The world according to Trump: An America-first policy in the Middle East

Following last week’s series of interviews, it is difficult to say that Donald Trump has not laid out the contours of his foreign policy anymore

Dr. John C. Hulsman
Dr. John C. Hulsman
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“We will not be ripped off anymore. We’re going to be friendly with everybody, but we’re not going to be taken advantage of by anybody.”
--Donald Trump, to The New York Times

Following last week’s extraordinary series of interviews with The New York Times, it is difficult to say that Donald Trump has not laid out the contours of his foreign policy anymore. For all the vitriol and disdain that has been hurled at him (including by me) as to the doleful consequences that would occur if his policy utterances are taken seriously, it is also impossible to deny that he has put forward a broadly coherent foreign policy vision. His stances are well within the bounds and traditions of American thinking on the subject, even if his views have been a decided minority position in both parties for the last few generations.

Trump amounts to a garden variety Jacksonian in terms of his foreign policy thinking, a school of thought explored by Walter Russell Mead in his seminal work, Special Providence. Tracing its roots back to the original American populist movement of the 1820s, Jacksonians have an honour culture view of America, it must not be mocked or belittled, humiliated or taken advantage of, and its credibility—its global standing—as a great power, with full, complete, sovereign control over its actions, must be upheld at all times.

Jacksonians are leery about entering wars, but loath to get out of them until total victory has been achieved. It is no accident that Trump lists Generals Patton and MacArthur as his heroes, as both unfashionably believed in total victory at a time of Cold War limits.

If Jacksonians are leery of wars, they are highly skeptical of allies, who in their view all too often free ride off a gullible America, without contributing much to the overall cause. Above all, alliances must not be allowed to get in the way of America’s freedom to manoeuvre, constrain American actions, or hamper the country’s plans. Jacksonian thinking can be summed up by the rattlesnake motto on many of the American Revolutionary War flags of the Continental army of George Washington, “Don’t tread on me.”

Specifically, Trump’s Jacksonian, America-first views translate surprisingly directly into the policy world of today. Alliances will be rethought – from the Middle East to Asia to NATO – and only if they are adjusted to suit America’s terms will they be continued. For example, Trump abhors what he sees as the free-riding of so many of America’s present allies, as they nestle securely beneath America’s security blanket, all the while an economically weakened US gullibly foots the bill.

As such, Trump questions NATO’s continued relevance (it doesn’t do counter-terrorism and the US pays a disproportionate price for it, relative to the rich and largely disarmed Europeans), the terms of America’s defence treaty with Japan, and America’s longstanding ties to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies in the Middle East. To be fair, the Republican frontrunner has long held this position, having placed ads in The New York Times in the far away 1980s, calling for both Japan and Saudi Arabia to spend more on their defences.

It is no accident that Trump lists Generals Patton and MacArthur as his heroes, as both unfashionably believed in total victory at a time of Cold War limits

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Arrestingly, at the regional level in the Middle East, Trump’s overall geostrategic views track with the current administration’s position: America should take a step back. The American shale revolution – plus secure energy supplies being available in next door Canada and Mexico – means that while the Middle East remains important, it is less so for the US than in the immediate past. Trump’s America would stay engaged in the Middle East, but would certainly devote less time to the region than has been the norm over the past generation.

Again, oddly echoing President Obama, what all of this amounts to is an unconscious recognition that the world has changed, that we live in a new multipolar world of many powers, where the US remains by a long way the greatest power in the world, but one that is presently in relatively decline as others from China to India slowly but inexorably rise. In such a world, in Trump’s view, the US can simply no longer be called upon to stupidly foot the bill for indolent allies who are not paying their fair share, either in terms of finances or military commitments.

Trumpism in the Middle East

Specifically, it is this ideological context which explains the Republican frontrunner’s startling comments about the Middle East. In his two interviews with The New York Times, Trump called for the US to halt purchases of oil from Riyadh and other Gulf Arab allies unless they commit ground troops to fight ISIS, or at the very least pay the US back for taking the caliphate on, as ISIS threatens their stability directly and not that of the United States.

Consistently in line with his position that the US must be willing to reconsider traditional alliances if countries are not willing to pay, in terms of either money or their own troop commitments, for the stabilising presence of US forces around the world, Trump suggests that Germany and the Gulf states should foot the bill for safe zones in Syria.

A Trump administration would establish these safe zones on the Turkish-Syrian border for the refugees, and then set about protecting them, but only if others managed the price, as they again have far more at stake in terms of interests over this wrenching issue than does far away America.

Finally, the other long-standing pillar of America’s alliance structure in the Middle East, Israel, also has a lot to feel queasy about, given Trump’s foreign policy. While mouthing the standard words about his support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian question (in return for the Palestinian Authority’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state), Trump has been far less pro-Israel than has been the norm, talking instead about serving as a more neutral partner in any status talks to come. In both the Saudi and Israeli cases, to put it mildly, Trump is not terribly sentimental about America’s longstanding alliances in the region.

A typical populist

As is true for many populists, both of this era and the past, Trump’s foreign policy analysis is far better than are his dangerous prescriptions. He is right in that the world has fundamentally changed in a multipolar direction, just as I have great sympathy for his frustration with allies who depressingly often do not pull their weight, either in terms of guns or money, leaving America to pick up the slack. As the world has changed this will no longer be possible, and Trump’s focusing on this key and too often neglected point serves as a welcome wake-up call.

Saying this, again in line with standard populist thinking, all too often Trump wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because America’s alliances are in desperate need of revision does not mean they should be done away with, or that they do not generally serve American interests around world.

Having identified a key strategic problem, Trump’s nihilistic answer to it would leave the world without the alliance structure that has helped provide order to a world in desperate need of it. Trump and his foreign policy views must and should be taken seriously. But then real answers to the real questions he raises must be found.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (, a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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