The Trump Doctrine

Trump’s recent episode of oral FARTing is getting a lot  of attention. That attention is certainly warranted. More than warranted.

As the president’s anguished rhetoric has notched into an escalating  and implausible use of tariffs in the name of national security, unanimous critical reaction—both from commentators and economists–has grown increasingly urgent. There are two primary strains: ”Trump doesn’t understand trade” and “Trump sees everything as a zero sum game.” These two views overlap, of course, and they support each other. They offer a natural, nearly irresistible narrative and prompt an easy and necessary critique of self-destructive double-dealing that is, despite its boilerplate urgency, still placidly reassuring.

Ryan Bort, writing for Rolling Stone, lays out the overlap:

Though there are already plenty of trading “rules” that have been agreed upon by the international community, Trump has proved to not be a huge fan of mutually beneficial agreements, even with allies. To the president, there are winners and there are losers, and if America is going to win, that means other nations need to lose. . . The latest sign of Trump’s discontent with America’s trade alliances came Friday morning when Axios reported that he has repeatedly threatened to withdraw the United States from the World Trade Organization, the primary organization undergirding the international economic balance.

The Axios report Bort links to sounds the alarm:

Why this matters: A U.S. withdrawal from the WTO would send global markets into a spiral and cast trillions of dollars of trade into doubt.

  • It would also blow up an institution that for 70-plus years has been a pillar of global economic and political stability.
  • The consequences of a U.S. withdrawal are so profound that, like Trump’s senior advisers, the trade community hasn’t seriously entertained the possibility that Trump would try to withdraw.
  • A top trade lawyer in Washington said: “We think he’s nuts, but not that nuts.”

That’s bad stuff, right? Even if, somehow, against all evidence, “We think he’s nuts, but not that nuts?”

It is. It’s shocking, and it has immediacy, but the threat isn’t new. Trump blasted the WTO in a campaign interview with Chuck Todd way back in 2016, and Axios quotes “a source who’s discussed the subject with Trump” as saying, “He’s [threatened to withdraw] 100 times. It would totally [screw] us as a country.”

. . . You have to wonder exactly what [screw] stands in for there. . .

Trump, the source added, has frequently told advisers, “We always get fucked by them [the WTO]. I don’t know why we’re in it. The WTO is designed by the rest of the world to screw the United States.”

That’s not true, of course, and Twitter offered its ready corrective:

That’s right too, entirely.

It is LAZY, scary policy. And it’s correspondingly easy for anyone who has even a passing understanding of trade to object to, so they’re objecting. But it’s also scarily absorbable for anyone who doesn’t. And that, of course, is just the back-flip demagogues love to turn: “We always get fucked by them” has unlimited appeal, and it’s appeal isn’t decreased when “them” object. If ever there was a politician to validate Mencken’s prescient disapprobation of the flaws of American democracy, Trump is that downright moron.

Yada yada yada.

So, yes, my own passing understanding of trade leads me to object to Trump’s tariffs, their implausible basis in national security, their ripe provocation of an international trade war (now officially underway), the FART act that seeks to pump up Trump with the unconstrained prerogative to explode the WTO, his childish, petulant excuse for withdrawing from the G7 communique. . . all of it.

Sure. Of course. But that isn’t the point.

Here’s the point: The WTO is one leg of a three-legged stool.

The other two legs? The other two legs are the UN and NATO. Atop that stool sits the Western Alliance. That’s it. It’s no more stable than that, and it still exists because we all agree to agree, for very good reasons, not to kick out the stool or damage its legs.

But Trump? Trump is furiously kicking at all three legs of that stool–furiously, viciously, falsely, and constantly. “We always get fucked by them” is a slander you’d think a guy who keeps a lawyer on retainer to intimidate and hush the women he sexually assaults would be careful with, but that’s his constant refrain, his favorite means of bashing all three of those legs. That has been his project. The automatic trope of Trump criticism is to add, just here, “as much as he has any project at all,” but that’s an unwarranted if understandable addition, a smug, Mencken-minded disapprobation of superficially childish, idiotic policy.

