The president believes that the United States owes nothing to anyone—especially its allies.
Many of Donald Trump’s critics find it difficult to ascribe to a president they consider to be both subliterate and historically insensate a foreign-policy doctrine that approaches coherence. A Trump Doctrine would require evidence of Trump Thought, and proof of such thinking, the argument goes, is scant. This view is informed in part by feelings of condescension, but it is not meritless. Barack Obama, whose foreign-policy doctrine I studied in depth, was cerebral to a fault; the man who succeeded him is perhaps the most glandular president in American history. Unlike Obama, Trump possesses no ability to explain anything resembling a foreign-policy philosophy. But this does not mean that he is without ideas.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve asked a number of people close to the president to provide me with short descriptions of what might constitute the Trump Doctrine. I’ve been trying, as part of a larger project, to understand the revolutionary nature of Trump’s approach to world affairs. This task became even more interesting over the weekend, when Trump made his most ambitious move yet to dismantle the U.S.-led Western alliance; it becomes more interesting still as Trump launches, without preparation or baseline knowledge, a complicated nuclear negotiation with a fanatical and bizarre regime that quite possibly has his number.
Trumpian chaos is, in fact, undergirded by a comprehensible worldview, a number of experts have insisted. The Brookings Institution scholar (and frequent Atlanticcontributor) Thomas Wright argued in a January 2016 essay that Trump’s views are both discernible and explicable. Wright, who published his analysis at a time when most everyone in the foreign-policy establishment considered Trump’s candidacy to be a farce, wrote that Trump loathes the liberal international order and would work against it as president; he wrote that Trump also dislikes America’s military alliances, and would work against them; he argued that Trump believes in his bones that the global economy is unfair to the U.S.; and, finally, he wrote that Trump has an innate sympathy for “authoritarian strongmen.”
Wright was prophetic. Trump’s actions these past weeks, and my conversations with administration officials and friends and associates of Trump, suggest that the president will be acting on his beliefs in a more urgent, and focused, way than he did in the first year of his presidency, and that the pace of potentially cataclysmic disruption will quicken in the coming days. And so, understanding Trump’s foreign-policy doctrine is more urgent than ever.
The third-best encapsulation of the Trump Doctrine, as outlined by a senior administration official over lunch a few weeks ago, is this: “No Friends, No Enemies.” This official explained that he was not describing a variant of the realpolitik notion that the U.S. has only shifting alliances, not permanent friends. Trump, this official said, doesn’t believe that the U.S. should be part of any alliance at all. “We have to explain to him that countries that have worked with us together in the past expect a level of loyalty from us, but he doesn’t believe that this should factor into the equation,” the official said.
The second-best self-description of the Trump Doctrine I heard was this, from a senior national-security official: “Permanent destabilization creates American advantage.” The official who described this to me said Trump believes that keeping allies and adversaries alike perpetually off-balance necessarily benefits the United States, which is still the most powerful country on Earth. When I noted that America’s adversaries seem far less destabilized by Trump than do America’s allies, this official argued for strategic patience. “They’ll see over time that it doesn’t pay to argue with us.”
The best distillation of the Trump Doctrine I heard, though, came from a senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking. I was talking to this person several weeks ago, and I said, by way of introduction, that I thought it might perhaps be too early to discern a definitive Trump Doctrine.
“No,” the official said. “There’s definitely a Trump Doctrine.”
What is it?, I asked. Here is the answer I received:
“The Trump Doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch.’ That’s the Trump Doctrine.”
It struck me almost immediately that this was the most acute, and attitudinally honest, description of the manner in which members of Trump’s team, and Trump himself, understand their role in the world.
I asked this official to explain the idea. “Obama apologized to everyone for everything. He felt bad about everything.” President Trump, this official said, “doesn’t feel like he has to apologize for anything America does.” I later asked another senior official, one who rendered the doctrine not as “We’re America, Bitch” but as “We’re America, Bitches,” whether he was aware of the 2004 movie Team America: World Police, whose theme song was “America, Fuck Yeah!”
“Of course,” he said, laughing. “The president believes that we’re America, and people can take it or leave it.”
“We’re America, Bitch” is not only a characterologically accurate collective self-appraisal—the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence—but it is also perfectly Rorschachian. To Trump’s followers, “We’re America, Bitch” could be understood as a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world, one that no longer respects American power and privilege. To much of the world, however, and certainly to most practitioners of foreign and national-security policy, “We’re America, Bitch” would be understood as self-isolating, and self-sabotaging.
I’m not arguing that the attitude underlying “We’re America, Bitch” is without any utility. There are occasions—the 1979 Iran hostage crisis comes to mind—in which a blunt posture would have been useful, or at least ephemerally satisfying. President Obama himself expressed displeasure—in a rhetorically controlled way—at the failure of American allies to pay what he viewed as their fair share of common defense costs. And I don’t want to suggest that there is no place for self-confidence in foreign-policy making. The Iran nuclear deal was imperfect in part because the Obama administration seemed, at times, to let Iran drive the process. One day the Trump administration may have a lasting foreign-policy victory of some sort. It is likely that the North Korea summit will end, if not disastrously, then inconclusively. But there is a slight chance that it could mark the start of a useful round of negotiations. And I’m not one to mock Jared Kushner for his role in the Middle East peace process. There is virtually no chance of the process succeeding, but the great experts have all tried and failed, so why shouldn’t the president’s son-in-law give it a shot?
But what is mainly interesting about “We’re America, Bitch” is its delusional quality. Donald Trump is pursuing policies that undermine the Western alliance, empower Russia and China, and demoralize freedom-seeking people around the world. The United States could be made weaker—perhaps permanently—by the implementation of the Trump Doctrine.
The administration officials, and friends of Trump, I’ve spoken with in recent days believe the opposite: that Trump is rebuilding American power after an eight-year period of willful dissipation. “People criticize [Trump] for being opposed to everything Obama did, but we’re justified in canceling out his policies,” one friend of Trump’s told me. This friend described the Trump Doctrine in the simplest way possible. “There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘Fuck Obama’ Doctrine,” he said. “We’re the ‘Fuck Obama’ Doctrine.”