President Trump’s abrupt decision to relieve the 2,200 American soldiers from Syria is by-no-means life or death for global democracy, but the exaggerated reactions make it seem so. As for many of his behaviors, the style often destroys the substance. Even with adequate warning and planning, however, the decision comes within a strategic and substantive vacuum. So we leave a country — what’s next, or, worse, so what?
Making decisions of magnitude without a context is both confusing and empty. That is why alliances are formed and why policies become “doctrines.” A doctrine is simply a systematic application of principles toward a defined or strategic outcome, or goal. Doctrines, with or without the name, are standard operations for almost every serious venture. Businesses need “plans,” armies need “strategies,” and individuals need “goals” in life. Even football teams require “plays,” each of which is designed for a touchdown. So someone misses a block, you just try another play.
Successful foreign policies are almost always planned out (disregarding the occasional lucky move). Otherwise, tragedy can occur. Take pre-World War I Germany, for example. The Kaiser went about intervening here and there, in Africa and Asia, threatening the British Navy with Dreadnaughts, violating Belgian neutrality.
After the World War, there was a cottage industry analyzing the Kaiser’s mental state, many concluding that he was, shall we say, a bit “mad.” German historian Thomas Nipperdey, for example, concluded that Kaiser “Bill” was “… superficial, hasty, restless, unable to relax, without any deeper sense of seriousness … without balance or boundaries or even for reality or real problems. … unsure and arrogant, with an immensely exaggerated self-confidence and desire to show off, a juvenile cadet …”
American historian William Langer was equally alarmed about the Kaiser’s effect on the world: ” … he did lack stability, disguising his deep insecurities by swagger and tough talk … vacillations in policy. [He] lacked guidance and therefore bewildered or infuriated public opinion … This trait in the ruler of the leading Continental power was one of the main causes of the uneasiness prevailing in Europe at the turn of the century.”
The result was general hysteria (a word used often today) and a tragically avoidable war, the worst in history at that time (1914).
There’s a relevant line from the play Jesus Christ Superstar. Judas turns to Christ and says, “you’d done better if you had a plan.” Judas, of course, had no idea.
Every bright spot in American foreign policy was preceded by a “plan.” From the beginning, George Washington began a systematic plan for American survival based upon the avoidance of long-term (“entangling”) associations with European power politics. This plan, later turned into “isolationism,” served American national interests for exactly 150 years, 1797 to 1947. It was interrupted by a U.S. president once, in 1917 when Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany. But this was followed immediately by a return to a deep-rooted isolationism.
President Monroe’s Doctrine (1823) defined the political nature of an entire hemisphere until it was unilaterally abrogated by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013.
When Hitler declared war on December 11, 1941, American global isolation ended in a practical sense. After the war, a brief isolation interlude came and went, ending in 1947 with a brand new world (“Cold War”) and a brand new American responsibility for world order.
This, too, had a plan: the Truman Doctrine. Harry Truman, himself a controversial and idiosyncratic personality, created a global structure still in effect today (Western solidarity, NATO) and the very one critics say Trump will destroy.
Like the Kaiser a century ago, appearances could dangerously lead to realities. That is, unless Trump “had a plan.”
At this juncture, it seems evident that American foreign policy has gone long enough without either a structure or a strategic goal. Like a football team without a play, the whole game appears empty of content. This is not new; it began actually when the Cold War ended and the U.S. became the “sole remaining superpower.” Absent any long-term history in this role, the team fumbled the ball right away.
As Colin Gray, the British strategist, wrote, “The Soviet Union was not all that died in December 1991. What also died was the centerpiece and the compass of U.S. foreign policy. … a rapid loss of old, detailed definitions of U.S. interests.”
The Governor of Arkansas was elected in 1992 with the slogan “it’s the economy stupid,” and he meant it. His “doctrine” (small “d”) was called “Assertive Multilateralism.” Figure that out! Strategist Michael Mandelbaum did (1996) and concluded that the U.S. was “pursuing the foreign policy of a big-city mayor … without an overarching principle to guide the nation’s foreign relations … the promotion of domestic interests is the default strategy of American foreign policy.”
Bush II tried “nation-building” in the Middle East. Eighteen years later, we are still at it, and no nations have been built. President Obama’s contribution to strategic thought was called “leading from behind.” That’s what it was (highlighted by Secretary Kerry’s decision, mentioned above. He ended a Doctrine).
Which brings us up-to-date. President Trump, and the country, needs a purpose, a strategy, or a Doctrine with which to pursue a coherent external policy. Making decisions in a vacuum will go nowhere. Whatever strategy is pursued must, of course, be consistent with his instincts and directions, and that’s up to him. But he needs to consult, to negotiate, and to think, hard and long. We have been empty for nearly three decades, and it’s high time, to quote John F. Kennedy, to “get this country moving again.”