Small Wars Journal

Trump’s Foreign Policy Philosophy Hard to Pin Down

Trump’s Foreign Policy Philosophy Hard to Pin Down

Masood Farivar, Voice of America

Is President-elect Donald Trump a foreign policy realist or idealist? Is he bringing Richard Nixon’s hard-edged realpolitik to his foreign policy or following in the footsteps of the more idealistic Ronald Reagan?

The question has become a parlor game among Washington's policy pundits.

Trump’s frequent invocation of Reagan’s “peace through strength” mantra and campaign pledge to rebuild America’s “depleted” military has invited comparisons to the Republican icon credited with winning the Cold War.

His advocacy of a foreign policy based on America’s national interests has led some to liken it to Nixonian realism, while his aversion to foreign interventions has won him the label of a non-interventionist and even isolationist.

Don’t Fence Trump In​

Trump has professed no great power doctrine and his advisers discourage applying labels to his vision of the world.

“I’m not going to be put into the little academic, graduate school box because I think it doesn’t suit, and it doesn’t apply in a rapidly changing world,” said K.T. McFarland, Trump’s incoming deputy national security adviser, when asked to describe the Trump doctrine.

While Trump’s call for “peace through strength” reflects Reagan’s view of deterrence, “there are parts of Nixon and (Henry) Kissinger that Donald Trump has also advocated,” McFarland said at the U.S. Institute of Peace, alluding to Trump’s interest-based approach to world affairs.

Trump’s Speeches

A foreign policy neophyte, Trump has shied away from declaring any grand foreign strategy during the campaign, though he did give two major speeches devoted to foreign policy and national security.

In the first speech, delivered at the realist-leaning Center for the National Interest in Washington in April, Trump outlined what he called a “coherent foreign policy based on American interests” and called for “getting out of nation building,” creating stability and quashing “radical Islam.”

“Containing the spread of radical Islam must be a major foreign policy goal of the United States and indeed the world,” Trump said. “Events may require the use of military force, but it’s also a philosophical struggle, like our long struggle in the Cold War.”

In the second speech, at Youngstown University in Ohio in August, Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric about terror, warning countries around the world that they’d be judged based on their commitment to the U.S. goal of fighting terrorism.

“All actions should be oriented around this goal, and any country which shares this goal will be our ally,” Trump told a rally of supporters.

‘Strategic Surprise’

It was a theme that Trump would repeat, in one iteration or another, throughout the campaign, but his advisers say Trump’s pre- and post-election pronouncements on foreign policy, often delivered off the cuff, should not be read as policy prescriptions.

“Actually, he didn’t say a lot about foreign policy and national security on the campaign trail, and what he did say really doesn’t add up to a policy,” said James Carafano, director of foreign policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation who advises the Trump transition team on foreign affairs. “That’s very frustrating because the people want to know what’s this guy going to do.”

With the new administration yet to take office, McFarland, too, cautioned that Trump’s foreign policy is in an early stage of development.

“That’s what a new administration does: It takes time to rethink things and to come up with policies,” she said.

If history is any guide, Trump could quickly find himself facing a set of foreign policy crises different from the issues he campaigned on. Political scientists have a term for an unexpected world event that drives a new president into uncharted territory: “strategic surprise.”

For former President George W. Bush, who campaigned on pursuing a “humble foreign policy,” the strategic surprise came September 11, 2001.

For President Barack Obama, who vowed to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the “Arab Spring” protests in North Africa and the Middle East marked a strategic surprise, leaving his administration more deeply mired in the region than he’d hoped.

What international crisis might alter the trajectory of the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda has become a guessing game, with the number of scenarios exceeded only by the variety of foreign policy labels attributed to Trump.

A game-changing terrorist attack on American interests is one possible candidate. Another contender: an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launch by North Korea.

“I think the world is not necessarily going to allow President Trump to do everything he’s planned on,” said Blaise Misztal, director of the national security program at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “I think you’re going to see a triangulation between what he’s said, what he’s advised to do, and what is actually feasible on the world stage.”

Flip Flopping on Issues

While Trump has flip flopped on some issues, NATO and torturing terrorists, for example, he’s held steady on others. Among them: terrorism, trade, China and Russia.

In the weeks since his election, he’s reiterated his pledge to make terrorism a focus of his foreign policy, talked tough on trade, challenged the “One China” policy, and iterated again a desire to reset relations with Russia even as he embraced intelligence findings that Moscow interfered in last year’s presidential election.

