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Look out, here comes the Trump Doctrine

Look out, here comes the Trump Doctrine
  (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

As we head into this week’s NATO summit, a Trump Doctrine seems to be emerging.

“Doctrines, like submarines, tend to be launched with fanfare,” the late Charles Krauthammer famously wrote in 1984. Presidents James Monroe, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter unveiled their doctrines in grand addresses.

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The Reagan Doctrine, a term coined by Krauthammer, emerged as a “footnote” buried in Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union address: “We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth . . . Support for freedom fighters is self-defense."

The Trump Doctrine is taking form in a series of tweets, glandular outbursts at press conferences and a series of seemingly inchoate policy rollouts.

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Last month, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation), asked a number of Trump aides what the tagline of the Trump Doctrine might be. The winning entry: “We’re America, bitch.” I don’t think that’s quite it.

Another contender, offered by a senior national security official: “Permanent destabilization creates American advantage.” That’s closer.

The Big Man personifies the national will and constraints on the national will are for suckers.


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President Trump and his biggest supporters see the president as the Great Disruptor. The “globalist” world order — on trade, military alliances, sanction regimes etc. — has not served America’s interests, and Trump is like Samson pulling down the pillars that hold up the Temple of Dagon, the shrine of the Philistines. Though, in their telling, he will escape the debris.

A White House spokesman recently said Trump will tell NATO allies that the U.S. cannot be “the world’s piggy bank” any longer. This is one of the president’s favorite phrases of late. Last month at the G-7 summit in Canada, Trump said America has been “the piggy bank that everybody is robbing.”

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On NATO, Trump has a point. Previous administrations have hectored our allies to pull their weight on our common defense. However, it’s not always clear the president understands how NATO works. He often makes it sound like NATO is a country club and its members are in arrears. Last year he said that “many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years.”

That’s misleading. Direct spending on NATO is almost inconsequential (we spend about $500 million out of $600 billion, or 0.08% of our defense budget). The real money is in what NATO members are supposed to dedicate to their defense budgets. Many members have fallen short of the 2% minimum they all agreed to. That’s been turning around, however, since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

When it comes to trade, the piggy bank analogy is even more muddled. To listen to the president, a trade surplus with the U.S. amounts to robbing America of billions of dollars. That’s not how trade works.

The unifying argument underlying Trump’s positions on trade, alliances and particularly immigration is that the world is playing us for suckers. That’s why Trump constantly insists that the “world is laughing at us” because of our “weak” immigration laws.

Trump, whose id controls his understanding of policy, seems to think our allies are like members of his entourage picking his pocket. NATO, he says, is “worse than NAFTA” and the European Union was created “to take advantage of the United States.” (It wasn’t).

Meanwhile, even as Trump treats allied leaders such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Germany’s Angela Merkel like punching bags, he has gone to great lengths to praise and defend authoritarians in Russia, Turkey, China, the Philippines and elsewhere. At least such leaders are “strong,” he often says. Trump genuflects at the sovereign inviolability of national borders, but even that goes out the window when it comes to Crimea’s borders. Because Putin is “strong.”

The Trump Doctrine, in short, is simply the international relations analogue to the domestic version of Trumpism. The Big Man personifies the national will and constraints on the national will are for suckers. Self-interest, personally defined, is inherently in conflict with collective interest. It’s Make America Great Again on a global scale. One problem: The world was not that great when everybody followed this doctrine.

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