The ‘Trump Doctrine’ Is the Future of Conservative Foreign Policy

For the past two years we have seen the emergence of a coherent Trump doctrine in both words and deeds. There is a remarkable consistency throughout all of President Trump’s speeches, formal documents (such as the National Security Strategy) and actions of the administration.

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To understand the Trump doctrine, we must begin with candidate Trump’s first major speech on foreign policy on April 27, 2016 (thus even before the Indiana primary) to the Center for the National Interest at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

All the elements of the Trump doctrine are revealed in this maiden speech. This includes reversing military decline (“We will spend what we need to rebuild our military”); an emphasis on economic strength and “technological superiority” in geo-political competition; confronting the threats from China, North Korea, Iran and radical Islam; opposing nation-building; reversing Obama’s ambivalence with strong support for Israel; ending illegal immigration; and “strengthening and promoting Western Civilization.” Finally, the candidate rejected the “false flag of globalism” and declared, “The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.”

These core elements were expanded upon in different speeches to the United Nations, the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), in Warsaw, and elsewhere. In articulating his concept of sovereignty, Trump posited democratic sovereignty or popular sovereignty in the sense of self-government. He makes the moral argument that ultimate political authority resides in the people of a nation, not in transnational global elites nor in the always “evolving” notions of international (essentially transnational) law.

Trump notes, however, that sovereign nations have core duties to “respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.” Thus, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela violate the sovereign duties of nation-states.

In Warsaw, President Trump presented a much broader conception of Western Civilization than the framework one often hears from secular elites in the European Union. Trump’s vision of the West encompasses not simply Brussels, Berlin, and Washington D.C. but Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. It inncludes Christianity and Judaism, as well as the Enlightenment and modernity. It is not the Enlightenment only, but the Enlightenment plus.

Presidential rhetoric is reinforced by the actions of the administration in directly confronting China, Iran, and Russia; in withdrawing from the climate accord, the Iran deal, and the proposed withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INFT) because of Russian cheating. Trump Administration actions also include withdrawing previous cooperation with the International Criminal Court; moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; increasing military funding; and promoting energy independence and closer relations with the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe through the “Three Seas Initiative.”

For the most part, the Trump doctrine is deeply rooted in the historical traditions of American foreign policy. Its emphasis on national interests, strong military and naval power, reciprocity in trade, and the primacy of American sovereignty, were hallmarks of the foreign policy vision of statesmen such as Washington, Hamilton, Clay, Webster, and Lincoln.

Claremont Review of Books editor Charles Kesler declares that Trump’s policies (including foreign policy) are very much in the tradition of the historical Republican party from Lincoln to the New Deal. Trump’s words and actions on the necessity of America’s economic strength, on a reciprocal trade policy with its focus on American workers, on our nation’s manufacturing base, and on the central role of American business in both creating good jobs and in providing a strong material base for national security—echoed the rhetoric and policies of Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, the early Theodore Roosevelt, and Calvin Coolidge; and even to some extent, Ronald Reagan.

What About Trumpism After Trump?

In his April 2016 campaign speech, Trump said his goal is “to establish a foreign policy that will endure for generations.” Whether his influence is long-lasting in conservative foreign policy circles depends upon future circumstances. What will be the shape of the global chessboard as we look 10 or 15 years ahead?

To get a clearer picture, I will examine the following themes: (1) future global challenges to core American interests and values; (2) the shadow of domestic partisan politics and increasing polarization within the American body politic; (3) the conservative interaction with the foreign policy of American liberals; and (4) the internal philosophical and political debate among American conservatives (elites and voters) over what exactly is to be “conserved.”

As the National Security Strategy (NSS) statement declares, the United States is entering a period of increased political (and in the case of China, also geo-economic) competition with revisionist nation-states, specifically China, Russia, and Iran. There is widespread agreement among conservative elites (and many liberals concur) that China is the most serious competitor (politically and economically) to American national interests and will remain so far into the future.

Besides the political and geo-economic challenges from revisionist nation-states and the threat of terrorism from radical Islamists in both Iran and the Sunni world—there is, and always has been, global ideological competition. At the broadest level there is the perennial conflict between constitutional democracy and various forms of authoritarianism, including oligarchy, dictatorial one-party rule, and militant jihadism.