He does have a project. This is it.

I don’t know whether the project is properly his. I don’t know whether he conceived it or even understands it, if he is its agent, a co-conspirator, a willing dupe, a useful idiot, a blackmailed stooge trying to keep the piss off his face, or a traitor-savant instilling a new world order. I don’t know. Maybe Mueller does. But for the purposes of this essay, I also don’t care, and neither should you.

Instead, suspend belief and narrow focus: deciding (or knowing, or trying to know) which of these he actually is a very long way from idle speculation, but it can’t yet be determination, and it doesn’t matter, most importantly, to a delineation of the Trump Doctrine. Such a delineation asks only for an analysis of extant policy.  A simple one, simple like the policy is simple. What matters first is just what he’s doing. That’s also finally what will matter most–and matter last.

He is, as I’ve said, kicking the legs out of the Western Alliance, sawing away with every untruth and slander he can devise. Not “want’s to,” not “argues we should.” “Is kicking.” And he has been.

There is nothing controversial in arguing that he’s got no love for the three alliances. Plenty of ink, including Trump’s own virtual brand, has been spilt saying so, but Trump and his reactors are always absorbed in discussing whatever it is he’s saying about whichever it is he’s just then maligning. It shouldn’t be controversial, or even particularly insightful, to point out that his attacks are on all three at once, but it doesn’t seem to be the done thing.

It has to be though, always and everywhere. Because in attacking each of the three legs that support the Western Alliance, Trump, whether or not he intends it or even knows it, is realizing the overarching goal of Russian foreign policy since World War II. Let’s start there.

By 1948, the uncomfortable and invaluable lesson to be learned from the failure of the League of Nations to prevent a second World War could not be avoided: thwarted by the US refusal to join, stymied by a lack of power, and with the commitments of its member states bled of strength by the absence of a rigorous and binding trade agreement, the League had been too weak to check Nazi aggression. So it failed.

The post-war Allies were determined to do better. They had to be. Every cost of that failure was too high, unspeakably high.

After the war, the Western Alliance was rebuilt, knowingly and explicitly, to function as a durable alternative to the emerging Soviet policy of absorption and domination of the satellite states it immediately saw and used as buffers. The Marshall Plan not only provided assistance to European democracies torn by war, demonstrating a new and profound US commitment to international cooperation, it yielded the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. We had learned.

GATT bound Western democracies to each other with economic stability and advantage and provided controls, limits, and a means of resolution for trade disputes. GATT is the first of the three legs constructed to be the foundation of the Alliance. The UN wedded that trade agreement to a substantive political body made up of countries who all, thanks to GATT, had skin in the game and an advantage to press and to preserve. The UN is the second leg. To protect these accords, NATO provided a compulsory mutual assurance of military support and security for all member states. NATO is the third leg.

The contrast to Soviet policy was striking:

The net outflow of resources from eastern Europe to the Soviet Union was approximately $15 billion to $20 billion in the first decade after World War II, an amount roughly equal to the total aid provided by the United States to western Europe under the Marshall Plan.    –Mark Kramer 

But after that buy-in, with each round of GATT conferences, culminating in the 1994 creation of the WTO, trade relationships were renegotiated, member states were added, and the quantitative US benefit broadly increased.

Beyond that, the benefit derived from the resulting US dominance of  international trade, the de facto consolidation of the dollar as the international medium of exchange, and the extraordinary organizational weight of US influence has today become incalculable. The same has been true of our conspicuously out-sized role in NATO and the UN.

We got all of this, though it required a huge and sustained economic commitment, on the relative cheap and without eating up the multilateral benefit that has preserved the interests and investments of the other member states in the organization. Beyond the positive yield, there is the uncounted, unspent cost of  unwaged multinational war and the prosperity that comes with peace where it obtains.

This is the singular, signature achievement of The Greatest Generation.

It’s a deal of such enduring scope and value that Trump’s meager lights, if we are to take his assessment that “we always get fucked” at face value, gutter and fail as he tries to illuminate it’s worth. But Putin’s bulb is plenty bright enough for him to see by.

