With President Donald Trump’s national security strategy unveiled, the American public can at last see the guiding principles of this administration codified into policy.
The four pillars of the Trump Doctrine—protecting the American way of life, promoting prosperity, ensuring peace through strength, and advancing U.S. influence abroad—are a triumph for prudent, America-first foreign policy, and deserve recognition for their wisdom. But the Trump Doctrine puts the official White House stamp on an effort already well under way since Trump’s election last November: banishing the ghost of Woodrow Wilson.
In the century since America entered World War One in 1917, U.S. foreign policy has been driven primarily by the universal moralism first championed by Wilson. America, Wilson said in his April 1917 joint address to Congress, would fight “for a universal dominion of right by which a concert of free peoples... shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself free at last.” All of his successors, Republicans and Democrats alike, have upheld this liberal internationalism down to Barack Obama. Even more national interest-driven administrations, like that of Richard Nixon, expressed strategic goals in utopian terms reminiscent of the 1920s liberal.
Not so Trump. “We will look at the world with clear eyes and fresh thinking,” his national security strategy boldly declares. Gone is the preachy, moralism-first rhetoric of past administrations. In its place is a policy of American renewal and “the reemergence of American leadership,” whereby the “whole world is lifted up.”
Nixed is the open-ended interventionism that made the United States into “Globocop,” reluctantly spreading democracy to the far corners of the Earth. Instead, the Trump administration “will promote a balance of power that favors the United States, our allies, and our partners.”
The days of lead-from-behind, phony tough-guy talk, and national impotence disguised as “soft power” are gone, Trump says, replaced by confrontation with the dictatorship in Iran and military solutions to military problems. The Trump Doctrine is a radical and much-needed departure from Wilson’s disastrous legacy. But at its core, it isn’t an innovation—it’s a reformation.
At the center of Trump’s foreign policy is a recognition that the United States is utterly powerless if it cannot maintain its independence—or what modern strategists might call freedom of action. It’s easy to see why: only a country which has the freedom to craft the policies that benefit it most, and not some other state, is truly independent. For decades, American independence has been hammered by its Third World neighbors, commercial competitors, global rivals, and deluded allies. These forces have enervated the American people’s will to act when distant threats arise. They have burdened us with enormous costs in blood and wealth. Worse, poor leadership in the White House has robbed the nation of its purpose in the world, snubbing our exceptional history and maligning the United States as just another middling mediocrity in the United Nations.
The Trump Doctrine is a reformation of U.S. foreign policy. It takes its spirit from the revolutionaries of 1776 and the republic they forged, not quixotic Europeans. It recognizes limits in American power and does not try to reach beyond what the republic—and its citizens—are willing and able to accomplish.
In this, Trump draws on the Whigs of the 19th century, and the early founders of the Republican Party. “America,” John Quincy Adams famously warned in 1821, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Her independence must always come first. She nevertheless “has a spear and a shield” with which to smite her foes—be they Europeans in the 19th century or Chinese in the 21st. But “the motto upon her shield,” Adams concluded, “is Freedom, Independence, Peace,” not conquest.
We are the beacon of the world, and the terror of tyrants who threaten us. Under the Trump Doctrine, America has at last regained its independence.