The Trump Doctrine: don’t know, don’t care
© Getty Images

Aspiring American statesmen dream of conceiving the next big foreign policy doctrine, an organizing principle around which the United States can conduct its international affairs. And, as The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada recently noted, nothing gives heft to a foreign policy concept like attaching to it a sage-sounding phrase, often including the word “strategic”. Strategic reassurance and strategic patience, for example, have each been used by the Obama administration to explain its approach to certain policy challenges.

If Donald Trump wins the presidency, however, the United States will have a new doctrine: strategic ignorance.

ADVERTISEMENT

The link that runs through so many of Donald Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements is, essentially, “don’t know, don’t care.” Time and again, on major foreign policy issues, Donald Trump is ill informed, indifferent, or both. Trump’s insouciant attitude toward major foreign policy issues suggests that a Trump presidency would be marred by carelessness and detachment, imperiling America’s ability to confront international challenges in a complex world.

Take Brexit. Asked prior to the referendum about the United Kingdom’s potential exit from the European Union (EU), Trump said “I don’t think anybody should listen to me, because I haven’t really focused on it much.” Reflecting on the possibility that the United States’ closest ally could leave Europe’s single market and take a step toward abandoning the European project all together, Trump explained that the outcome “makes no difference to me.” Following the June 23 referendum, we now know that Britain likely will leave the EU. Unfortunately, given that Trump was not “focused” on the Brexit issue, it’s difficult to imagine a President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE engaged in efforts to maintain a cohesive Europe—even though a unified European bloc is far more valuable and effective to the United States as an ally than a fragmented Europe.

On nuclear non-proliferation, a policy priority across successive administrations, Trump is similarly indifferent. Rather than proposing a plan for limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, Trump argues that nuclear proliferation is “going to happen anyway.” So why bother trying? When asked about the possibility of Japan acquiring a nuclear weapon, Trump was unconcerned, saying he was “not sure that would be a bad thing for us.” Not only is Trump uninformed about the inevitability of proliferation—many states have dismantled active nuclear weapons programs—his flippant attitude on the topic undercuts the very norms that have made U.S. non-proliferation efforts possible.

When it comes to European security, Trump incomprehensibly said that NATO is “obsolete.” With an irredentist Russia sowing unrest in eastern Europe, a well-resourced and unified NATO is as important now as it has been at any time since the end of the Cold War. Turning a blind eye to Vladimir Putin’s efforts to undermine American interests in Europe and elsewhere, Trump was quick to say that he would “get along very well” with the Russian strongman. Trump’s main qualm with NATO is that America’s European allies spend too little on defense. Yet, unlike mainstream critics of NATO free-riding, Trump seemingly has little interest in improving collective security in Europe and North America. Trump does not “mind NATO per se,” he just believes that it may be necessary to “subtract” some members—a notion that undercuts NATO’s deterrent credibility by suggesting that some members are expendable.

Finally, lest we forget, there is Trump’s promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, both a manifestation of and a metaphor for the Trump Doctrine: When confronted with a challenging foreign policy issue, construct a barrier and look the other way.

Ultimately, however, the president of the United States does not have that option. The United States exists in an interconnected world, and the threats the country faces will persist whether Donald Trump chooses to face them or not. The Trump Doctrine of willful ignorance is a recipe for disaster. An America with an uninformed and unengaged president would be hard-pressed to meet the challenges it faces, much less seize upon opportunities to promote peace and prosperity.


Michael Goldfien is a Campaigns Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and has an MA in International Policy Studies from Stanford University.