation of the post-WWII international order. In fact, the U.N. was alluded to only three times in the entire document. One of these was a sugar-coated reprimand: "The United Nations can help contribute to solving many of the complex problems in the world, but it must be reformed and recommit to its founding principles." Another was the unflattering observation that "[a]uthoritarian actors have long recognized the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests."
President Trump sees the U.N. (not incorrectly) as a bureaucratic cesspool, failing in its charge to advance human rights and global security. Before taking office, Trump articulated, with characteristic frankness, his opinion of the U.N. during a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2016: "... which brings me to my next point: the utter weakness and incompetence of the United Nations. The United Nations is not a friend of democracy, it's not a friend to freedom, it's not a friend even to the United States of America."
While the Trump administration's National Security Strategy offered the option to "reform" the United Nations, the administration's track record and statements suggest that Trump's people believe that it is beyond saving. This is, after all, the organization that has states like Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola sitting as members on its farcical Human Rights Council. With reform an unlikely solution, the only other option is to reduce its credibility and influence — into irrelevance if need be.
Following this conclusion, the Trump administration removed itself in protest from the Human Rights Council in June 2018 and took some parting shots at the council's legitimacy. U.S. envoy to the U.N. Nikki Haley blasted it as a "hypocritical and self-serving organization" that "makes a mockery of human rights." That assault wasn't just about the Human Rights Council; it was a reprimand for the entire U.N.
The administration has taken other angles of attack against the U.N., questioning the legitimacy and authority of the U.N. to determine policy for sovereign nations. Trump and Nikki Haley have openly questioned the UN's authority and used the issue of national sovereignty numerous times in their defense of withdrawal of America from the Paris climate agreement in 2017 as well as their opposition to any form of U.N. interference in migration policy.
The Trump administration also removed the U.S. from the International Criminal Court (ICC) on similar grounds. "The ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority[.] ... We will never surrender America's sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy," Trump said in his U.N. assembly address in September 2018.
The Trump administration also announced a $285-million cut in funding to the United Nations in response to the U.N. General Assembly's resolution condemning the U.S.'s decision to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Despite widespread disapproval, U.S. ambassador Haley was unequivocal in her defense of the embassy move: "The president's decision reflects the will of the American people and our right as a nation to choose the location of our embassy[.] ... No vote in the United Nations will make any difference on that."
These actions are consistent and now predictable. The Trump administration will support only those intergovernmental organizations that advance the interests of the United States and help preserve the post-WWII international order. Any organization deemed detrimental to those interests will be delegitimized and its influence undermined.
The Trump Doctrine
The Trump administration's approach to international relations was exemplified in the joint U.S.-France-U.K. air strikes against the Assad regime on April 10, 2018. Those air strikes were a punitive response to the regime's use of chemical weapons in its ongoing civil war. In the absence of any response from the U.N. and without any authorization from the U.N., the allies decided — on their own — to enforce international law's ban on the use of chemical weapons and punish the guilty party. The air strikes were technically illegal under international law. The U.S., France, and the U.K. didn't care.
The convergence of the key premises and prescriptions of the Trump doctrine were all demonstrated in this singular episode: (1) Pax Americana is going to be preserved, and it is going to be preserved through strength. (2) A stronger, harder hitting American alliance system will be the bulwark of the international order. (3) The United Nations is no longer a net asset to America or the international order, therefore its power, influence, and legitimacy will be diminished.
President Trump has a winning strategy. Whether he can successfully bring all the necessary elements of his grand vision together, in a manner so that they persist beyond his presidency, remains to be seen. So far, momentum appears to be on his side.