Brian Katulis of Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, said the “most radical shift” Trump will likely undertake will be “engagement and involvement” with Russia, something Obama unsuccessfully attempted during his first term in office.

But former CIA director Michael Hayden said Trump is likely to reconsider his approach to Russia once he learns from intelligence agencies and allies that Russia and Syria are not committed to fighting IS.

“I’m personally very, very skeptical of any convergence between American and Russian interests in this part of the world,” Hayden said. “In fact, I’d offer the view that American and Russian interests are actually heading in different directions.”

Another major change: downplaying a postwar American foreign policy tradition of promoting democracy and freedom around the world.

“Trump has signaled as a candidate and in the transition a proclivity to appreciate authoritarian and repressive leaders around the world,” Katulis said. “And this may be the biggest departure that is historic, that there really won’t be as much of a values-based approach that focuses on human rights democracy and freedom in other countries. And that I think puts the United States itself on shaky territory.”

But McFarland played down those concerns, saying “the three bedrocks of (postwar) American foreign policy” — American leadership, American values and international alliances — will remain under the Trump administration.


There is usually some continuity between administrations on foreign policy, but “that rule actually may not apply under Trump,” Katulis said.

“We’re dealing with something here that is just fundamentally different and off the charts,” Katulis explained.

That 'something' is Trump’s well-known unpredictability. Trump has criticized President Obama for telegraphing his policy moves and has vowed to remain unpredictable. But experts say unpredictability can be dangerous in the international arena where both allies and adversaries expect a certain degree of predictability from the United States.

"Predictability is the cornerstone of deterrence," said Clarke. "You need to be predictable if you’re the United states, both in what your allies know you’ll do and in what your adversaries know you’ll do and how you’ll respond."


Outlaw 09

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 5:24am

THIS sums up the Trump FP....and that of his merry band of WH brothers....

Trump means nothing he says

NATO "no longer obsolete...America has the best friends & the best allies in the world"

Outlaw 09

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 4:55am

SO will Trump now launch TLAMs again due to this massive disregard for international humanitarian law by both Assad and Putin????

Seriously doubt it.....

NOTICE ...not a single word out of this Trump WH......

Videos & photograph evidence from NW Syria show Assad regime/Russia using prohibited incendiary weapons. Via @hrw

Incendiary weapons, as the term is understood in international humanitarian law (IHL) describes weapons that act mainly through fire and heat. Napalm and white phosphorous are probably the best known incendiary substances used in incendiary weapons.

The #Kremlin regime air force dropped incendiary bombs in #KafrNaha yesterday night.
Now, #Anadan is bombed.

The #Kremlin regime air force hit Urem al-Kubra w/incendiary bombs last night, setting the town on fire.

An #Assad Mi-8 helicopter dropped this #BarrelBomb on #KafrHama.
DUD or possibly gas.

Getting reports of a Chlorine attack on #KafrZita (#Hama).
Unconfirmed so far.
Heavy #Assad attacks on it now!

Outlaw 09

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 4:11am

WELL worth rereading...and rereading again....LEAST we forget who the Russians are actually supporting these days in Syria..

The Assad Regime’s Collusion With ISIS and al-Qaeda: Assessing The Evidence. @KyleWOrton

As late as 2012 Iraqi state officials were complaining publicly about Assad's support for IS and Ba'ath insurgents

Here, in Sept. 2009,…- … in 18 months, Assad had a Damascus moment? Then released jihadists? Doesn't take a genius.

2016: case finds Assad liable for the 2005 Amman bombings.
"but Bashar is secular! he fights terrorists!"

2008: U.S Court finds Assad and his Intel liable for IS beheading two Americans in 2004.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 4:07am

EXTREMELY IMPORTANT...this is the fourth confirmed YPG/PKK deliberately misdirected US CAS which hit either friendly units and or Syrian IDPs....killing over a hundred and wounding far more than killed....

Major Arab Brigade withdraws from #Raqqa #Tabqah front following @CJTFOIR airstrike which killed 17 fighters, blame #YPG 4 wrong coordinates

SO now there are no Arab units within SDF for the US to claim that their attack on Raqqa will strictly involve Arab units...not Kurdish Communist PKK units...

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 12:47pm

After Manafort discovers that he had failed to register as a foreign agent which carries a five year sentence and a 250K fine...others are now racing to register.....

WASHINGTON (AP) — Lobbyists directed by Manafort's firm in covert influence campaign register with US gov't under foreign agents law.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 5:20am

Japanese MSM is now reporting that NK is moving a large number of troops to southern border region....

