I’ve long been skeptical of the idea that every president is supposed to have a “doctrine.” As Paul Waldman put it a few years ago, “Every president should be judged in foreign policy by the decisions he made, not whether you can sum it all up on a catchy bumper sticker.”
But much of the political world tends to find this unsatisfying, assuming that every president must have a foreign policy doctrine that summarizes not the only a leader’s priorities, but also a prism through we which we should see his or her decisions.
Last year, after Donald Trump launched some missiles at an installation in Syria controlled by Bashar al-Assad, the White House argued that it was part of a new “Trump Doctrine,” in which the United States would punish regimes for abuses – such as using chemical weapons – without using ground forces.
Except, it quickly became obvious that this did not a doctrine make. Brief airstrikes, amounting to very little, is not the basis for an overarching vision of international affairs.
But the White House hasn’t given up on the idea that there really is a Trump Doctrine, even if the president struggles to explain his own foreign policy. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg spoke to administration officials and heard a few summaries of Trump’s foreign policy canon.
One, for example, said the Trump Doctrine is “No Friends, No Enemies,” in large part because the president “doesn’t believe that the U.S. should be part of any alliance at all.” Another pointed to “Permanent destabilization creates American advantage,” because Trump apparently believes keeping everyone off-balance necessarily benefits the United States.
But a senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking, brought the question into sharper focus, explaining, “The Trump Doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch.’ That’s the Trump Doctrine.”
There’s no reason to think the official was kidding.
Goldberg explained why this is “the most acute, and attitudinally honest, description of the manner in which members of Trump’s team, and Trump himself, understand their role in the world.”
“We’re America, Bitch” is not only a characterologically accurate collective self-appraisal – the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence – but it is also perfectly Rorschachian. To Trump’s followers, “We’re America, Bitch” could be understood as a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world, one that no longer respects American power and privilege.
To much of the world, however, and certainly to most practitioners of foreign and national-security policy, “We’re America, Bitch” would be understood as self-isolating, and self-sabotaging.
For me, it also captures the administration’s wholesale indifference to any consideration beyond chest-thumping bravado, Trump’s grievance-based confusion, and the satisfaction the White House derives from annoying its critics.
The president is generating international scorn? No one should care, the argument goes, because “we’re America.” The Western Alliance that’s stood strong as a pillar of global stability for generations is coming undone? It doesn’t matter, we’re told, because “we’re America.” Authoritarian regimes are emboldened by our amateur president’s praise and support? That’s fine, evidently, because “we’re America.” The White House can’t even get along with Canada? Our neighbors are apparently going to have to be satisfied with the fact that “we’re America.”
The United States’ credibility on the global stage may never fully recover from Trump’s presidency? Just shrug your shoulders, folks, because “we’re America.”
The price we pay for such mindless arrogance will be high.