Trump’s world: Are we heading toward a new US security doctrine?

Donald Trump’s victory means a return to a realist foreign policy in a nation-state driven world

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If Trump’s victory in the presidential election has taken most American political experts and observers by surprise, it was even more of an unexpected turn for the global security community. The reactionary security agenda defended by the then Candidate Trump during the campaign gathered very little support from intelligence and defense leadership in Washington even within the Republican ranks. Instead, 50 of the country’s most senior Republican national security officials had officially signed a letter back in August in which they declared that Donald Trump “lacked the character, values and experience” to be president and “would put at risk (the American) national security and well-being.”

This antagonistic attitude from top defense and intelligence services explains the difficulties Donald Trump faces to constitute his cabinet in matters of security. As insider talks seem to send former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani to the position of Attorney General, questions remain as to whom will head American foreign policy and intelligence services. A few days after his elections, President-elect Donald Trump is scrambling to put together a team of senior officials to run the government’s sprawling intelligence and homeland security bureaucracy.


During his campaign, Donald Trump regularly dismissed the work done by Washington-based intelligence and investigating agencies and some of his most controversial positions – suggesting to resume the use of torture during interrogation processes or condemning the agencies’ reports on Russia and Syria – explain the lack of enthusiasm for civil servants to serve within his administration. Moreover, the cautious approach taken by current intelligence officials in stepping up to the plate is reinforced by the fact that Donald Trump regularly failed to develop a clear security strategy during his campaign. If he continuously used martial rhetoric calling for the obliteration of terrorist groups and the strengthening of American assertiveness, his lack of political experience was blatant as he could offer only very few details as to the role of the different state agencies to accomplish such objectives.

Trump’s most prominent adviser with intelligence related credentials is retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. General Flynn was forced out of his job at the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 because of his disagreement with how the Obama Administration refused to listen to him on an all-out attack on what he labelled the “Islamic militant threat.” He will now likely be instrumental in the shaping of the Trump Administration’s security doctrine

The speech he gave at the annual National Defense Industry Association’s special operations meeting in January 2015 provides a clear outline on his recommendations. For General Flynn, there is no substitute for American power in the World and the idea that history is irrevocably progressing towards a collaborative effort for peace is at best naïve. New coalitions should be formed with the powerful actors, not the well intentioned, he believes.

General Flynn also firmly believes that disarmament and retrenchment is a recipe for disaster and regularly quotes Winston Churchill on the need to be ready to deploy “overwhelming power.” He thinks that the Obama Administration has been weak in providing a nuanced assessment of Middle Eastern actors and his Manichean view on who are the “good and the bad guys” seems even more simplistic than the early days of the Bush Administration. For Flynn, the example to follow is Ronald Reagan who “made history when he called the Soviets an evil empire.”

Probably one of the biggest changes under the Trump Administration will be the approach to international alliances. While President Obama tried to gather coalitions around common objectives and values, Flynn advocates for a foreign policy based on threats, interests and opportunities rather than “vague notions of cosmic justice or international morality.”

What does this mean in terms of immediate changes in American foreign policy? First, the common opinion within Trump’s few security advisers is that the new Administration should embrace the very Republican notion of “American exceptionalism.” Threats abroad should be addressed by a long-term strategy that combines economic prosperity at home, robust American military power and the vitality of American values. This directly opposes the tenets of the democratic peace theory which values soft power and trade agreements as tools for long term interdependence between nations, building inevitable allies by creating common economic interests.

What seems inevitable is that Washington will now focus on immediately effective short term programs placing Special Operations back at the forefront of an American Security doctrine focusing on military and intelligence efforts. The notions of peace building or intercultural dialogues will likely be dropped while budgets for non-traditional security programs (including human, environmental or health security) will come under jeopardy. The long term comprehensive understanding of security dimensions will leave way for short term military-focused operations.

This is, without surprise, quite similar to the Russian security doctrine. In Trump’s eyes, Moscow is not the threat to contain as opposed to religious inspired terrorist groups in the Middle East. As a result, the Trump Administration will likely push for a modification of NATO’s priorities away from Russian containment and towards Middle Eastern threats. Similarly, global coalitions who favor long term sustainability and peaceful objectives at the expense of immediate economic return for the United States will not be supported anymore. To most experts, this is a violent step backwards away from global collaborative efforts to fight fundamentalism and long term threats such as climate change or unsustainable institutions resulting from a lack of economic and human development. Instead, Trump’s victory means a return to a realist foreign policy in a nation-state driven world, aiming only at the preservation of immediate self-interest.

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