The next president says he wants to make deals, but his administration is going to be flying blind.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy., Rebecca Friedman LissnerRebecca Friedman Lissner is a Stanton Nuclear Security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Throughout the presidential campaign and since Donald Trump’s election, former diplomats, retired generals, and foreign-policy analysts have attempted to decipher, explain, and predict his foreign-policy strategy. Will he pursue the big-stick model of Teddy Roosevelt? Embrace a neo-Nixonian “madman” strategy? Is Trump actually a champion of foreign-policy realism, or perhaps no realist at all?
But all those questions make the same mistake — they assume the incoming administration has an incipient grand strategy at all. In reality, the president-elect’s foreign-policy approach is explicitly anti-strategic. Rather, Trump’s worldview suggests the outlines of a doctrine of “tactical transactionalism” — a foreign-policy framework that seeks discrete wins (or the initial tweet-able impression of them), treats foreign relations bilaterally rather than multidimensionally, and resists the alignment of means and ends that is necessary for effective grand strategy.
The Trump administration seems determined to muddle through its foreign policy without initial guiding principles, benchmarks for progress, or the means of adjudicating between competing objectives, and with a wildly improvisational leadership style that has no precedent in recent history. Such an approach is dangerously nearsighted and presents an exceptionally high risk of failure — not only in achieving his few stated foreign-policy goals, from the defeat of the Islamic State to the containment of China, but also in assuring basic peace and prosperity for the American people.
The Strategic Imperative
A grand strategy is a coherent theory of national security based on the careful linkage of means and ends: It establishes priorities, accounts for trade-offs among those priorities, and aligns available resources accordingly. The United States has political, economic, and security interests that span the globe, as well as the unmatched military and economic capabilities to shape or respond to an extraordinary range of international challenges. A grand strategy, in theory, disciplines the use of diplomatic, military, and economic power, marshaling it in service of specific objectives. Without some semblance of a grand strategy in a complex and competitive international environment, any country is adrift.
In assessing the importance of grand strategy, it is equally important to understand what it is not. Grand strategy is not the same as strategy writ large. Anyone can have a strategy to achieve a desired objective. Presidents constantly engage in strategic interaction when they negotiate with Congress, wrangle their cabinet members and staff, and seek approval from voters. A presidential administration may even have carefully considered strategies for discrete foreign-policy issues that nevertheless fail to account for the interaction among priorities and resources, thereby undermining the possibility of grand strategy.
Moreover, grand strategy is not merely a conceptual exercise — rather, the articulation and implementation of how one guides the ship of state in ways that are consequential for the daily management and execution of foreign policy. Grand strategy provides an essential framework for the vast national security bureaucracy, serving as a policy lodestar that facilitates the implementation of the commander in chief’s agenda absent daily White House direction on every issue.
For decades, a bipartisan strategic vision has sought to maintain America’s status as the world’s lead diplomatic, military, and economic actor and extend the reach of the liberal international order. Yet as stresses build on the post-World War II order and an increasingly multipolar distribution of power emerges, inertia alone will not sustain the trajectory of progress toward those goals. A well-defined and carefully constructed American grand strategy is more necessary today than it has been in decades. The next administration will face a choice between preserving the contours of existing grand strategy using shrewd statecraft or pursuing a new vision for the United States’ role in the world. Alternatively, in the absence of a grand strategy, the Trump White House will allow the country’s competitors to determine what the country’s new international role should be.
The Trump Doctrine
The Trump Doctrine, as gleaned from his pre-inaugural statements about world affairs, is not a grand strategy. Rather, it is a collection of principles — some operational, some philosophical — that will likely guide U.S. foreign policy over the next four years. These principles are united by three core attributes: first, a focus on short-term tactical wins rather than longer-term foresight; second, a “zero-sum” worldview where all gains are relative and reciprocity is absent; third, a transactional view of American foreign policy that is devoid of moral or ethical considerations. We dub this emergent approach “tactical transactionalism.”
Trump’s decision-making style is famously improvisational, open to sudden inexplicable shifts and rooted in gut instinct. While tactical transactionalism is designed to allow Trump to triumph in discrete strategic interactions — for example against a political opponent or a counterparty in a negotiation — when applied to foreign policy, such an approach is fundamentally at odds with the careful analysis and planning required for grand strategy. For major foreign-policy issues and decisions, which require policymakers to make judgments despite imperfect information and persistent uncertainty, careful analysis and deliberation make rash and counterproductive outcomes less likely.