The War of Ideas Within the Democratic World

That said, the “war of ideas” goes much deeper. Within the democratic world itself there is a deep division over where ultimate authority (that is to say, sovereignty) resides. Is it with sovereign democratic nation-states or is it with evolving transnational and supranational institutions and rules of global governance (for example, new concepts of customary international law) that nation-states have either delegated authority to or permitted (sometimes encouraged) to expand?

To put it bluntly, there is an argument within the democratic family over the single most important question in politics: who should rule?

American conservatives embrace our democratic sovereignty and the U.S. Constitution as the highest political authority for Americans. Others, including allies such as Germany and many nation-states in the European Union, as well as a considerable number of American progressives, tout the transnational institutions of global governance and the evolving concepts of international law as the final arbiters of legitimate authority above the sovereignty of any nation-state.

This global ideological conflict over core values between what we might call “sovereigntists” and “post-sovereigntists” or, as President Trump puts it, between “patriotism” and “globalism” is perennial. It will continue well into the future and no doubt intensify in the decades to come. It will intensify because “globalism” (what I have labeled “transnational progressivism”) is not a chimera, an apparition, or the moniker for a conspiracy theory. On the contrary, transnational progressivism (globalism for short) is a real actor in world politics complete with a workable ideology, a strongly situated material-social base among global elites, and in some areas, the backing of nation-states.

Globalists dominate major international institutions, including the leadership of the United Nations, the European Union, the European Court of Human Rights, the International Court of Justice, international NGOs (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc.), the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, CEOs of global corporations, major universities throughout the West, and even organizations such as the American Bar Association which actively promotes the “global rule of law.” Most significantly, globalist ideology is predominate in some European nation-states including the Angela Merkel’s Germany and Emmanuel Macron’s France.

Some label the globalists as the “Davoise.” John Bolton has referred to them as the “High Minded.” In any case, it is clear to most Americans on the Right today (and it will be even clearer in the future) that the worldview advocated by the transnational progressives is diametrically opposed to the interests and principles of those who want to “conserve” our constitutional democracy and way of life. Future political conflict between American conservatives and transnational progressives is inevitable.

Liberal Foreign Policy Becomes More Transnational Progressive

What is the role of our domestic politics and the actions of American liberals in the future of conservative foreign policy? For several reasons, it appears that political polarization at home will increase. American liberals and conservatives increasingly get their news from the parallel television universes of either CNN-MSNBC or Fox News. Further with the “Big Sort” they are physically dividing themselves geographically in more homogenous blue and red enclaves across the country.

Liberal foreign policy has changed from even Bill Clinton’s presidency let alone the days of JFK and LBJ. What traditionally has been called liberal internationalism is steadily morphing into transnational progressivism. A comparison of President Obama’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2016 with President Trump’s UNGA speeches of 2017 and 2018 is revealing. Whereas Trump emphasized sovereignty, Obama focused on global “integration,” which he mentioned at least eight times in his final U.N. speech.

Even more significantly, at the U.N. in 2016, Obama outlined a post-sovereigntist vision that was the mirror opposite of Trump’s worldview. Obama told the General Assembly, “We’ve bound our power to international laws and institutions.” He declared that the “promise” of the United Nations could only be realized “if powerful nations like my own accept constraints . . . . I am convinced that in the long run, giving up freedom of action—not our ability to protect ourselves . . . but binding ourselves to international rules over the long term—enhances our security.”

Obama filled key positions in his foreign policy apparatus with people with strong post-sovereigntist, pro-global governance leanings, such as Anne Marie Slaughter and Harold Koh. Slaughter, who headed the State Department’s office of policy planning, wrote as an academic that nation-states should cede sovereign authority to supranational institutions in cases requiring “global solutions to global problems,” such as the International Criminal Court. In this way, Slaughter argued, global governance networks “can perform many of the functions of a world government—laws, administration, and adjudication—without the form.” Therefore, a “world order out of horizontal and vertical networks could create a genuine global rule of law . . . .”

