Strife Series on Grand Strategy, Part I: Donald Trump’s Grand Strategy

By: Brian Babb

Donald Trump's grand strategy will be an 'America-first' strategy
Donald Trump’s grand strategy will be an ‘America-first’ strategy

In the aftermath of the outcome of U.S. election, fears abound about deteriorating race relations, constitutional abuses of power, and increasing polarization under a Trump administration. Outside of the U.S., fears relate to such questions as “What is Trump’s foreign policy agenda?” and “What is his grand strategy?” It would be easy here to descend into derogatory caricatures, pointing out Trump’s lack of international policy background, his inconsistent statements, or his lack of basic cordiality. Instead, I argue that Trump has already expressed a simple, straightforward grand strategy—“Make America Great Again.” Put differently, Trump’s grand strategy is an “America first” strategy.

How will a Trump administration “Make America Great Again” through its foreign policy? It starts with the administration’s foundational-ideological beliefs about America’s role in the world. Whereas previous administrations saw America as a central player in shaping the world into an order that values democracy and human rights, a Trump administration will likely see foreign policy as a vehicle to increase America’s material well-being. Trump believes that in the hallowed pursuit of transforming the world into America’s image, previous U.S. Presidents have sold out America’s material interests. Overly conciliatory trade deals, global security structures based solely on U.S. military might, and other post-Second World War American foreign policy initiatives that sacrifice American material well-being for the spread of American values are – according to Trump –significant factors to the erosion of American power.

What does the switch from a foreign policy based on values promotion to one based on Trump’s “America-first” look like? The answer is a foreign policy based on transactional deal-making. Whereas previous Presidents linked exporting liberal democratic norms to promoting America’s interests (though there were definitely exceptions to this practice), Trump decouples these two concepts, i.e. pursuing American interest (i.e., American material well-being) without worrying about the status of democratic values and liberal economic policies.

With an “America-first” ideological foundation and a transactional outlook, what predictions can we make regarding a Trump presidency about current international issues? Let’s begin with Syria. For Trump, the main priority will be stabilization and countering violent extremism; whether a democratic state emerges is of peripheral (if any) significance. Given the fractious nature of the opposition in Syria and its dire strategic and material circumstances, Trump’s response would be to work with Russia to bolster Assad’s control of the country. The fact that the Assad regime is brutally authoritarian will hardly alter Trump’s strategic calculus. Trump has hinted that he might be willing to back the Assad regime in order to stabilize the country and prevent further proliferation of jihadists. Based on Trump’s statements hitherto, it is in America’s interest that Syria is stabilized and if Assad presents the most feasible choice for such an outcome, then backing him will be a no-brainer for Trump.

Second is the issue surrounding Russia and Ukraine. The Trump administration is likely to question whether the Russian annexation of Crimea, or if the Russian support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine seriously threaten America or its interests. Previous Presidents have argued that any country which infringes upon the sovereignty of another is prima facie a threat to the American led world order (George H.W. Bush employed this reasoning  as justification for the First Gulf War). Trump, however, is likely to argue that the Crimean annexation and Eastern Ukraine’s separatist ambitions do not negatively impact American interests. Instead, America can look forward to make a deal with Russia which either cedes control of Crimea to Russia or simply states that both countries should not interfere in what has historically been considered the other’s sphere of influence. In return for such a deal, Trump could gain from Russia an easing of bilateral relations, a tuning down of tension in the Baltics, increasing cooperation in the Middle East, and the promotion of European regional security.

Third, NATO weighs heavily on Trump’s mind, considering his skepticism on whether the benefits the U.S. gains outweigh the ‘uneven’ costs America pays to the alliance. Trump seemingly thinks there is little for America to gain in the NATO and has threatened to withdraw American support for the alliance in order to force European allies to shoulder more responsibility. Again, many previous Presidents would prioritize a show of unity, a respect for post-War institutions, and the benefit of a strong American presence in continental Europe to balance the Russian threat. Trump would likely argue that these reasons are not central to America’s material interests and do not justify the quantum of money and resources the U.S. pours into the alliance. The bottom line for Trump concerning NATO allies: pay the agreed two percent of GDP into NATO or America will withdraw support.

Finally, how would Trump’s “America-first” ideology and transactional methodology manifest itself in U.S.-China relations? Clearly, Trump thinks that China has an unfair economic advantage due to its theft of American intellectual property, protectionism in its domestic market, and its supposed currency manipulation (a claim Trump recently reinforced in a series of tweets). In response, Trump has threatened to slap a forty-five percent tariff on Chinese exports. However, being transactional in nature would immediately force Trump to recognize the folly of such an action. The Trumpian alternative would likely be to negotiate fairer trade terms with China. Trump could propose that China open its domestic market for foreign competition. In return, Trump might be willing to lessen U.S. criticism over China’s human rights abuses and be willing to lobby the WTO to grant China full market economy status (something Beijing has increasingly intensified its lobbying efforts to achieve). If Trump thinks there is material benefit to be gained from China following fairer trading practices, he might sacrifice human rights abuses as a price for gaining more trade parity with China. Taiwan too, could be a bargaining chip in this scenario. Trump’s recent break with U.S. tradition by directly engaging with the President of Taiwan has angered the Chinese. Perhaps he would be willing to modify his behavior concerning Taiwan in exchange for China meeting certain U.S. economic demands, as described above.

The above are only some examples of how an “America-first” ideology, coupled with a transactional methodology, would likely guide Trump’s foreign policy. We might say that Trump is a realist through-and-through, concerned only with the material gain (power) that foreign policy can give to America.

Whether rolling back the institutions and alliances of the post-Second World War order and moving away from the promotion of liberal values will benefit or hurt American material well-being in the long-term is a moot point. However, given Donald Trump’s supposed “deal-making” skills and his “Make America Great Again” campaign promises, a coherent grand strategy can indeed be visualized. Whether such a strategy is desirable I leave it to the readers to decide.


Brian Babb is an MA student in International Relations at King’s College London. He runs a Youtube Channel called TheRealist where he produces three videos a week discussing international news and global issues. You can also tune into his radio show “TheRealist,” where he talks about international news on King’s College Radio every Thursday from 1600-1700.


Image credit: https://peopledotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/donald-trump-2-1024.jpg

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