US Grand Strategy in the Trump Era

By 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.

2 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 terrorism.

Trump's America First grand strategy has four key pillars:

1 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.

2 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.

4 Extreme 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 left alone.

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.

5 By 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 geopolitical commitment.

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.

The America 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.