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The Slip That Revealed the Real Trump Doctrine
Talk of clashing civilizations reveals the racist, and dangerous, lens of the new U.S. statecraft.
For years, journalists, scholars, and Trump administration officials have tried to define a “Trump Doctrine” for a president whose scattershot approach to foreign policy defies easy categorization. Still, the effort continues, as when the State Department’s director of policy planning, Kiron Skinner, held a public talk about the topic with New America head Anne-Marie Slaughter at the think tank’s Future Security Forum on April 29.
In her exposition of the Trump Doctrine, Skinner zeroed in on what she viewed as the chief challenge for the United States. In one regard, her choice was uncontroversial: America’s relations with China. Her analysis of why that relationship would be fraught, however, blundered straight into trouble in a remark that immediately went viral: U.S. competition with China would be especially bitter, she argued, because “it’s the first time that we will have a great-power competitor that is not Caucasian.”
It would be tempting, but wrong, to dismiss this as just another racially charged comment from the administration. This was not a gaffe but a profound disclosure about how the Trump administration sees the world. To the extent that there is a Trump Doctrine, Skinner nailed it: It’s the belief that culture and identity are fundamental to whether great-power relations will be cooperative or conflictual.
Even if that belief ties the administration’s policies together, it’s inaccurate, flawed, and harmful. Viewing China as an essentially different civilization, whose rising power thus inherently threatens the United States, is a prescription for a needlessly aggressive and risky foreign policy.
The factual inaccuracies in the statement are glaringly obvious, so they’ve attracted a lot of attention. After all, even on Skinner’s own terms, China would not be the first nonwhite power to challenge the United States, given that America fought a war with Japan in the 1940s and during the 1780s struggled to meet the military challenge posed by organized native polities. America’s first formal overseas war was against the North African powers of the Barbary pirates.
Yet noting these errors is an exercise in fact-checking—dutiful but not really the point. Even if Skinner got some facts embarrassingly wrong, her argument could still rest on sound foundations. But it doesn’t. Her errors aren’t just mistakes but flow from the flaws in her core assumptions.
At the core of her defense was a provocative thesis: that Trump’s policies have forced scholars of international relations “to go back to first principles”—that the president has “ignited, or reignited, a theoretical debate within international relations about America’s role in the world and about a lot of concepts that we thought were settled.”
One might be tempted to dismiss that as flattery of the boss, except that Skinner has consistently argued that case. In 2016, for instance, she argued that Trump was bringing “man-on-the-street wisdom” to the foreign-policy debate—“albeit with all kinds of politically incorrect language.” And she made clear at the New America forum that she views her job as fleshing out Trump’s “hunches and instincts” into a diplomatic strategy rather than challenging the president’s tendency to tweet from the hip.
Most of her examples of how to realize Trump’s pronouncements—such as urging that U.S. foreign policy be made in the national interest—are banal. But some of them aren’t. That’s why it’s instructive that her most careful points came when discussing the 2017 National Security Strategy, helmed by former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. She offered the document’s recognition of the arrival of a new era of great-power competition a backhanded compliment: “The National Security Strategy was an important document early in the administration,” she said. But “we’ve evolved since then.”
Post-McMaster, she argued, the administration had distinguished Russia’s role as a great-power competitor from the “more fundamental threat” posed by China. McMaster, she implied, had let China policy be seized by finance and economic advisors in the White House who did not grasp the problem they were facing. Their focus on economics and trade, she argued, was “really a symptom of the China problem, which has deeper historical and strategic roots than we’ve really understood.”
An extraordinary threat requires an extraordinary response, one that the hidebound foreign-policy establishment couldn’t imagine. Someone unburdened by expertise, like Trump, could break out of that rut. And it was Skinner’s job as head of policy planning, “the only foreign-policy think tank in the federal government,” to backstop the president by providing the “intellectual architecture” for the Trump Doctrine.
That’s a bold but not outlandish boast. Earlier heads of policy planning, such as Slaughter herself or George F. Kennan, fulfilled exactly that mission. And Skinner made clear that she sees herself as a worthy heir: “I think State is in the lead in that broader attempt to get a Letter X for China, what Kennan wrote,” she said, combining Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram” and his 1947 “X Article” in Foreign Affairs, both of which laid out a vision for containing Soviet foreign policy.