Harold Koh was the Obama State Department’s legal adviser, the official who interpreted international law for the U.S. government. As former dean of Yale Law School, Koh is a leading advocate of what he labeled the “transnational legal process.” Koh explains: “Transnational legal process encompasses the interactions of public and private actors─nation states, corporations, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations─in a variety of forums, to make, interpret, enforce, and ultimately internalize rules of international law” in “the domestic law of even resistant nation-states.”  

Obama’s U.N. speech and the writings of Slaughter and Koh are worth remembering because they are prototypes of transnational progressive arguments that conservative foreign policy specialists will encounter more and more in the future. In the formulation of liberal foreign policy, past is prologue, as progressives envision a enlarged role for transnational legalism that goes well beyond what conservatives consider the checks and balances of American constitutional democracy.

Global progressives are quite open in their support for decreased national sovereignty (and, thus, by definition, diminished democratic self-government) and increased transnational authority. One of the leading academic advocates of global governance, Professor G. John Ikenberry, writes: “The liberal international project foresees a future where there will be a fuller realization of universal rights and standards of justice, and the obligations and commitments of national governments will need to be adjusted accordingly. International authority—in the form of courts and collective governance mechanisms—will be expanded . . . and a rule-based order will intensify.”

Ikenberry asks, “how do they [nation-states] reconcile the international liberal vision of increasing authority lodged above the nation-state—where there is a sharing and pooling of sovereignty—with domestic liberal democracy built on popular sovereignty?” He admits “This is the unsolved problem in the liberal international project.”

Ikenberry’s answer appears indirectly buried in several footnotes citing essays authored by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, and leading to other sources. The core argument is that liberal democracies cannot be relied upon because they disregard the interests of foreign citizens (Keohane specifically mentions the United States and Israel as examples). Given what they perceive as the “limitations” of democratic sovereignty, these transnational progressive theorists posit that the legitimacy of global governance institutions comes from the knowledge and expertise of what they call “external epistemic communities” and “external epistemic actors” (presumed experts on international law, human rights, the environment, gender equity, and the like.)

Domestic and Foreign Policy Will Blur

The future will likely see a great divide between liberal and conservative worldviews on foreign policy and national sovereignty. Despite pious pronouncements from all sides, partisanship will play an outsized role in foreign policy. And just as domestic partisan politics will not “stop at the water’s edge,” neither will the on-going culture war over issues of identity politics, religion, secularism, family, free speech, demographics, abortion, gay rights, immigration, migration, and national and civilizational identity.

We already have a name for this phenomenon. The Germans call it Weltinnenpolitik or “global domestic politics.” Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Germany’s leading philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, have analyzed and advocated global domestic politics since the turn of the century. In a similar vein, former British and EU diplomat Robert Cooper noted that the postmodern states of the EU actively intervene in the domestic affairs of democratic nation-states, including regulations for “beer and sausages.”

In the United States, global domestic politics first began in earnest in the 1990s. Transnationalist NGOs including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and others worked with U.N. “rapporteurs” in the United States and at the U.N. Durban Conference to excoriate American domestic policy on race and gender as severe “violations of international human rights.”

During the Yugoslav wars and the post-9/11 Global War on Terror these same NGOs waged continuous “lawfare” against American military and counterterrorist operations. They charged American leaders with “war crimes,” collaborated with foreign elites, and attempted to manipulate international law for the purpose of disrupting American foreign policy.  

From 2009-2016, the tables were turned, as the Obama Administration launched its own version of global domestic politics. Now, the U.S. government was working with transnationalist NGOs (and particularly with the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundations) actively to promote progressive social policy, particularly on issues of gender, abortion, LGBT, and identity politics throughout the world.

Not surprisingly, the aggressive policy (e.g., flying the LGBT rainbow flag at U.S. embassies) elicited traditionalist push-back. For example, when Obama’s State Department with Soros’s help began pressuring newly democratic Central and Eastern European countries to endorse LGBT and radical feminist agendas, conservative democrats in places like Slovakia began to envision (falsely, to be sure) their former oppressor, Russia, as an upholder of “family values” and a counterweight to leftist American bullying.

For years, both conservative and liberal foreign policy elites have lauded a “liberal global order” of interlocking international institutions such as NATO and the International Monetary Fund created by the United States as a bulwark of the free world in the global struggle against Communism.

