The Trump Doctrine


Given that Donald Trump continues to lead in polls for the Republican presidential nomination, it’s worth asking what kind of foreign policy he would implement if elected. Trump has set forth a surprisingly consistent view of foreign policy. If we treat his public statements seriously as a reflection of what he would do if elected, what emerges is a foreign policy that would be so cataclysmic for the United States that it might be impossible to undo the damage done.

Trump’s statements reflect a surprisingly consistent worldview — a Trump Doctrine. The current international system is held up by several key pillars, the most important of which are that states should be formally treated as equals; that all states should enjoy freedom of trade and navigation; that the distribution of resources should be driven by markets, and not by national governments; and that national sovereignty should generally be respected. This liberal order has proven durable because most countries think they get a fair deal under it and they tend to stand with the United States in upholding it against challengers. Trump’s foreign policy rejects these basic pillars of the international system that have helped ensure global stability.

If Trump were elected and acted on his promises, the United States would go from the defender of the liberal order to its main challenger. Trump’s foreign policy is the policy of a revisionist power that seeks to fundamentally rewrite the rules of the international system. Trump has promised to demand enormous concessions from U.S. allies in exchange for defending them and has pledged to upend the global trading system. He has proposed tariffs that would dramatically alter global trade patterns. Most dangerously, he would reject the idea that commodities like oil should be bought and sold freely on open markets. Instead, Trump would dramatically heighten the chances of a war between major powers by making control of oil a battleground for national governments.

Allies or Tributaries?

At the core of Trump’s foreign policy is his demand that U.S. allies shoulder a greater share of the burden for their defense. He has said the European countries need to take the lead in dealing with Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and criticized the terms of the U.S.–Japan alliance as being too favorable to Japan. Trump has reserved his harshest criticisms for South Korea. In 2011, Trump complained in a television interview that South Korea was making “hundreds of billions” in profit from the U.S. presence there and paying nothing in exchange. In 2013, Trump complained, “How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment? … When will they pay us?” Trump has reaffirmed during his campaign this year that he thinks South Korea needs to pay the United States more money to defend it.

Trump thinks of America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea, and its membership in NATO, as acts of charity. It seems that Trump has never considered the idea that it might be in America’s interest to maintain security alliances with other countries that help the United States defend the liberal order. Our allies provide basing rights for U.S. forces, and many of them provide substantial military forces that work with U.S. forces in hot spots around the world. Nor does Trump seem to have considered that these countries have other options aside from an alliance with the United States. South Korea’s trade with China is now double its trade with the United States and there is a risk that over time, the gravitational pull of China’s economy will draw South Korea into China’s orbit. Similarly, much of Europe depends on Russia for energy supplies, making it difficult for them to oppose Russia’s actions in Ukraine. A policy of making more demands of U.S. allies might push America’s allies into the arms of rival powers and it may not be possible for Trump’s successor to put these alliances back together.

The countries to which Trump wants to make more demands remain in the U.S. sphere of influence specifically because the United States carefully calibrates the demands it makes of them. The liberal order allows these countries to deal with the United States on formally equal terms and gives them security guarantees. In exchange, the United States ensures that its own security interests are protected and rival powers remain contained. By making more onerous demands on allies, Trump is changing the terms of the relationship and the rules of the international system. Trump doesn’t want allies. He wants tributaries.

Upending Global Trade Markets

Nothing Trump is proposing will do more to weaken America’s alliances than his stance on trade. Much of the benefit of having a strong relationship with the United States is having a trading relationship with the world’s largest economy and the world’s largest consumer market. Trump has made it abundantly clear that he is not a fan of free trade. Trump has accused China of cheating on trade and threatened to place retaliatory tariffs on Chinese goods. Trump has also made similar threats towards many American allies including promises of tariffs on goods from Mexico, Japan, and South Korea. In his 2011 book, Time to Get Tough, he proposed a 20-percent tariff on all imports.

If Trump were actually elected and started making greater demands of America’s allies on security issues while offering less in return, and at the same time slapping tariffs on imported goods from those same allies, he would find that the United States wouldn’t have many allies left. Trump’s promise to start a trade war would violate America’s existing treaty commitments and wreak havoc on the world economy, but it would also be a disaster for America’s alliance system.

