US Grand Strategy in the Trump Era
Colin Kahl and Hal Brands
Foreign Policy, January 2017
Edited by Andy Ross
Grand strategy is the conceptual architecture that lends structure and form
to foreign policy. The fundamental grand strategic interest of the United
States today is to ensure US national security, US economic vitality, and
the American way of life. President Trump sees three dangers:
1 The threat from radical Islam: Trump says this
poses an existential and civilizational threat to the United States that
must be eradicated from the face of the Earth.
Trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP: Trump says America already has a trade
war with China, as the Chinese seek to cripple American manufacturing and
achieve economic and military dominance over the United States.
3 Illegal immigration: Trump says this has cost
American jobs, lowered wages, and strained housing, schools, tax bills, and
general living conditions, and is associated with crime, drugs, and
Trump's America First grand strategy has four key pillars:
Economic nationalism. Trump withdrew from the TPP, will renegotiate NAFTA,
threatens high tariffs against China and others, and will punish US
companies that move jobs overseas.
Homeland security: Trump will build a wall along the US-Mexico border,
threatens mass deportations of illegal immigrants, bans refugees, and has
suspended immigration from several Muslim countries.
3 Amoral transactionalism: Trump is willing to
cut deals with any actors that share American interests, including Russia,
while NATO allies and partners such as Japan and South Korea that fail to
pay for US assistance are freeloaders.
military strength: Trump calls for larger US military forces, will intensify
the fight against Daesh, criticizes regime change and nation building, and
seems to want America strong enough to eradicate terrorism and then to be
This America First grand strategy diverges from the
bipartisan consensus since 1945 that the global influence of the United
States is rooted in American values. Six problems:
1 Trump will find it hard to reconcile his
policies toward Russia and Iran with his aim to defeat Daesh. His desire to
go all-in with Russia to fight Daesh is likely to backfire. Heavy bombing
will fuel jihadism and alienate Sunni states. Backing Russia will strengthen
Iranian influence in the region. A harder line against Iran will not fly in
Moscow. Iran can damage the US presence in Iraq.
2 Extreme measures to protect the homeland could
further complicate the fight against Daesh. Banning refugees and immigrants
looks Islamophobic. Expanding Guantanamo and moving the US embassy in Israel
to Jerusalem will worsen relations with US Muslims.
3 A Trump deal with Russia on Ukraine plus
denigration of NATO and the EU and celebration of Brexit and European
populism will alarm European allies. Threats to abandon NATO allies might
force them to pay more, but the Kremlin will take advantage of every
opportunity to play NATO allies off one another.
4 Trump will find it hard to punish China yet
contain North Korea. UN sanctions are the best hope for a nonmilitary
solution to the North Korean problem but they require Chinese cooperation.
Trump may try to use geopolitical leverage on China regardless of the effect
on Japan and South Korea.
withdrawing from the TPP, Trump is helping China by ceding the economic
battlefield in Asia. Seven TPP countries and eight other countries are
already in negotiations with Beijing on a Regional Comprehensive Economic
Partnership. The Asia-Pacific region views the TPP as a bellwether of US
6 Trump could
wreck the US-Mexico relationship. A crisis with Mexico would deeply
complicate cooperation on a host of issues. Mexico has been a land bridge to
the United States for numerous migrants from Latin America but has
cooperated to address this challenge — all now at risk.
First grand strategy is full of contradictions. It adds up to a Gordian knot
of conflicting initiatives. The implementation phase is likely to be messy.