In recent years, the liberal global order (heralded by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher) is slowly, almost imperceptibly, becoming the “progressive global order.” This shift started with the new Obama-Merkel emphasis on global social progressive (and regulatory social democratic) norms replacing the previous Reagan-Thatcher focus on political freedom and democratic capitalism. The once nearly unanimous positive view of the “liberal global order” will likely change with conservative resistance to both social engineering and statist overreach, and, thus, as the entire “liberal global order” concept itself, instead of reflecting the conventional wisdom, becomes “contested.”

What Do Conservative Foreign Policy Elites Want to Conserve?

The emerging Trump doctrine I described at the outset appears to be a pretty good fit for American conservatives as they face the world politics of the future. This future specifically will include twin challenges (one hard power and one soft power) first, from revisionist nation-states that want to undermine American power globally, and second, from Western and American transnationalists who seek to constrain our nation’s democratic sovereignty because they have a fundamentally different answer than conservatives to the vital question of who should govern.

One of the reasons the Trump doctrine fits foreign policy conservatism is that it is philosophically, psychologically and politically “conservative” in the sense that it seeks to “conserve” something realistic (our military superiority, our manufacturing base) and idealistic (our sovereignty and way of life.) This is in sharp contrast to President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address that proclaimed in utopian Wilsonian rhetoric that the policy of the United States encompassed “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” As a practical matter, Trump’s “Principled Realism” appears to have stronger support among conservative voters than Bush’s “freedom agenda.”

We could contrast the conservative foreign policy universe that permits latitude for both the national and the international with the liberal foreign policy continuum that runs from the international to the transnational to the supranational.

Does anyone doubt that the next Democratic administration will be increasingly transnationalist, just as Obama was more transnationalist than Bill Clinton, and Clinton was more transnationalist than Jimmy Carter, and Carter was more transnationalist than Lyndon Johnson? Further, does anyone doubt that the Democratic push towards more transnationalism will trigger a conservative reaction along patriotic sovereigntist lines?

For several decades, a fierce intellectual battle has been waged beneath the surface of our foreign policy debates between American sovereigntists and transnationalists. In the 1990s, American transnationalist NGOs worked with foreign governments to undermine the U.S. government positions at U.N. conferences that created the Landmines treaty and the International Criminal Court. In September 2000, John Bolton warned Americans to take the forces promoting global governance seriously as a threat to American sovereignty. In 2003, law professor Peter Spiro in an important essay in Foreign Affairs analyzed the “New Sovereigntists.”

In 2009, conservatives rallied to oppose the nomination of transnationalist Harold Koh as the State Department’s legal advisor. In 2012, retiring Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) gave a series of speeches outlining the transnationalist challenge to American sovereignty. Also in 2012, John Ikenberry and Daniel Deudney in a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) paper, complained that “liberal internationalism” was “increasingly under attack . . . by neoconservatives and new sovereigntists who directly challenge its goals and policies.”

President Trump, to his credit, has, for the first time, thrust the issue of American democratic sovereignty versus transnational governance (“patriotism versus globalism”) directly into the public policy arena. This means conservatives will likely do what liberals have done for years, which is to take the issue of global governance seriously. As conservatives, they will realize that the globalist project is a direct challenge to American constitutional democracy. In the future, conservatives should view world politics through bifocal lenses.

Ultimately, conservatives need to recognize they have two sets of global competitors, the hard competitors of geopolitics and geo-economics and soft competitors—the transnational progressives, the globalists, the post-sovereigntists, whatever one wants to call them. These soft competitors also challenge all that American conservatives hold dear.

Let us posit that American conservatives want to “conserve” the American nation, our constitutional framework, our self-government, our free enterprise economic system, our Judeo-Christian-moderate Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment cultural heritage, and our way of life. The Trump doctrine’s emphasis on American sovereign self-government, military and economic strength, cultural-religious tradition, and the promotion of Western Civilization, along with its recognition of the real threats hard and soft to our democratic republic, should ensure its continuing influence in foreign policy circles (both conservative and non-conservative) well into the future.

Photo credit:  Mikhail MetzelTASS via Getty Images

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Author: John Fonte


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