Oil Conflicts

As much damage as Trump would do to America’s alliances, similarly reckless is his promise to is seize Iraq’s oil by force. In 2011, Donald Trump gave an interview to Bill O’Reilly during which he said the United States should not leave Iraq but should stay in order to “take the oil.” Trump now believes the United States should “take the wealth away” from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) by re-introducing ground troops and taking control of Iraq’s oil fields. Trump doesn’t limit his oil-seizure policy to Iraq, either. He has also said that the United States should not have intervened in Libya unless it was going to take that country’s oil.

If Trump’s proposals to restrict Muslim immigration are not enough to alienate America’s allies in the Muslim world, then surely his oil seizure policy will push them away. It is impossible to imagine the American-led coalition against ISIL remaining intact if Trump were to actually try to bring back 19th century-style colonialism. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it placed control of Iraq’s oil in the hands of the new Iraqi government. It was never proposed that the U.S. seize Iraq’s resources for itself. What Trump is proposing would be a radical departure from past U.S. policy in the region. If a U.S. president were willing to seize Iraq’s oil, there is no reason for countries like Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States to believe the United States would serve as a guarantor of their security, a role it has played for decades. A president who could seize Iraq’s or Libya’s oil is one who could seize Saudi or Kuwaiti oil just as easily. Given that Trump has (falsely) accused Saudi Arabia of funding ISIL and implied other Gulf States were doing the same, these countries would have legitimate reason to fear Donald Trump.

Even more threatened would be China. More than any other country, China has been the target of Trump’s threats on trade issues. If Trump were elected, they would find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having the Middle Eastern oil they depend on under the control of someone who has made clear he is willing to use any leverage he can to extract economic concessions from them. China would have every reason to fear that Trump would use oil as a political weapon against it and would have no choice but to find other ways of securing access to energy resources.

This would open a wide range of dangerous possibilities that today would be unthinkable. China might feel it has no choice but to make special arrangements with other oil producers in order to guarantee access to the oil it needs. China could make arrangements with the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Venezuela to provide those countries with security guarantees against an American attempt to seize their oil in exchange for guarantees of Chinese access to oil, bringing these countries into the orbit of a rival power to the United States. A scramble would be on to secure access to resources, with oil producers terrified they might be Trump’s next target and oil importers terrified they no longer would be able to guarantee access to oil through world markets. This would dramatically increase the chances of military conflict between the United States and other major oil-consuming countries, especially China.

Trump’s policy of seizing the Middle East’s oil would not defeat ISIL. Instead, it would shatter the anti-ISIL coalition and pose a major threat to oil producers and importers alike. The new energy order Trump would create would leave the world much less safe than it was before by significantly increasing the chances of confrontation between great powers over natural resources. Such an outcome would be inconceivable under the current rules of the international system.

The Trump Doctrine: Maximum Concessions from All

The Trump Doctrine is to try and extract maximum concessions out of each interaction with another country without regard to the effect this approach has on the broader international system. What Trump doesn’t realize is that it has been America’s unwillingness to take this maximalist approach that has ensured that other countries do not challenge the liberal order that has tremendously benefited the United States. Because other countries have a basic sense that the United States will deal with them fairly and will not try to dominate or bully them as a matter of course, most countries are perfectly happy to participate in the American-led world order.

Trump’s foreign policy shows none of the magnanimity that has encouraged other countries to forgo challenges to American primacy on the world stage. Instead, it would lead to a new order where major powers like the United States, Russia, and China are guided by the same principle that guided the Athenians in the Melian Dialogue during the Peloponnesian War: that the strong take what they can and the weak suffer what they must. This is a dangerous path to go down. After all, it was the Athenians who ended up losing the war and who did most of the suffering.


John Ford is a captain in the United States Army’s JAG Corps. The views expressed are his own and are not the official view of the U.S. Army. He has written previously in these pages on the Middle East. You can follow him on twitter @johndouglasford.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore