One week before Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, we argued in Foreign Policy that the president-elect did not have a grand strategy—and would never develop one. Trump’s “foreign policy approach is explicitly anti-strategic,” we wrote, and Americans should expect “‘tactical transactionalism’—a foreign-policy framework that seeks discrete wins (or the initial, tweetable impressions of them), treats foreign relations bilaterally rather than multidimensionally, and resists the alignment of means and ends that is necessary for effective grand strategy.”
With fewer than 90 days until he stands for reelection, Trump has amassed a robust foreign policy record. How has our preliminary assessment and prediction held up over his 43-plus months in the Oval Office?
Far better than we expected.
To be sure, the president’s foreign policy preferences—already apparent when he took office—have become even clearer with time: infatuation with theoretical diplomatic and trade “deals” (which Trump now promises will happen soon after his reelection); adoration for strongmen; and hostility toward long-standing allies and partners.
Despite their consistency, however, our expectation that these predilections would not constitute a reliable guide to policy has been proved accurate. In fact, the implementation gap we presaged has become a yawning chasm, as the administration’s own marquee strategy documents—primarily the National Security Strategy, intended to elucidate the Trump Doctrine—are at odds with the president’s inclinations. On a near-weekly basis, Trump reaffirms a worldview that clashes directly with what senior civilian and military officials promote as the purpose of U.S. foreign policy.
This incoherence is not an idle concern: Rather, it undermines America’s ability to articulate and execute a grand strategy equal to the monumental challenges it faces. Grand strategies are theories of national security: They orient states in a complex international system by identifying priorities and aligning available resources with desired objectives. Although the United States no longer enjoys the margin of advantage—and for error—it had in the early post-Cold War world, it remains the world’s most powerful nations, with an extraordinary ability to shape an international order that advances its interests.
Yet in a more competitive global environment, success requires Washington to define its interests sharply and apply American military, diplomatic, and economic power shrewdly. What’s more, amidst triple health, economic, and racial justice crises at home, any effective grand strategy for the United States must heed the close linkage between America’s domestic vitality and its global influence. An economically weakened and societally fractured nation is far less capable of even pursuing, much less achieving, its foreign policy goals.
It is easy to mistake Trump’s constellation of foreign-policy instincts for a grand strategy. Indeed, the foreign-policy views Trump articulated during the 2016 campaign (and before) remain his lodestars—the world apparently looks much the same to him from the Oval Office as it did from Trump Tower. Yet for all the consistency of the president’s proclivities, his administration has repeatedly pursued opposing initiatives—making it impossible to prioritize and link the means and ends required for grand strategy.
For more than 30 years, Trump has expressed aversion to American alliances. Speaking to Playboy in 1990, he said, “our ‘allies’ are making billion screwing us.” This antagonism surfaced repeatedly in the 2016 campaign and, since assuming office, has translated into hostility toward America’s closest global partners. In his memoir, former national security advisor John Bolton alleges that after repeated complains about inadequate allied military spending, Trump nearly called the NATO alliance quits. Although that decision never came to pass, the president ordered the drawdown of 12,000 troops from Germany in late July. He has also waged a long campaign to extract more cost sharing from South Korea and his administration is now reportedly considering troop cuts there—rising threats from North Korea and China notwithstanding.
Far from strategically coordinated, however, these presidential decisions have been explicitly at odds with the administration’s stated goals. The White House’s National Security Strategy contends that “allies and partners magnify our power” and strengthening alliances is a pillar of the National Defense Strategy. The United States remains bound to its treaty allies by mutual defense commitments, continues to conduct joint military exercises, and forward-deploys more than 200,000 troops overseas. President Trump even signed into law a bill designed to strengthen and fund cooperation with Asian allies. Strategic incoherence on this issue has resulted in a dangerous condition: alliances that endure, but with their ability to credibly deter adversaries clearly diminished.
As consistent as Trump’s aversion to allies is his admiration for autocrats. In the same Playboy interview, Trump commended the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 1989 crackdown on students in Tiananmen Square as strong. As sitting president, he praised China’s President Xi Jinping for being someone “I like a lot. I consider him a friend,” and when the CCP eliminated presidential term limits, Trump glowed: “He’s now president for life, president for life. And he’s great.” During the 2016 campaign, then-candidate Trump called Russian strongman Vladimir Putin a “brilliant and talented person,” and throughout his presidency has sided with Putin’s interpretation of world events over his own government’s intelligence community analysts. Beyond China and Russia, Trump has lauded authoritarian rulers in North Korea, Egypt, the Philippines, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
President Trump’s admonishment for allies and admiration for dictators provide important context for the most important—and strategically incoherent—element of this administration’s foreign policy: how to respond to an increasingly powerful and assertive China. Every Trump administration strategy document proclaims that in the long term, strategic competition with China will be the biggest challenge to American interests over the coming decades. The sharpening rivalry between the world’s two largest economies—which remain bound by economic interdependence even as their security, commercial, technological, and political competition intensifies—will shape the future of geopolitics. And it just such complex and long-term foreign policy concerns where a well-articulated grand strategy would be essential.
Yet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s landmark China speech last month provided a case-in-point for the Trump administration’s strategic incoherence. All but declaring a new Cold War with China, Pompeo called for “a new alliance of democracies.” He added that “the United Nations, NATO, the G7 countries, the G20, our combined economic, diplomatic, and military power is surely enough to meet this challenge if we direct it clearly.” The same allies and partners that the Trump administration disparaged, the same multilateral institutions that were defunded and disregarded, the same countries dismissed because they were ruled by elected leaders and not undemocratic strongmen, are now being called upon to follow American leadership in a Manichean struggle with China. Unsurprisingly, this Coalition of Countries and Institutions He’s Constantly Belittled is hardly falling in line behind Trump.
Those who disagree with Trump have found some solace in the incoherence with which his preferences have been put into practice—worse than a shambolic foreign policy would have been a ruthlessly effective one. Perhaps that is what a second Trump term will hold. But there are still reasons to doubt any grand strategy will be forthcoming, even now that Trump has accrued experience as commander-in-chief and kicked the so-called adults out of the room. Indeed, Pompeo’s speech demonstrates the persistence of this administration’s say-do gap: The president’s most loyal foreign policy lieutenant, trumpeting a strategy that is demonstrably at odds with Trump’s own instincts, was met with little enthusiasm from the countries and institutions needed for its implementation.
Since January 2017, the United States’ mercurial foreign policy has been a source of great global consternation, as both allies and adversaries have grappled with how to respond to acute unpredictability from the world’s mightiest power. Should it continue for another four years, the reaction to Pompeo’s speech may foreshadow a new global attitude toward Washington: indifference. If America remains adrift, its traditional mantle of global leadership—whether in countering China or combatting COVID-19—will become ever-more elusive.