Whenever a new American president takes office, or even well beforehand, analysts and academics rush to discern their foreign policy “doctrine”—a grand theory that connects what might otherwise appear to be a Pollack-like splattering of dots.
The Bush doctrine, for instance, was supposedly about the rejection of multilateral constraints on American power, or maybe it was a willingness to wage pre-emptive war to promote “freedom abroad,” or protect the U.S. homeland; the Obama doctrine, depending on whom you ask, placed a new emphasis on “dignity” at home and around the world, sought to revitalize diplomacy as a tool of American leadership, displayed reluctance about using force abroad (except for the many instances when it didn’t) and was eventually boiled down by the boss to “don’t do stupid shit.”
You can see where I’m going here: This kind of exercise is often a fool’s errand. As a big nation with myriad interests, many of which inevitably come into conflict, even in the most regimented of times, U.S. engagement with the world doesn’t lend itself to theoretical coherence. Unlike in the imaginary world of political theory, real presidents rarely have doctrines; more often, they have a collection of strategies that they struggle to implement and an endless series of reactive scrambles to events.
The present era is no different in that regard. What is different is that right now not only is there no discernible doctrine guiding President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, the United States currently has no real foreign policy at all. By that I mean not that the policies are objectionable, or that the Trump team is struggling with the learning curve each new administration faces at the outset, as it reviews its predecessors’ approach and settles on its own. Rather, I mean that we are experiencing an unprecedented degree of policy incoherence on virtually every major issue the country faces.
And so it was left to Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday to travel to the Munich Security Conference, the most important annual gathering of politicians and national security wonks, to reassure America’s increasingly nervous European partners that things in Washington are under control. The meetings can be insufferable, but they are also an important chance, especially at the start of an administration, to help the world understand what policies it will pursue.
Pence did perfectly well, in what must have felt like Mission Impossible. He told America’s allies what they wanted—actually, needed—to hear: that the United States would continue to “hold Russia accountable” for its aggression in Ukraine, that we remained deeply committed to the NATO alliance, that the values underpinning transatlantic relations remain sacrosanct.
The problem is, no one really knows if Pence speaks for the administration on foreign policy–or, for that matter, if anyone does. Policy is, at its core, a function of what the government does and what it says. While it is too soon for the Trump administration to have done much, what is being said is either nothing or completely contradictory things. Pence’s message about shared values was undercut both before and minutes after his remarks by President Trump, with his latest tweets attacking the mainstream media as “fake news” and, more outrageously, “the enemy of the American people.”
There are many more such examples of incoherence, on virtually every major issue:
On Russia, leaving aside (to the extent that is possible) the cataclysmic hacking scandal and the Trump team’s potential collusion in it, it is hard to say what U.S. policy is at the moment. The president and his counselor Kellyanne Conway say the administration will at least consider easing U.S. sanctions on Russia, which were put in place in response to destabilizing actions in Ukraine that have, if anything, only escalated. But Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, said the sanctions will remain in place until Russia meets its commitments to help end the Ukraine crisis. Meanwhile, the president alternately muses about a kinder, gentler relationship with President Vladimir Putin and then contemplates shooting a Russian ship “out of the water”—in the same press conference, no less. To heap further confusion onto this mess of contradictions, Defense Secretary James Mattis said during his confirmation that any list of top threats to the United States “starts with Russia.”
On Israel, Trump made a confounding, Dr. Seussian statement about the peace process—“I’m looking at one state and two state and I like the one that both parties like”—while standing next to a bemused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Did that mean, as many news accounts suggested, that he abandoned the longstanding U.S. commitment to Palestinian statehood? Was he simply saying, in true dealmaker fashion, that what’s good enough for the Israelis and the Palestinians is good enough for him? Was it a throwaway line to save Netanyahu some political heartburn back at home? Leave it to Haley to again clean up for (or contradict) the president the next day, telling reporters, “the two-state solution is what we support.” Then there is the contortionist act performed under oath by Trump’s acerbic nominee for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a pro-settlement activist who has referred to left-leaning Jews as “worse than Kapos,” a.k.a. the Jews who aided the Nazis during the Holocaust, because they urge Israel to make concessions for peace. During an apologetic hearing on Thursday, he called the two-state solution “the best possibility for peace in the region.”
Parsing the Trump administration’s views on Israeli settlements is no easier. Press Secretary Sean Spicer has said “we don’t believe they are an impediment to peace,” that they are “not helpful” and that the administration “has not taken an official position”—all in a single statement. Trump, for his part, told a right-wing Israeli newspaper, “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.” A few days later, he suggested to Netanyahu, with cameras rolling, that he may want “hold off on settlements for a bit.” Netanyahu’s facial expression suggested: On the other hand, I might not.