If anything, Skinner views her task as greater than Kennan’s. The Cold War, she asserted, was “a huge fight within the Western family,” given that the Soviet Union rested on the thinking of Karl Marx and could claim a connection to broader strands of Western thinking. Consequently, Skinner argued, appeals to shared values, such as the human rights breakthrough of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, could have an influence on Moscow because of that shared heritage. Yet such strategies would not work against China because of its essential difference. “This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology,” Skinner said.
Her comment about China’s uniqueness as a nonwhite great power, then, wasn’t a stray observation, regrettable but analytically ignorable. Instead, it reflected her core, if implicit, thesis: that countries’ ability to cooperate resulted from their cultural compatibility. The Soviet Union, at its core, was literally familiar to the United States and the West. China is too alien. And thus there is no room for cooperation, only a choice of whether the United States or China will dominate the other.
This is a bold claim. It’s also wrong. And it’s not based on any evidence. Rather, it flows from deeply misguided assumptions about international relations—but those assumptions have proved extraordinarily seductive to many people. Even though Skinner’s choice of words attracted widespread condemnation, that is, they reflected a worldview that’s pervasive and powerful in mainstream American thinking (even if her terminology was archaic).
Slaughter immediately recognized those assumptions as akin to arguments made by Samuel P. Huntington in his 1993 essay (and later book) “The Clash of Civilizations?” Huntington argued that the post-Cold War world would see greater threats between civilizational groups. Those ideas found wide circulation during the 1990s and even more after 9/11.
More than 25 years later, the appeal of Huntington’s ideas seems at once intuitive and mystifying. Mystifying, because they proved such a poor guide to the conflicts that actually took place (not least because they failed to predict that there would be less, rather than more, conflict in the post-Cold War era). Intuitive, because Huntington’s essentialism makes for a neat tale—if you don’t look too hard.
The idea that civilizational lines distinguished friend from foe, after all, seems to fit with how many of us understand history. As scholars like Patrick Thaddeus Jackson have shown, though, the appeal of that hypothesis reflects more the fact that concepts like “Western civilization” are drawn and redrawn to fit the political needs of the moment.
After all, however comfortable the Cold War seems in retrospect, to the participants it seemed far from a family squabble. As the historian Eric Rauchway observed, many Americans, including President Herbert Hoover, were sufficiently racist as to view even the Russians as “Asiatic” during the Soviet period. That wasn’t just an idle assertion by Hoover, either: It formed the basis of his recommendation to President Harry Truman in May 1945 about how the United States should approach the Soviet Union in the postwar era.
Moreover, Kennan’s X Article stressed how the “pattern of Soviet power”—with the “iron discipline of the Party,” “the severity and ubiquity of the secret police,” and “the uncompromising economic monopolism of the state”—marked it as distinct from its democratic capitalist opponents. Others put the obvious distinction in cruder ways. In many ways, China shares these traits. The Chinese political, like the Soviet one, is Leninist—closer in its organization and ideology to Stalin’s vision than to any traditional Chinese past. There’s no clear bright line, despite Skinner’s claims.
Arguments like Huntington’s fare much better outside the university. Slaughter’s comment to Skinner was deeply cutting. When Slaughter was director of policy planning, she made a video expressly denying that any such clash existed. But having taught Huntington’s ideas in classrooms, I can attest that its easily grasped hypothesis appeals to a certain set of students who want a grand unifying theory of world politics. (That’s why I no longer teach Huntington: His account, however wrong, is so compelling that my efforts at debunking always fall short for at least some students.)
Yet the amateurs in the Trump administration (like the president himself) outnumber the professionals—and many of the top-level professionals, such as current National Security Advisor John Bolton, are probably cynical enough to let myths convenient to their agendas pass without challenge. The simple fact that The Clash of Civilizations became a best-seller suggests that ideas like Skinner’s really might find an audience. It might not be a large one, but it could be large enough.
There’s no doubt that contemporary China is a more complicated—and aggressive—challenge than a previous generation of U.S. policymakers expected. But that’s different from saying that Washington and Beijing can’t conduct normal (if high-stakes) diplomacy at all.
By creating an illusion of constant, unavoidable civilizational conflict, Skinner and the administration are pursuing a needlessly aggressive policy—and one that, by confirming Chinese hard-liners’ worst-case scenarios, risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Trump Doctrine really has resurrected civilizational thinking as its central plank, then the consequence could be sparking a rivalry that could risk civilization itself.