In The Media

What's in the Trump Doctrine?

by Linda Solomon (feat. Stephen Saideman)

National Observer
December 20, 2017

Nothing about climate change. Little about human rights. A great deal about competition.

U.S. President Donald Trump released his first National Security Strategy this week, outlining the priorities that will drive U.S. foreign policy during the Trump administration.

Weep over it, or praise it. The one thing I think we can all agree on is that the so-called "Trump Doctrine" is in keeping with what we have come to expect from America's Commander-in-Chief.

The “Trump Doctrine” leans on the President’s nationalist rhetoric. In a campaign-style speech, he criticized his predecessors and “unfair trade practices,” vowing to renegotiate America’s trade relationships and protect American jobs. “Like it or not, we are in a new age of competition,” Trump said. “We will stand up for ourselves and we will stand up for our country like we have never stood up before.”

Previous National Security Strategies have defined their presidents’ legacies in foreign policy. In 2002, the document included the rationale for “preventive war,” which justified the invasion of Iraq and became known as the “Bush Doctrine.” Obama’s two National Security Strategies, released in 2010 and 2015, encouraged co-operation among allies and even traditional adversaries, like China.

Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy, which he calls “principled realism,” undoes his predecessors’ focus on human rights, multilateralism, and international cooperation. In general, his vision is one of global competition: the U.S. must lead by protecting its sovereignty and “securing peace through strength.”

The Trump administration only says “human rights” once in his 60-page strategy. All mentions of climate change, which the Obama administration called an “urgent and growing threat,” has been completely removed.

“Trump is a climate change skeptic and a fan of coal, so he can’t possibly see climate change as a national security threat,” said Stephen Saideman, professor of international affairs at Carleton University. “This will give China the lead, cause countries to make deals that don’t involve the U.S., and undermine climate change efforts by everybody else.”

The Trump administration focuses on conventional state actors in his usual confrontational tone. Countries identified as threats include North Korea (“a ruthless dictatorship without any regard for humanity), Iran (“openly calls for our destruction”), Cuba, and Venezeula (anachronistic leftist authoritarian models”). While the Obama administration emphasized “unheralded cooperation” with the Chinese on military coordination and climate change, Trump calls them a “competitor.”

Russia is also singled out for “interfering in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world.” For Saideman, Trump is massively understating a Russian threat that is “close to existential.”

“Russia has been systematically subverting democracies and won big in the U.S., with no punishment so far,” he said. “Trump is fond of Putin and so the document downplays it… the first steps should have been a thorough investigation without Presidential interference, significant economic sanctions, potential cyber offensives, and efforts to, yes, bring down Putin.”

Most consequentially for Canadians, the new U.S. strategy repeatedly slams “unfair trade practices” and “unfair burden-sharing with our allies.” It calls for “fairness and reciprocity” in accordance with Trump’s campaign promises: “an America First National Security Strategy will… benefit all with equal levels of market access and opportunities for economic growth.” In return, the Trudeau government has aggressively pursued free trade relationships with other countries.

“Trump wants not fair trade deals but ones that exploit America’s partners, which has led to difficult NAFTA talks,” Saideman said. “Seeing the allies as competitors, as rivals, is the real break here.”

While the National Security Strategy is usually released with little fanfare, according to the New York Times, Trump enthusiastically embraced the text when he saw it, presenting it personally on television. But how closely the mercurial commander-in-chief can stick to the doctrine of “principled realism” remains to be seen.

“Alas, the words in the document are less relevant than Trump’s tweets,” Saideman said.

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