The emerging Trump foreign policy doctrine might be summed up this way: escalate to de-escalate.
During his visit to Tokyo last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made news by promising a new approach to North Korea following what he called decades of failed diplomacy. Increased pressure on the North Korean regime and its Chinese enablers is coming, he said, and a preemptive military strike on Pyongyang is not off the table.
Less noticed in his first-ever news conference was Tillerson’s prediction about the longer-term future of American intervention overseas. Explaining why he and President Trump are comfortable proposing historic cuts in funding for the State Department and foreign aid, Tillerson said the administration expects that, “as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the U.S. will be directly engaged in.”
That might seem like a contradiction, especially since Trump has been aggressively increasing U.S. military activity in several conflict zones in his first weeks. But there’s an emerging theory about Trump’s foreign policy doctrine that squares both statements. The administration may be ramping up U.S. involvement in the short term in crisis zones as a means of finding an exit strategy.
“The apparent approach could reveal a doctrine of ‘escalate to de-escalate,’ ’’ said Alex Gallo, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Trump may want to escalate in certain areas to force a negotiation where actors might not be interested or willing to negotiate otherwise.”
It’s a strategy Trump used in business for decades — confront an adversary brashly and publicly to get the upper hand before striking a deal.
Trump is increasing U.S. military commitments and activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and perhaps soon Afghanistan. He has stepped up sanctions on Iran with a promise to renegotiate the nuclear deal somewhere down the line. With China, Trump escalated by engaging with Taiwan’s president and calling the one-China policy into question, then backed down weeks later.
The problem with ascribing any particular foreign policy doctrine to the Trump administration is that doing so assumes the approach is deliberate. There are several competing centers of power on foreign policy inside the administration, and many decisions appear to be ad hoc.
One clear sign that the Trump doctrine is not completely settled is that Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, last week chose a senior official for strategy who completely disagrees with the notion that military tools should be relied on to solve problems and that American disengagement is wise.
Nadia Schadlow will be a deputy assistant to the president and the NSC staffer in charge of writing the Trump administration’s official national security strategy, NSC spokesman Michael Anton told me — the document that is meant to guide the administration’s national security policies. Her recent book, “War and the Art of Governance,” is a full-throated endorsement of the importance of the political dimensions of military operations and a clear rejection of quick exits following interventions.
Schadlow argues, convincingly, that more than 100 years of U.S. military interventions abroad have shown that the United States consistently makes the mistake of focusing on the tactical operations and ignoring the hard work of political development and reconstruction — not nation-building per se, but sustained attention after the bombs stop dropping.
“By failing to understand that the space between war and peace is not an empty one — but a landscape churning with political, economic, and security competitions that require constant attention — American foreign policy risks being reduced to a reactive and tactical emphasis on the military instrument by default,” Schadlow wrote in a 2014 op-ed for the website War on the Rocks.
The White House declined to comment on how that view of American power squares with the view of those inside the White House who support Trump’s “America First” foreign policy approach.
Schadlow, McMaster and other top officials who believe in soft power, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, may be able to influence the policy direction internally and bring the Trump administration to a posture more closely resembling the foreign policy the United States has pursued since World War II. Alternatively, they might become marginalized by top White House aides, and the national security strategy that Schadlow is tasked with developing could become a purely academic exercise.
If Trump’s pattern of “escalate to de-escalate” does emerge as his overarching doctrine, the results are ominously predictable. As Schadlow’s book lays out, history shows that when the United States is not actively and continuously involved in maintaining order and stability abroad, the world becomes a more dangerous, chaotic and dark place.