In addition reports yesterday of China moving 150K troops into NK border region....and Russian announcing a total snap mobilization of far eastern troop units along the NK border region...

China urges all parties to be constructive over Korea issue, says situation is very dangerous

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 5:17am

AP was able to prove Manafort’s firm received at least $1.2mln in payments that match entries from Ukraine’s Black Ledgers.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Records show former Trump campaign chairman Manafort got payments detailed in a once-secret ledger he suggested was fake.

Here comes that CI investigation and it is getting ever closer to Trump and his merry WH band of brothers...

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 3:55am

How is that Trump statement..."I am going to eradicate IS from the face of the earth thingy getting along"????

FSA battle against IslamicState in Yarmouk Basin /south western Syria without any help by US Pentagon

Maybe others are fighting IS BUT Trump and his merry WH band of brothers is certainly not as IS is still deeply entrenched in Syria.......

Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 1:39pm

U.S. asks G7 ministers why it should care about Ukraine conflict

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault says U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson has openly questioned why "American taxpayers" should be concerned about Ukraine, which has been racked by a separatist conflict for the last three years, according to Reuters. Politics 20:04, 11 April 2017 57 READ LATER REUTERS Ayrault told reporters he had replied: "It is in the interests of the U.S. taxpayers to have a Europe that is secure and is strong politically and economically ... You don't want a weak Europe, broken into bits and feeble," Reuters wrote. Tillerson posed the question at a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations. The former oil executive flew to Russia immediately after the gathering and was not immediately available for comment. Read alsoTillerson: Russia must choose between Assad and U.S. – mediaThe new U.S. administration under President Donald Trump has indicated it might be less engaged on the international stage than some of its predecessors, telling its allies that it would put U.S. interests first. In its closing communique, the G7 said a Ukraine ceasefire agreement, struck in Minsk in 2015, had not been fully implemented, adding that Russia was not doing enough to help restore peace.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 12:30am

Days at a golf course during first 81 days as president:
Trump: 17
Obama: 0
Bush: 0
Clinton: 3

THIS is the same person that loudly critiqued Obama for playing golf when he was President and who "sworn" he would do the people's business and remain in the WH if he was President????

Must have been all lies....

Outlaw 09

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 11:48pm

How do you push a specific FP when you are constantly confronted with Russian connections and nepotism charges....??

Eric Trump: “Is that nepotism? Absolutely.

Is that also a beautiful thing?

Absolutely.” "Family business is a beautiful thing."

Admitting nepotism actually exists is actually a federal ethnics violation inside the WH.....

BUT WAIT...those Russian connection charges are valid and still working their way through the FBI...

Arrest in Spain of Levashov–spam botnet cyber criminal who hacked Estonia–means US is unraveling #Russia's election hack.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 4:08am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Russia also alerted 10 brigades in the far east and Siberia yesterday

BUT a massive development not being reported in DC....

Cossacks regret earlier decision giving Trump honorary status. 'It was a mistake.' So, Trump is no longer a Cossack.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 2:29pm

HEADS UP.the Chinese were just in FL visiting Trump....just maybe that Trump decision to move a carrier attack fleet near NK has been just countered by China....

Stock slides as reports of 150 000 Chinese troops amassing on the North Korean border are coming out.… 

Note please note that these reports are unconfirmed, but quite telling that even Nasdaq is sharing it.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 3:02pm

Prominent Trump supporter tweeted about the attack an hour before the attack

Just days after Donald Trump Jr. suggested he be given a Pulitzer Prize, Cernovich tweeted, “Sources telling me U.S. attack in Syria planned for tonight, we must stop! #NoMoreWar,” at 7:40 pm Eastern time, an hour and a half before NBC News broke the news of the airstrike.

HE THEN started retweeting the Russian propaganda twitter hashtag....#Syrianhoax which began first from a proAssad twitter source...

SO who leaked this classified event?????

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 2:37pm

AND that "special US/UK relationship"......??????

UK tourists to US may get asked to hand in passwords or be denied entry

American tourists to Europe should be prepared for similar actions as well as the coming visa requirements as passed by the EU recently...

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 11:15am

Love affair over?

Russian TV's Kiselev: "Trump has made a 180 degree turn.

He's definitely not the same figure, that was once so liked"

Russia's state TV: "The #Kremlin already noticed the change in words and deeds of the new American administration.

Changes for the worse."

Russia's state TV re: Syria strikes:

"Actions of a neophyte, with no victories, defeats or any experience in int'l politics under his belt."

