Shadow Government

If You Like the Obama Doctrine, You’ll Love the Trump Doctrine

There's a remarkable convergence between the Obama and Trump foreign policies.

US President Barack Obama speaks on the economy at the ArcelorMittal Cleveland steel mill in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 14, 2013.      AFP PHOTO / Jim WATSON        (Photo credit should read )
US President Barack Obama speaks on the economy at the ArcelorMittal Cleveland steel mill in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 14, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read )

One of the enduring fascinations of American history is how a presidential candidate can campaign as a fierce critic of his predecessor, only then to embrace the main features of his predecessor’s foreign policy once in office. Such was the case with Eisenhower’s adoption of Truman’s Cold War strategic framework, or how President Obama adopted most of George W. Bush’s counterterrorism architecture. With Donald Trump’s recent elaboration of his beliefs on national security policy before the Washington Post editorial board, the substantive similarities between his views and Obama’s are inescapable.

Before Trump gave his interview, I made some similar, admittedly provocative, points about these echoes of Obama when speaking last week on a panel at last week’s International Studies Association conference. Reading the transcript of Trump’s discussion with the Post editors alongside President Obama’s much-noted recent interview with the Atlantic reveals some markedly similar convictions and policy preferences between them.

First, some obligatory yet important disclaimers. In tone and style, Obama and Trump could not be more different, and they hold vastly divergent positions on issues like race and immigration. They likewise disagree vehemently on some key foreign policy issues, such as the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump opposes, and Obama of course supports.

But the many similar beliefs and positions that Trump and Obama both hold are bracing. Consider:

  • Both are very leery of American involvement in the Syrian civil war, or the Middle East more broadly;
  • Both see Russia as an important partner in the fight against the Islamic State and in restoring regional order in the Middle East, and neither favors taking strong measures against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine;
  • Both have called for more even-handedness and balance by the United States on Israeli-Palestinian matters, instead of America’s traditional full-throated support for Israel;
  • Both downplay the promotion of democracy and human rights;
  • Both are skeptical of many traditional U.S. allies and alliances, and are very explicit in demanding that U.S. allies do much more burden-sharing. Charles Lane of the Washington Post pointed out as much to Trump in their meeting: “what you’re saying is very similar to what President Obama said to Jeffrey Goldberg, in that we have allies that become free riders. So it seems like there’s some convergence with the president there.”
  • Both are less enthusiastic about free trade then their White House predecessors of both parties (admittedly, Obama came around to promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but this was only after he had earlier expressed significant reservations about it, voiced skepticism about NAFTA, and delayed and renegotiated the FTAs with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama);
  • Both support the diplomatic and economic opening to Cuba;
  • Both are very skeptical of stability operations and nation-building efforts. In his May 2012 declaration that the “goal that I set — to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is within reach,” and announcement of America’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Obama called instead to “focus on nation building here at home.” Trump repeated Obama’s call almost verbatim, which in Trump-speak was rendered as “I don’t think we should be nation building anymore…I just think we have to rebuild our country.”

Obama supporters and Trump supporters, who otherwise share almost nothing except mutual disdain, will no doubt not welcome this analysis. But in national security policy, substance matters more than style, and on substance Trump and Obama share much more than either would care to admit. Indeed, for all of their other differences and reciprocal dislike of each other, the candidate who is most aligned with President Obama’s foreign policy, and who as president would be most likely to continue the main outlines of the Obama Doctrine, is Donald Trump.


Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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