Sunday, September 30, 2018

My Doctrine Doctrine: Overthinking Trump's Foreign Policy

One of the most annoying (to me) tendencies is for folks to postulate that an administration has a doctrine or grand strategy.  Obama's "don't do stupid shit" was not a doctrine but a starting point for thinking about things.  Bush did have more of a doctrine than most--regime change of adversaries plus continued support for multilateral economic order, if I remember correctly.  We can go on to other Presidents and look at what their stances were called and question their coherence.

Speaking of incoherence, there was a piece in Foreign Affairs (I can't read due to gates) that called Trump's foreign policy: Illiberal Hegemony.  I agree with the former but not the latter and I disagree with the premise.  A) There ain't no doctine; B) Hegemony is something specific, and Trump ain't doing it. 

So, re A:

Paul Staniland reminded me on twitter that there are consistencies: pro-Israel, anti-Iran.  I would add hostility to allies and mercantilist to his core.  But that is not a doctrine.  Those are tendencies, not a coherent world view nor is it a strategy, grand or otherwise.  To be strategic, one has to do a couple of things:
1) Determine one's goals
2) Figure out the best ways to reach those goals and what capabilties and commitments are required.  3) Maybe consider whether the means are sufficient for the ends, and shed commitments and capabilities that are unnecessary or less necessary (yeah, call me idealistic as this doesn't happen much).
4) Oh yeah, that other definition of strategic: consider what the other folks want and then figure out how to get them to do what you want, given what they want. In other words, be as smart as my dead dog.

Sure, the Trump administration has put out the required documents, but is its behavior doing any of this?  Hell and no.  Flipping and flopping on Taiwan and China, risking war with North Korea and now stating his love?  Trump is so very transactional and so very short-term oriented that there is no way he can be strategic or, yes, disciplined enough to have a doctrine.   Again, what are the ends, what are the threats, what are the means to reach the ends and deal with the threats?  Good luck figuring that out.

Regarding B, what do we mean by hegemonic?  If we drop leadership, I am not sure what is left.  Not all coercion is hegemonic and not all hegemony is coercive.  Bullying Canada is not hegemonic.  Ceding lots of issues and regions to China is certainly not hegemonic.  The reason why Hegemonic is being discussed is because we used to think that the way for the various pieces of the international order (I would add cites but I have to check out of my hotel room) to be created and maybe maintained--some set of rules/expectations on trade, exchange rates, etc--required a dominant player to pay the costs and provide the coercion.  The US did this post-World War II, and it was a Liberal Hegemony since it had free trade at its core.  If Nazi Germany had won the war, it would have had a hegemony of its own, far less liberal, far more coercive. 

But Trump is not trying to have the US impose illiberal rules on the world and build institutions that facilitate American dominance.  He is opposed to rules, and he burns down institutions.  That, along with white supremacy and mercantilism, are the few pieces of consistency, but are neither doctrine nor hegemony.  Withdrawing from institutions and not replacing them with new ones is not hegemony/domination/leadership.  It is only partly isolationism.

If I had to call this administration's stance a particular thing, it might be Malevolent Incompetence or, or  Embedded Narcissism.  But hegemony? No.

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