Six months into the president’s term and it’s already clear that small wins and tactical deals do not amount to a strategy of any sort.
- By Rebecca Friedman LissnerRebecca Friedman Lissner is a Stanton Nuclear Security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations., 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.
“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him,” Dwight D. Eisenhower observed in 1952. Managing the future’s course is no small task, but in foreign policy the development and execution of sound strategy are a leader’s best hope. In January, on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, we warned in Foreign Policy that Trump’s approach to foreign policy was dangerously nearsighted and posed unacceptable risks to national security. Absent a course correction, a trainwreck is all but assured.
Six months later, there is little indication that the president and his advisors have developed the kind of strategy — what academics call “grand strategy” and pundits refer to as “doctrine” — designed to impose America’s will on the world, rather than vice versa. Indeed, it seems there will never be a Trump doctrine. In resisting the careful patience required to develop and execute a purposive course of action over time, the administration’s method of policymaking is explicitly anti-strategic.
This deficiency results from three operational and philosophical principles that orient the president’s decision-making: a focus on short-term wins rather than longer-term strategic foresight; a “zero-sum” worldview where all gains are relative and reciprocity is absent; and a rejection of values-based policymaking. The shortcomings of this approach — which we dubbed “tactical transactionalism” — are already apparent in the Trump administration’s foreign-policy record to date.
First, Trump has made no secret of his desire to “win,” a worldview that privileges short-term, tactical triumphs.
Nowhere was this attitude more evident than in Trump’s decision to fire off 59 cruise missiles in retaliation for a Syrian government chemical weapons attack. Although administration officials herald this decision in public and private as a signal accomplishment of Trump’s foreign policy, the strike actually had little effect: The targeted airfield was operational again within days, and the attack’s muddled rationale obscured any intended signal to American adversaries. Nonetheless, the arresting images of U.S. Navy destroyers launching missiles remain the most vivid exemplar of the Trump administration’s foreign policy in its first six months.
This short-termism was also apparent in the initial enthusiastic response to the Gulf crisis that began on June 5, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and announced a blockade on the country. Trump, eager to claim a win from his trip to the Middle East, tweeted his support for the move. Even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to take a more strategic view of the crisis — recognizing the centrality of the Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar to the U.S.-led counter-Islamic State campaign — Trump undermined his chief diplomat with bravado, doubling down on his criticism of Qatar and asserting, “If we ever needed another military base, you have other countries that would gladly build it.” Unsurprisingly, when the secretary of state attempted a well-publicized diplomatic effort to find a regional solution, U.S. partners refused to participate.
Though well suited to splashy successes — or at least the tweetable impression of them — a tactical-transactional approach blinds the president to the second- and third-order effects of his actions, making sound strategy nearly impossible.
Second, the Trump foreign policy is characterized by a zero-sum worldview: Every win for another country is a loss for the United States, and Washington’s best bet is to out-negotiate both allies and adversaries at every turn. Cooperation, according to the perspective explicitly articulated by top advisors H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, emerges only when narrow self-interests exactly align.
In an illustration of this principle, on his fourth day in office, Trump signed an executive order that withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. He did so after expressing a series of deep misunderstandings about the TPP’s likely impact on jobs and wages, its power over U.S. decision-making, and its inability to deal with Chinese and Japanese currency manipulation. In its place, Trump has promised to “fix” America’s trade relations with all of its trading partners through bilateral deals. “Wait till you see what we’re going to do on trade,” Trump boasted this week to the New York Times, without offering any supporting details (as always). Meanwhile, the TPP, the text of which overwhelmingly reflected American preferences, is now being redrafted without American participation; meanwhile, China is advancing its own trade agenda through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
The zero-sum perspective even extends to U.S. allies, which the president views more as competitors than enduring strategic partners. Despite Seoul’s vital role in addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis — undoubtedly the national security issue atop Trump’s agenda — the president has threatened to terminate the American bilateral trade agreement with South Korea and tried to renege on the U.S. commitment to pay for the THAAD anti-missile defense system.
By ignoring the multidimensional nature of international politics and denying the value of reciprocity, this relentless unilateralism denies the United States critical cooperative tools in countering threats and seizing opportunities.
Finally, tactical transactionalism is devoid of moral or ethical considerations. President Trump has demonstrated an intuitive adoration for authoritarian leaders. In April, he praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a habitual human rights abuser, for doing a “fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” Later in the month, he called Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to congratulate him, telling the man behind the deaths of thousands of his own citizens: “I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem.… Keep up good work. You are doing an amazing job.” Perhaps most dramatically, he called North Korea’s Kim Jong Un a “pretty smart cookie,” whom he would be “honored” to meet.
Though it may enhance the unpredictability Trump prizes, a foreign policy unmoored from values results in a foreign policy oriented exclusively — and nihilistically — around pursuit of the “best deal.”
Over the past six months, in the wake of Trump’s cruise missile strikes in Syria and again with soaring speeches in Saudi Arabia and Poland, foreign-policy analysts have attempted to weave the administration’s actions into a coherent strategic doctrine. Senior administration officials are in on the game as well, with various factions vying to impose their strategic vision of “America First” in a bizarre, latter-day Kennan sweepstakes. But for all the op-ed ink that’s been spilled, these attempts are little more than a fool’s errand.
Even if analysts and advisors could impose intellectual coherence on Trump’s constellation of instincts and predilections, tactical transactionalism all but guarantees the inconsistent translation of those preferences into policy.
Even Trump’s well-documented antipathy toward American allies is not a reliable guide to his actual conduct of foreign relations: Despite decades of bashing both Japan and Germany, over the past six months, Trump has embraced Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who cleverly came bearing golden golf clubs to Trump Tower in New York last November — while spurning German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Moreover, the administration lacks the capacity to implement any strategic vision — particularly one that requires the use of non-hard-power tools. Military officials have wisely emphasized that lasting solutions to the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and even Yemen are primarily the responsibility and role of the State Department. But the State Department itself has been gutted and demoralized. The White House’s fiscal year 2018 budget request was a paltry $37.6 billion for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (a 33 percent decrease over the previous budget) and $639 billion for the Department of Defense (representing a 10 percent increase). Tillerson has also refused to fill an unprecedented number of senior diplomatic posts and ambassadorships, claiming that it would be pointless until the State Department had been fully reorganized.
To some extent, the inability of the Trump administration to develop and execute grand strategy has resulted in an astounding degree of continuity with Barack Obama-era foreign policies. Despite Trump’s pronouncement that Obama’s “strategic patience” with North Korea is over, the “peaceful pressure” policy is not discernibly distinct. Similarly, the administration’s still-secret strategy to defeat the Islamic State clearly entails tactical intensification but remains strategically similar to the Obama approach.
While surely desirable in some instances, stability is not necessarily the best response to a dynamic world. Without a grand strategy, the United States cannot seize the initiative on the world stage and, simply by default, will cede ground to hostile powers, as the effects of a reactive foreign policy accrue exponentially over time. The unpredictability that Trump prizes has already injected uncertainty into America’s alliances, as international partners question whether Washington can be trusted to uphold its security commitments. Around the world, public opinion is turning against the United States, and foreign capitals can be expected to reorient their foreign policies accordingly.
Come fall, the administration will likely release a wave of strategy documents, from the overarching National Security Strategy to more specific ones like the Nuclear Posture Review. These documents may provide the fleeting illusion of strategy, but they cannot elide a fundamental truth: So long as Trump’s tactical transactionalism governs the formation of U.S. foreign policy, the United States is condemned to be the object, rather than the agent, of history.
Rebecca Friedman Lissner is a Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Micah Zenko is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images