Trump’s Grand Strategy

Legacy matters these days. As President-elect Joe Biden is about to take office I thought it is worth my while to reflect on America’s leadership role in the world. How did Donald Trump fare with international relations? What happened to the immigration ban and withdrawal of U.S. military overseas? Is the world safer because of Trump’s ‘America First‘ rhetoric? This paper sheds light on the contrasting ideologies that governed U.S. foreign policy under Trump.

tl;dr

When a new President is elected in the United States, the first thing analysts do is define that President’s grand strategy; yet, naming Donald Trump’s grand strategy was a difficult task as his pre-election speeches often contradicted traditional US foreign policy norms. Trump’s ambiguous grand strategy combines two US foreign policy strategies: nationalism in the sense that his preference is for unilateral policies prioritising American interests, and a traditional foreign policy approach, as seen in the moves taken against China and Iran. Surprisingly, this grand strategy unintentionally contributes to cooperation in Eurasia, as actors like Russia, China, Turkey, India and the European Union continue to try to balance the threat from the United States instead of competing with each other, while smaller countries are reluctant to challenge the regional powers due to mistrust towards Trump.

Make sure to read the full paper titled Mixing Grand Strategies: Trump and International Security by Murat Ülgül at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03932729.2020.1786928 

Image credit: Barbara Kelley

When Donald Trump assumed office as 45th President of the United States the world was facing a known unknown. A mercurial real-estate developer and reality show entertainer was suddenly in a position to reshape America’s international relations. Until then, Trump’s political record consisted of commentary on current affairs and one failed attempt to run for President in 2000. His business record was strained with few successful real estate developments in New York City and a number of unsuccessful business ventures in different industries.  

Historically U.S. foreign policy is set by the President. Entire presidencies rested on a sophisticated strategy to secure American interests at home and abroad. Following WWII the United States adopted a foreign policy of primacy, which according to Patrick Porter branches into a grand strategy of 

  1. Military preponderance 
  2. Allied relationships  
  3. Proliferation of U.S. capitalism 
  4. Absolute control of nuclear (power) weapons

However Trump’s world views stand in stark contrast with that of previous administrations. His nationalistic rhetoric of ‘America First’ struck a chord in harmony with authoritarian dictatorships. It created concerns among democratic nations whether President Trump would continue to invest into alliances and build amicable relationships or if he would lead the United States into isolationism. His chaotic leadership style had many scholars speculate whether Trump would recognize the power imbalance between America’s allies and Russia or China. It raised questions whether Make America Great Again rhetoric meant a complete withdrawal from the international stage and mark a pivot point in America’s pursuit of primacy as its grand strategy. 

“Grand strategy can be defined as a great power’s roadmap to realising its long-term objectives with its actual and/or potential resources”

In this paper, Murat Ülgül reframes the analysis of Trump’s grand strategy by focusing on the complementary elements of a nationalist traditionalism rather than its competing positions. Unlike other scholars have suggested, Trump’s grand strategy is not exclusive continuity of previous “business as usual”. Albeit divisive in rhetoric throughout his pre-election years and time in office, his grand strategy cannot be viewed as raw isolationism. Moreover Ülgül makes a case for a combination of nationalism and traditionalism. Nationalism can be observed in the character and image of Donald Trump himself. Traditionalism leaves its mark in Trump’s choices for his national security advisors, e.g. Michael Flynn, H. R. McMaster and John Bolton, which had gained significant influence over Trump throughout the course of his presidency. This unique but ambiguous combination appears to mitigate the negative effects of each individual strategy. Both are conflict-prone strategies yet the rate of international conflicts has steadily decreased during Trump’s tenure. America First has led the United States to a delayed or complete disengagement from international contests. All the while his administration is running a traditional, hawkish narrative that has led foreign powers known for the pursuit of authoritarian objectives to cooperate and resolve their disagreements with America’s allies against a potential fallout from the United States. In other words, the administration continues to influence global policy without military leverage or engagement. Nevertheless its impact is waning. As a result of this grand strategy, the United States has suffered some reputational damage for fewer countries retained faith into America’s ability to manage international relations or to be a beacon of democracy. 

While this paper goes into more depth than I can summarize here, I found this idea of a mixed grand strategy not as new as the paper suggests. Prior to WWII, the United States practiced a calibrated offshore balancing. In 2016, Stephen Walt suggested a deliberate withdrawal from conflict areas in favor of an intentional engagement of strategic partners. Walt’s propositions imply an element of deliberation of U.S. foreign policy which never seemed to register with Trump, but it helps in finding Ülgül’s argument even more convincing. It further helps to see some positive from this oddball presidency as he disappears from the international (relations) stage.    

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