For more than two years now, pundits and policy wonks have been trying to ascertain the principles of Donald Trump’s foreign policy – a task that’s proven roughly analogous to trying to derive the ethical convictions of an empty bag of Doritos from the way it moves in the wind.
The president has argued that NATO is obsolete, and then reiterated America’s commitment to defending its NATO allies. He’s derided diplomacy with North Korea as pointless, then agreed to an unprecedented, face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-Un; decried America’s war in Afghanistan as a total waste, then sent more troops to fight it; insisted that Bashar al-Assad’s talent for killing terrorists was more important than his crimes against humanity, then ordered a missile strike to punish the Syrian ruler for using chemical weapons; likened China’s trade policies to “rape,” then showered praise on Xi Jinping; and condemned the architects of the Iraq War as a band of idiotic globalists, before making John Bolton his national security adviser.
But in a series of tweets Wednesday morning, Trump took the incoherence of his foreign policy to new heights. In recent days, the president has called for removing all U.S. troops from Syria, and touted the supreme importance of maintaining good relations with Russia. Throughout his campaign and presidency, Trump has argued that the worst thing a commander-in-chief can do is telegraph his intentions to an adversary. And yet, shortly after waking Wednesday, the president informed Russia that he would soon launch a missile strike against the “Gas Killing Animal” in Damascus whether they liked it or not.
Within an hour, Trump was once again arguing that maintain warm relations with Moscow should be a top priority of U.S. foreign policy – and blaming American law enforcement for jeopardizing that goal.
By Thursday morning, the president was insisting that he’d never told Russia to prepare for incoming missiles, at all.
Given the dizzying dissonance of Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements, one might reasonably conclude that there is no such thing as the “Trump Doctrine”: The president’s foreign policy isn’t derived from principles, but rather, from a complex series of interactions between the Fox News channel’s programming decisions, the national security state’s institutional inertia, and Trump’s fickle moods.
And yet, one could also argue that the president’s subordination of consistency to self-indulgence on matters of foreign policy is, itself, a kind of principle. Trump does not believe that his authority over the world’s most powerful military requires him to develop – or abide by – a coherent security strategy. He feels no obligation to justify his actions in logically consistent terms to the world or even to himself. Rather, he feels it perfectly appropriate to shape America’s approach to geopolitics around his own immediate emotional desires. He sees U.S. foreign policy as a form of self-care.
Take Trump’s recent hiring of John Bolton. The president did not choose the former U.N. ambassador as his national security adviser because he’d come to believe that Bolton’s analysis of geopolitics was sound; rather, according to Vanity Fair, Trump still regards Bolton as a “war-party person” – but saw hiring him as a sound way of pushing Stormy Daniels out of the headlines, in the wake of her 60 Minutes interview. Which is to say: Seeing his (alleged) ex-lover get media attention caused the president emotional distress, which he then tried to alleviate through an immensely consequential act of foreign policy.
Similarly, when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched a blockade against Qatar last year – on the (transparently insincere) grounds that they could not abide Doha’s financial support for terrorism – Trump did not concern himself with how this move could impact the 11,000 American military personnel stationed at Al Udeid Air Base. He did not ask advisers how a conflict between the Saudis and Qataris could jeopardize his administration’s broader Middle East strategy. Instead, he saw an opportunity to declare victory – he had called on the Arab world to crack down on terrorism, and here were two Arab governments claiming to heed his call. The Saudis’ actual motivations and his military and diplomatic advisers’ analysis were irrelevant – it would just feel good to announce over Twitter that he had whipped the Middle East into shape, and so that is what he did.
Just last month, Trump unilaterally announced across the board steel tariffs – because he was in desperate need of an emotional release. As NBC News reported:
On Wednesday evening, the president became “unglued,” in the words of one official familiar with the president’s state of mind.
A trifecta of events had set him off in a way that two officials said they had not seen before: Hope Hicks’ testimony to lawmakers investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, conduct by his embattled attorney general and the treatment of his son-in-law by his chief of staff.
Trump, the two officials said, was angry and gunning for a fight, and he chose a trade war, spurred on by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, the White House director for trade — and against longstanding advice from his economic chair Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Last April, Trump saw upsetting images of Syrian children gassed to death by the Assad regime. He felt an impulse to do something about it, and so he ordered a missile strike, despite the fact that he’d long known about Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and deemed such violations of international law irrelevant to U.S. policy.
And once those images left his television screen, Trump’s indifference to the fate of Syrian civilians returned. Last month, Trump implored his advisers to immediately withdraw all American troops from Syria – and to “end to all U.S. civilian stabilization programs designed to restore basic infrastructure to war-shattered Syrian communities.”
On Wednesday morning, the disturbing images out of Syria – and unflattering headlines out of the Mueller investigation – were back, and so Trump decided that he would once again enjoy playing defender of the Syrian people. When his staff proved unprepared to execute this act, and media figures started suggesting that he’d failed to enforce his own “red line,” Trump decided to reclaim the element of surprise.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp notes, the fact that American foreign policy is guided by our president’s (ever-changing) emotional needs could have perilous consequences:
[A] functioning foreign policy depends on being able to send messages about what you’re planning to do. When the US threatens to use military force against an adversary, that’s a commitment about what the country will do in the future. The policy only works if people think you mean what you say.
Imagine all the ways this could go wrong when it comes to Syria, for example.
What if the seemingly inevitable US strike hits Russian or Iranian troops who are on the ground fighting for Assad? What if an American warplane gets shot down by Syrian air defenses?
In the event of such a crisis, the signals sent from Washington will be critical to prevent the situation from escalating dangerously. But which words will foreign leaders take seriously? How will they know what the United States will actually do next, and what they need to do to avoid provoking another response from the US military?
On first blush, one might assume that Trump is ignorant of the geopolitical hazards that his freewheeling approach to foreign policy creates. But that assessment is far too generous. There is no doubt that Trump has been told that he should not make major policy decisions on a whim, without consulting the Pentagon or State Department. He is not actually a toddler, oblivious to the consequences of his irrepressible tantrums. He is 71-year-old billionaire who has consciously decided that his emotional needs take precedence over America’s national security interests. This is the core principle of his foreign policy. The Trump Doctrine isn’t nationalist or globalist, but merely solipsist – it all boils down to “Me First.”