What price does one put, finally, on the absolute goal of Russian foreign policy? One president’s consummate treasure, it appears, is another president’s detestable trash.

And boy has Trump been busy trashing the WTO, kicking against pricks only he perceives–or pretends to perceive–to escalate trade war after trade war, desperate to engineer a crisis that he can use to explode the institution. Or, if you prefer, to kick out the first leg. Because it is emphatically not just the WTO he’s trashing and challenging

Trump is just as committed to policy that kicks out the second leg–hobbling, frustrating, or otherwise buggering up the United Nations. There’s too much to even touch on. The president has routinely denigrated, gas-lit, and maligned the UN,  slashing contribution after contribution on the thinnest pretext, and arguing over and over, of course, that “we always get fucked by them.” He provocatively fishes for and then defies UN censure or retaliates in response to it, and now he’s taken the further, isolating step of withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council. (“The United States now joins Iran, North Korea and Eritrea as the only countries that refuse to participate in the council’s meetings and deliberations,” the Times recently reported.) A seat at the table? Not when he wants to burn it for kindling.

His immigration policy deliberately runs afoul of both Constitutional protections and human rights conventions and violates our UN obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, further antagonizing our allies and raising both tensions and the stakes around them. However much his immigration policy can be seen as playing to the most extreme nationalist elements of his base, or as fuel for racism, or as a water-testing fascist incursion on civil rights, what it undeniably does is drive another wedge between the US and the Alliance. There’s no argument about that.

Even as I write this, it has been emerging that Trump wanted to unilaterally invade Venezuela. Whatever else that indicates, it would’ve spelled trouble for the UN and. . . for NATO, the third leg.

He flouts NATO alliances, sparking diplomatic resignations,  picks petty fights, threatens to wage war, slanders NATO members as deadbeats though none are in arrears, fabricates tales of murderous discord on the streets of  foreign capitals, burns treaties and international agreements with our allies at every opportunity (“terrible deals,” all), and writes their leaders threatening, extortionate letters that mischaracterize the Alliance and its terms even as he cozies up and ingratiates himself to despots.

He’s pulled US troops out of military exercises with South Korea, our putative ally, ostensibly to placate North Korea, our putative enemy, and threatens to remove US troops from both South Korea and Germany, unilaterally surrendering two strategic US footholds (both key to both our national security and to NATO) and getting nothing for our trouble but the valueless gratitude of the Russian president. Putin personally recommended the South Korean withdrawal to Trump in a cozy phone call. Trump got nothing for it, but he did it. He’s talking now about pulling troops out of Germany like they’re the right nose to lop off to really give his face what for. But then, it’s not his nose. And it’s not, whatever he and his critics like to say, Obama’s nose. And if it is? That’s right, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he’s kicking out the third leg.

Putin’s face? Slit ear-to-ear by a canary-fed grin.

His attacks aren’t complicated. “We always get fucked by them” is almost always the fatuous whole of their substance, whether he’s talking about the WTO, the UN, or NATO. Writing in the Post, Matt O’Brian seizes on the difference between the mercurial and often fabulously misrepresented interests Trump always asserts and the less immediately tangible but realer and greater benefits of our abiding values:

He sees only the costs. To him, everything is just a transaction where there’s a winner and a loser. There’s no such thing as something that makes everyone better off. Which is why he’s not only trying to tear down the liberal international order we’ve worked so hard to build the past 70 years — and, in the case of Canada, over dairy tariffs! — but also can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to go along with it.

I agree that this is the bill of goods it is the business of the Trump Doctrine to push, absolutely.  Trump hasn’t made a habit, or even an exception, of giving customers what he was selling them or paying for what he buys, but maybe he does buy what he’s selling, maybe he’s not just the president of the Scare Club for Despots. Maybe he’s also a member. But, again, for the moment, I don’t care.  I don’t think divining his potential credulity, duplicity, thievery or connivance matters.