Trump’s principles do not amount to a coherent conception of the United States’ role in the world, Washington’s core interests, and the appropriate uses of American power. Although the president-elect is fond of historical slogans — like “America First” or “Peace Through Strength” — he seems to prefer such taglines for their marketing value, rather than as shorthand for a set of strategic assumptions. (Indeed, anyone who has studied American history recognizes that the strategic assumptions associated with the slogans cited above are utterly incompatible with each other.)
The pitfalls of Trump’s strategic incoherence become quickly apparent upon considering his two most prominent foreign-policy actions since winning the election.
First, Trump signaled his willingness to enter into a nuclear arms race with unnamed foreign adversaries. On Dec. 22, the president-elect tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” After his advisors attempted to soften and reinterpret this statement, Trump doubled down, telling MSNBC: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
Yet there is no apparent logic to Trump’s nuclear saber-rattling, beyond the assertion of American strength and stamina. Perhaps he only meant his tweet as an extension of the critique, stated repeatedly during the campaign, that the U.S. nuclear arsenal “doesn’t work” anymore. But presidential rhetoric has strategic consequences, especially in the nuclear realm, which is why semantics tend to be carefully parsed by foreign governments. Whether Trump intended it or not, his words sent a threatening message about American intentions.
Even interpreted modestly, these pronouncements herald important shifts in American nuclear policy. Changes of this magnitude would typically be carefully deliberated through a Nuclear Posture Review, of the kind undertaken by the past three administrations to evaluate the strategic imperatives and budgetary constraints governing their approaches to nuclear weapons. If the Trump administration elects to conduct such a review, Trump’s personal tweets and comments — if taken as policy guidance — would prejudge important deliberations, undermining civilian and military experts’ ability to make strategically prudent recommendations.
Second, Trump weighed in on the most expensive and controversial military procurement program, the Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35. On Dec. 22, he tweeted: “Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” This followed an earlier tweet, which stated: “The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.”
Setting aside the irregularity of a president-elect — let alone a sitting president — directly intervening in federal contracting, these statements further demonstrate how Trump’s desire for tactical wins overshadows long-term strategic considerations. Most significantly, there is no F-18 model comparable to the F-35. The F-35, unlike the F-18, is designed with a stealth profile, which enables it to evade enemy radar and attack ground targets. Although cost overruns for the F-35 program are a legitimate concern, the decision to procure fighter jets without stealth capabilities has long-term implications for U.S. national security that merit serious consideration. Discontinuation of the F-35 would also be highly disruptive to the 11 American allies that have already purchased or plan to purchase the platform.
These statements may be explained away as tactical maneuvering by Trump, creating bargaining space when he can avoid full accountability for his words. After all, the president-elect himself assigns great value to unpredictability. In his major foreign-policy address during the campaign, Trump pointed to secrecy as the basis of his counter-Islamic State policy: “We must as a nation be more unpredictable. We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops. We tell them. We’re sending something else. We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable. And we have to be unpredictable starting now.” But while unpredictability may be tactically useful, it is strategically vacuous — and deeply at odds with grand strategy. It is also nearly impossible to operationalize given the logistical requirements of U.S. foreign-policy implementation.
Until Trump assumes office, it will be impossible to judge whether these statements will translate into official U.S. policy. Even Trump’s advisors seem unsure whether to take his words literally, seriously, or symbolically. Nevertheless, Trump’s positions on national security issues consistently demonstrate an inclination toward tactical moves that create the appearance of leverage. This approach resists prioritization or acknowledgement of trade-offs, the hallmarks of sound grand strategy.
Transactionalism Trumps Grand Strategy
This tactical emphasis flows from Trump’s transactional view of international relations. Importing his real estate deal-making mentality to conducting U.S. foreign policy, he envisions foreign relations as 193 individually crafted bilateral deals with every other nation in the world. Trump appears to consider these deals to be zero-sum and lacking moral content.
