In pursuing American foreign policy, some presidents found it necessary to develop clear doctrines to articulate their purpose. While most were formulated in the last 100 years, the practice began much earlier. Two are noteworthy.
In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine made clear to European powers that they should refrain from colonizing the western hemisphere in exchange for American neutrality in conflicts between European nations, unless those contests played out in the Americas. It was a pragmatic initiative by a new nation seeking to avoid European entanglement, while protecting American interests in the “new world.”
The Truman Doctrine, 124 years later, was founded on a different premise that reflected a new role thrust upon us in the wake of World War II. Concerned with Soviet aggression throughout the world, the Truman doctrine of “containment” expressed our willingness to provide nations with the funds, equipment, and military force to resist communist domination.
Succinctly stated by Truman, the policy would “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation” by insurrection or external aggression. Again, this was a pragmatic response to the post-WWII world that could once again erupt in conflict. Indeed, both doctrines were coherent responses to reality and genuine threats to American interests.
In 2016, candidate Donald Trump expressed the popular sentiment that America was overcommitted in the world, that our national wealth was being spent senselessly on foreign wars, while our allies shirked their duty in sustaining national security partnerships. Indeed, he questioned the value of some alliances, much to the chagrin of establishment politicians.
But his “America First” philosophy was compelling to voters and carried him to victory. However, once elected, he was confronted with the painful realities of a world in turmoil where disengagement is difficult and dangerous. North Korean missile and nuclear proliferation, Iranian nuclear ambitions and aggression in the Middle East, and the pestilential terrorism of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were on his plate.
While President Trump had no doctrine per se to deal with any of this, the outline of one has taken shape episodically in the two years since he was elected.
In engaging troublesome regimes, Mr. Trump has revealed a bias for resolution to besetting problems and a willingness to use maximum pressure to alter the status quo. Moreover, he has been willing to employ all of the elements of national power — diplomatic, informational, military and economic — to compel results.
That included his penchant for a “productive disruption” that rejects staid diplomacy for unconditional dialogue with foreign foes like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, sending pinstriped diplomats into a state of high dudgeon.
And despite his serious desire to disengage from decades-old wars, President Trump has made clear his willingness to employ military power where it is strategically wise to do so, as in destroying ISIS, confronting Syria over its use of chemical weapons, or Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf. His actions foretell his doctrine.
The Trump Doctrine that is emerging is not simply one of response to threats, like the Monroe and Truman strategies, but rather a doctrine of “relentless engagement” that seeks to isolate, engage, and resolve major foreign policy threats to world peace.
Its application begins with an unambiguous articulation of U.S. objectives, for example, nonproliferation in North Korea and Iran, reinforced by a willingness to apply punishing economic sanctions to compel dialogue toward a nonmilitary resolution.
Importantly, it also utilizes the full range of U.S. national power, including strategic and tactical force projection tailored to a specific end, as it was in defeating ISIS, or preconfigured to address growing threats, like Iran’s misbehavior in the Persian Gulf.
Finally, it includes providing an avenue to peaceful resolution through unconditional negotiations. “Relentless engagement” — implemented correctly — can produce efficacious results. Nevertheless, this doctrine is a work in progress, particularly in formulating effective power projection.
After World War II, the United States used forward deployed forces to implement its security strategy. It was necessary, but it was expensive; and years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have further sapped American military power. Mr. Trump is rebuilding our defenses as well as applying pressure on allies to pay their fair share in securing peace.
Nevertheless, forward deployed forces — wisely configured and financially supported by allies in strategic locations throughout the world — are vital to preempt and deter conflict. Mr. Trump is correct in questioning the need for an abundance of them in Europe and Asia.
However, in implementing his promise to withdraw from foreign wars — while avoiding the blunders of the Obama administration’s precipitous abandonment of Iraq — the president should consider the follow-on role of immediately available forward deployed forces tailored to sustain peace. This is not only important for an Afghanistan infected with ISIS and al Qaeda, but other vital regions where his nascent doctrine of “relentless engagement” may have application.
• L. Scott Lingamfelter is a retired U.S. Army colonel, combat veteran, and Middle East Foreign Area Officer. He also served in the Virginia General Assembly.