Maybe he believes that he’s Hitler shaking the dust of that crummy little League of Nations off his jackboots. Maybe he truly believes that one nation without allies is in a better negotiating position that a nation flanked by a host of allies. Maybe the picture of him at the G7, where he argued that a defiant Russia should be reinstated, facing down our allies like a petulant child isn’t a picture of willfulness, but a picture of impotent, enforced, obstinance.


Could we see the difference between native willfulness and the compulsory inflexibility wrought by a controlling foreign power who whispers the unthinkable foreign policy he takes up to him over the phone? He and Putin are sitting down, unconscionably alone, in a cozy, unprecedented-even-for-our-closest-historical-allies, treason-soliciting environment emptied of other Americans in a few days. That’s like a serial-assaulting gynecologist performing an examination on an anesthetized patient with no nurse present.

Try to settle on who the patient is in that analogy.

It still doesn’t matter. What matters is the Doctrine. He’s kicking the legs out from under the Western Alliance. That’s the consistent doctrine. That’s what matters. The Trump Doctrine is to denigrate, undermine, weaken, erode, and destroy the elements of the Western Alliance until it is reduced to the status of the League of Nations prior to WWII: impotent, unmoored from US policy and commitment, and with the commitments of its member states fractured and bled of strength by a ravaging international trade war. Ready to fail. That’s what matters. The Alliance will fail if its pillars are destroyed.

If we allow this president to decimate the Western Alliance, it won’t mater why he was doing it. But it does matter–right now–that he’s pursuing that doctrine. We must frustrate him, whatever that means. All of his fabricated offenses, the violence he manufactures or just makes up from whole cloth and uses to terrorize us, whether here or abroad, undermines the Western Alliance. Over and over and over. These aren’t, he makes out, clubs we should want to belong to. That’s not a new thought for him–it may be legitimately his thought–it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if he understands how this collapse is going to be used. It will be taken advantage of whether he understands that now or doesn’t ever understand. Nothing else about it matters. It only matters that he’s doing it.

A couple of days ago, on July 3rd, David Brancaccio spoke to Douglas Lute, U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration and former senior military advisor to George W. Bush, about Trump’s pending attendance at another, less intimate, meeting, the more or less biennial NATO summit in Brussels.

Douglas Lute: So I was in Europe over the last two weeks and spoke to a number of allied leaders including a stop at NATO headquarters itself where the summit will be held and there’s a good deal of anxiety based on the outcome and the atmospherics of the G-7 meeting and concern that that might be replayed in Brussels with [President Trump] there. And of course that is a fundamental concern for NATO because these NATO summits only happen about once every two years and there really is only one deliverable, one output that’s required: Unity, alliance, solidarity. And of course we didn’t get that picture coming out of the G-7.

The Trump Doctrine runs, directly and indirectly, at cross purposes to that one deliverable. It opposes unity, alliance, and solidarity.

Lute: . . . NATO is fundamentally a commitment “by all to defend all,” so an attack on one is an attack on all and that 70 year alliance has always been founded on that principle. But it’s important to know that the 29 members of NATO are also knitted together economically and politically. So while NATO itself is primarily the military arm of the alliance there are economic and political dimensions as well. And those are very very important and I think are under challenge today.

Lute certainly hasn’t been missing the point.

In every act of policy, whether the particular kick is aimed at one leg of the stool or another, the Trump Doctrine seeks to destroy the unity, alliance, and solidarity we enjoy and preserve as a member of the Western Alliance. It makes no argument. It brooks no dissent. It respects no cost. It is mercenary and ruthless and lying and crude. No matter how contraindicated economically, no matter how much it actually damages national security or directly harms his base, Trump pursues his Doctrine singlemindedly.

I don’t know whether he’s being fed an agenda he believes he invented, steered into pursuing it though he believes he has the wheel, is a willing co-pilot, or just likes the view. I don’t know, and I don’t care. We can care about the reason when the reason is the issue. What we all need to concern ourselves with right now is the road ahead and the foot on the accelerator.

We need to take the wheel and swerve now, before we reach the cliff, because the cliff is all that’s visible out the windshield.

Putin couldn’t have a better man behind the wheel, whoever the idiot thinks he’s driving for.

Stop fiddling with the damn radio and drive.



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