This attitude is most marked in his long-standing antipathy to (certain) American alliances. In his 1990 Playboy interview, Trump summed up his view: “We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing a hundred and fifty billion dollars year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about 15 minutes if it weren’t for us. Our ‘allies’ are making billions screwing us.” Trump is hardly alone in complaining about allies’ free-riding on U.S. military power, but he is unique in his fixation on the need for financial compensation. During the campaign, Trump went so far as to suggest that security guarantees would be conditional on NATO allies’ defense spending, and he even touched the third rail of American politics when he suggested he would cut military aid to Israel.
The desire to negotiate winning deals apparently overrides broader and more fundamental strategic objectives, like deterring adversaries, assuring regional stability, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Trump seems perfectly comfortable calling the reliability of the U.S. extended deterrent into question, even if the result is nuclear proliferation by close allies and partners like Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. The robustness of these views for Trump, in the face of countervailing evidence — namely the relative cost savings and security gains that result from overseas basing — indicates that bilateral, zero-sum transactionalism trumps strategic considerations in his thinking.
Within this transactional framework, Trump has no compunction about cutting a grand bargain with Russia. Above all else, the president-elect professes to admire Putin’s admiration for him, and both share a mutual worldview that favors power while eschewing international norms. Trump disputed evidence of Russian interference in the U.S. election and shares Putin’s dismissive attitude toward American exceptionalism. Putin’s antagonism toward NATO is not terribly worrying for Trump given his aforementioned indifference to the alliance, except insofar as it can serve as a protection racket. Although the contours of such a deal remain unclear, Trump views the fight against the Islamic State as the cornerstone of a U.S.-Russia rapprochement.
From Words to Deeds
Will a different doctrine take shape once Trump assumes the obligations of the Oval Office? Will the new administration demonstrate a knack for strategy heretofore obscured by the president-elect’s Twitter storms?
Confirmation hearings will yield early clues into the prospects for a Trump grand strategy. In particular, one should look for clues in the testimony by Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense nominee Jim Mattis, and CIA Director nominee Mike Pompeo, and the extent to which they express a common view of foreign-policy challenges (such as credibly supporting treaty allies) and opportunities (such as sustaining the international consensus behind the Iran nuclear deal).
But looking beyond Inauguration Day, three decisions in the first 100 days of the Trump administration will provide crucial insight.
First, how will national security decision-making be structured? Donald Trump Jr. reportedly said during the campaign that the vice president in a Trump administration would be charged with both domestic and foreign policy. Trump’s delegation of regular intelligence briefings to Vice President-elect Mike Pence suggests there may be truth to this promise. Yet much about the incoming administration’s decision-making procedures remain unknown. In the first 100 days, Trump will likely release the customary presidential directive outlining the organization of the National Security Council (NSC) system, which reveals the formal arrangements for creating and executing national security policy, including the role to be played by the president, vice president, national security advisor, and other NSC principals.
Second, will Trump change his communication style once in office? His press secretary-designate, Sean Spicer, indicated that the president will continue his personal use of Twitter. The extent to which seemingly off-the-cuff tweets are intended and interpreted as declaratory government policy will have important implications for U.S. foreign relations. In particular, it will become clear in the first 100 days whether presidential statements align with concrete policy decisions. Typically, new presidents are loath to backtrack on campaign commitments because they fear backlash during their early-term “honeymoon period” and seek to affirm their credibility domestically as well as for international audiences. But this is a governance question Trump has not yet confronted.
Third, to what extent will the foreign policies pursued by the Trump administration accord with campaign commitments? Early political appointments, legislative priorities, and budget request documents will provide insight into the flexibility with which the new administration interprets the president’s prior promises. These actions will signal whether Trump’s policy pronouncements will be subject to revision within the framework of strategic reviews, such as the National Security Strategy, or a possible Nuclear Posture Review.
Each of these decisions will have consequences for the new administration’s ability to achieve discrete foreign-policy objectives, let alone articulate an overarching framework for its statecraft. But given the consistency with which Trump has espoused a doctrine of tactical transactionalism, it is doubtful that a grand strategy will emerge after Jan. 20. The president may feel that the absence of strategy empowers him personally. But it will inevitably obscure the United States’ vital national interests, confuse allies and partners, and blunt the exercise of American power.
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