Russia's state TV re: US strikes in #Syria:

"If Trump continues to act this way towards Russia, there's no way he'll get along with Putin."

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 7:39am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Charles Lister‏
Verified account

Some Syria analysts defiantly insist that the West cannot/should not try to help push the crisis towards conditions amenable to settlement.

The default policy conclusion for these analysts is that we should *only* fight terrorism, while allowing broader conflict to continue.

In other words, the US should kill the 'bad guys,’ while allowing the foundational justification for 'bad guys’ to get bigger & bigger.

By extension, this also means that 5yrs more war in Syria (say, 250,000 more dead…) is essentially an acceptable policy reality for us.

Has 3yrs of fighting terror while allowing its root causes to fester worked? No.
Has U.S indecision & perceived weakness helped?

Some of these analysts insolently dismiss others’ opinions, while consistently offering *nothing* as an alternative.
= Sheer hypocrisy

Besides being heartless, policy positions based on defeatist isolationism only makes an even greater future intervention more likely.

Only days/wks ago, these analysts dismissed *any* US military action in #Syria as lunacy.
Now suddenly, it’s become a matter of scale.

I can’t blame an analyst for evolving their assessment of a situation, but seriously have some humility.
Some humanity would help too.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 7:08am

AND Trump was against "regime change"...was he not during the campaign????

Trump's U.N. envoy says ouster of al-Assad is a priority of U.S.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 3:01am

Obama’s travel expenses were $97m over eight years. Trump is already at $23m after only 10 weeks.… 

REMEMBER this is the same man who in a public interview is available...who stated..."he thought he as President could actually make money.......

REMEMBER a large amount of these "expenses" flows as profits to his Trump Tower and his FL resort....

REMEMBER this is the same man who cheered his base on with the mantra..."send me to DC to drain the swamp"....well right now he is the swamp....

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/08/2017 - 3:49pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

U.S. strikes destroyed Syrian means to deliver chemical weapons: admiral

BUT not incendiary cluster munitions....

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/08/2017 - 3:47pm

Towns in #Hama and #Idlib provinces are burning hells now. 

The criminal regimes of #Assad and #Putin perform large-scale incendiary bomb attacks now!

Wave of #AssadPutin #WhitePhosphorus attacks his towns around #KhanShaykhun.
#Lataminah hit shortly ago!

S. #Idlib: more pictures of #RuAF incendiary attack on Tell As-Sayad in Khan Sheikhoun periphery tonight.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/08/2017 - 3:05pm

RUSSIA drops chemical weapons (incendiary ammunition) on Syrian women and children NOW.
What you gonna do, @POTUS?!

Russian incendiary bomb attacks on villages in #Hama province.

Hama: #Russia|n warplanes bombing civilians in Northern #Hama with thermite bombs this evening.

Daraa : Regime helicopters have dropped 36 barrel bombs on the liberated neighborhoods of the city so far today.

Injured and dying children after intense #AssadPutin air strikes on #Daraa city. 

US 'disappointed' by Russia's support for Syria's Assad

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/08/2017 - 12:04am

Overall Syrian strike was a Trump FP fluke...driven by photos not solid well thought through strategy....a simple tactical response....that he hoped would send messages..what exactly is anyone's guess as he gave both the Russians and Syrian plenty of time to clear out...

Trump has made 367 false claims in 77 days. On two of three days he did not make false claims, he played golf. 

Outlaw 09

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 8:31am

Kushner Omitted Meeting With Russians on Security Clearance Forms
Being reported by NYTs.....

He evidently left off of his SF86 security form his many meetings with the Russian Ambassador and a Russian banker....

As one who regularly handles cases and teaches security clearance practices, this is incredibly significant.

I have represented hundreds of clearance cases and routinely see individuals who fail to report foreign contacts lose classified access.

Not to mention lose their jobs over omissions such as this, especially when it involves hostile foreign government officials/spies.

Section 20 of the SF-86 is quite clear on what it asks. No mistaking that #Kushner's foreign mtgs were REQUIRED to have been reported

Outlaw 09

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 11:52am

The White Helmets‏ 

3rd joint report between SCD & Idleb health directorate in regards to Khan Shaykhun chemical attack. 84 killed (27kids & 19wmn), 546 injured

Mixture of chlorine and sarin was used....

#Israel thought she was out from under the shadow of chemical WMD after the 2013 "deal" in #Syria. Now realizes that that was a mistake.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 11:45am

This is why #Assad must go. There needs to be outrage. This needs to be a priority. Otherwise, we have lost our compass as a nation.