On Iran, the Trump administration clearly does not like the nuclear deal (“worst agreement ever negotiated” is a popular refrain), while reportedly reassuring European partners, who were part of those negotiations, that he plans to uphold it. They don’t much like the Iranian government either. Before he resigned 24 days into his tenure after lying to the vice president, Trump’s national security adviser put Iran “on notice,” without offering any explanation at all as to what that means or what the consequences might be. “The statement stands for itself,” an administration official told baffled reporters on background. “Iran clearly understands that there was a communication today to get their attention.” No doubt they understand that much. But to what end? The administration isn’t offering any more information about its Iran policy publicly, nor is there any evidence they are clarifying things privately with Iranian officials, which might help avoid an unintended conflict.
On Syria, Trump and the departed Michael Flynn clearly think it is a good idea to work with Russia to fight the Islamic state—after all, that was the main excuse Flynn offered for his myriad conversations with Russian officials. But Mattis ruled out such cooperation until Russia can “prove itself” willing to abide by international law. Trump has also long touted his opposition to U.S. intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts, usually in the context of falsely claiming to have opposed the Iraq war before the invasion. Then on Wednesday, a leak from the Pentagon indicated the administration is considering a major deployment of ground troops to Syria. What about the underlying civil war between the regime and opposition that is responsible for the lion’s share of killing and humanitarian devastation? No clear position or role so far—the Trump team told the State Department’s Syria experts not to attend the most recent peace talks in Kazakhstan.
The list could go on and on. Trump trashed Japan for months, then spent nearly an entire weekend, replete with a Florida getaway and a surprise appearance at a wedding at Mar-a-Lago, joined at the hip with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He repeatedly called into question the One China policy that underpins U.S. relations with the most populous country on Earth, then endorsed it on a phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping with no explanation. His defense secretary gave a warm and desperately needed embrace of a NATO alliance Trump recently called “obsolete,” before seeming to call into question the U.S. commitment to it if its members don’t start increasing their defense spending.
Did that amount to placing a condition on the previously iron-clad American commitment to collective self defense of alliance members? That would be a good question for the State Department. And there are many others.
But unfortunately the State Department, which for years has subjected its spokesperson to near-daily grillings that are far more policy-oriented than the White House equivalent, has not held an on-the-record briefing since January 19, the day before the inauguration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has yet to take questions from the press, or even say anything substantive in public since his well-received remarks to the workforce on his first day in office. Tillerson, who many observers and Foggy Bottom employees hoped would help put the State Department back into the center of foreign policy discussions, has been undercut by reports that he and other senior officials were out of the loop for key decisions, like the botched Yemen raid and the badly bungled travel ban, and by his absence from Trump’s meetings with Netanyahu, Abe and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
As my former colleague Jen Psaki has pointed out, this is far from merely a communications problem. Whose job is it to get a handle on all of this, crack Cabinet heads together, surface the best arguments and forge consensus around policy positions that can then be explained? That would be the national security adviser, a position that is currently vacant with the departure of Flynn, whose tenure was preoccupied with things like FBI interviews, defending his conduct to superiors, battling for White House turf with chief strategist Steve Bannon, misrepresenting (and then correcting) his story to journalists, and, eventually, resigning. Without a credible decision-making process in place, the president is left to make policy on the fly, sometimes even in public. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what is widely considered to be the plum job in foreign policy is proving difficult to fill.
In almost any other administration, much of the work of establishing basic foreign policy views would have been done already—not in the first month in office, but long before that, through working groups of policy experts convened by the campaign. The Trump campaign didn’t bother with that, either because they didn’t think it would help them win (which is probably true) or because they assumed that in the unlikely event of a victory they would quickly catch up (which was false). Career officials in the national security agencies might have been able to help fill the void left by an absence of policy leadership, and by the baffling failure of the White House to even nominate people for the vast majority of senior political appointments. But instead, experts with decades of experience have been ignored, vilified or pushed aside, to be replaced, at least in theory, by appointees who either have yet to materialize or have arrived at the agencies without being told what their jobs are supposed to be.
As a result, not only is there nothing even close to a Trump doctrine, which would be more than anyone should expect, but even saying what the administration’s policy is on any given major issue is virtually impossible. This is not just embarrassing, but dangerous. The world will not wait until we get our act together. Left to their own guesswork, adversaries and allies can easily miscalculate the strength of our support or opposition. And other nations—friends like Germany, but also competitors like China—will move to fill any vacuum left by the confusion over America’s basic approach. All this suggests that the handwringing during the campaign about the potential for Trump to squander America’s global position by deliberately shifting the country toward a posture of isolation was misplaced. What is emerging is something else entirely; an abdication of our leadership by default.