US Senator Rubio...

The death toll from #KhanSheikhoun chemical attack continues to rise - now at 83 dead in total, including:

- 28 children
- 19 women

Turkey Justice Minister:

- "Autopsies" of bodies “confirms that chemical weapons were used” in #KhanSheikhoun.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 5:28am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

The look of this father carrying his two killed by gas small children after the chemical attack in Syria encompasses all of the injustice of this world in one single photo that never made US MSM.....

Photo on Syrian thread.

There was no US leadership under Obama for Syria and it will be even worse under Trump wants to support both Putin and Assad....and has repeatedly stated such a desire....

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 4:59am

AND the Trump WH FP response to this is again exactly what....silence as they have no FP to speak of for anything other than "America First" or MARGA......

Lithuania report: Russia is suppressing radio frequencies used by NATO pilots over the Baltic Sea… 

On the picture #Russian army latest top secret EW station 1РЛ257 Красуха-4 spotted in #Donetsk in 2014

As of December 2013 ONLY **TEN** 1РЛ257 "Красуха-4" ever was manufactured. It was meant for support to strategic air force.

1РЛ257 "Красуха-4" is meant to be deployed in strategically important advance regions to heavy air reconnaissance areas.

1РЛ257 "Красуха-4" is still considered highly classified equipment. It's exact deployment in army units is classified. Radius - over 300 km.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 4:29am

Turkish Ministry of Health has confirmed the chemical attack.....

Trkischer Gesundheitsminister besttigt Chemiewaffen-Angriff in Idlib.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 4:08am

War crimes like today’s CW attack in Khan Sheikhoun


International inaction/indifference

= Immeasurable boost to Al-Qaeda (HTS) in Syria.

We can fight ISIS all we want, but our indifference to Syria’s broader conflict (the **root cause**) = unending instability & terrorism.

Five more years of this and it will rival VN war....

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 4:06am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Almost total silence from former #Obama admin officials who previously celebrated the “success” of the US-#Russia CW deal in #Syria.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 4:04am

From a well known ME SME.....

Charles Lister‏
Verified account
 @Charles_Lister 12h
12 hours ago

Sadly, I’d say these 2 #Trump admin responses to today’s CW attack in #Syria are even weaker than those that came during #Obama times.

Trump needs to pay attention to this development from a FP perspective which you currently do not have yet for the ME....

Rebels now ensuring news media gets in nerve attack areas....

Ahrar al-Sham has made formal arrangements with #Turkey (TSK & MIT) to guarantee Western journalists cross-border access into #Idlib

Ahrar al-Sham is the principal opposition force in Khan Sheikhoun - which was hit by a chemical (suspected nerve agent) attack today

Ahrar al-Sham claims that it will provide personal security to individual Western journalists & 24/7 security escort service to crews.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 3:52am is that Trump view of the era of great American trade deals coming along...???

Exclusive: China's Great Wall Motor eyes plant in Mexico states hit by Trump - sources

Everywhere Trump pulls out of on trade the vacuum will be filled by EU or China and or both...and who loses....US workers and exporters....

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 3:48am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Flynn flipped

Sessions recused

Carter met spy

Mercenary as Russian secret back channel

FBI CI/Criminal investigations

Dead Russian diplomats

Trump: "It's all fake news"

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 3:46am

Current German MSM comment on US FP in Syria......

The Obama government was quiet and weak.

The Trump government is loud and weak.

THERE is no effective US leadership to be seen globally anywhere right now on any FP issue.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 12:31am

Did anyone hear the "racist dog whistles"......

A lie and a dogwhistle: Trump says "nobody ever saw anything being built" with Obama Recovery Act funds, " they used it on social programs."

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 12:21am

In reply to by Outlaw 09


Trump has tweeted more outrage at Nordstrom's over his daughter's jewelry and clothing line than at Putin & Assad who are murderers committing war crimes.........

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 12:15am

Bill..Trump is potentially on the verge of actually provoking a Korean War....just through his words and tweets....

There's an old IC joke about the the job you NEVER want is the North Korea indications+warning desk -- because DPRK might do ANYTHING

REMEMBER Assad and Putin dropped nerve gas on unarmed and defenseless civilians BECAUSE his SoS and his spokesperson ALL said..."we will not toss out Assad"..exactly what the Russians have been saying for years...THUS Assad thought he could do anything and he was covered by Trump's words....

AND it was Trump who caused the CWs attack ALL by stating the wrong words....