In Search of a "Trump Doctrine": Change and Continuity in American Foreign Policy

Jon Finer – Wednesdays at 4:00 PM in FDR


President-elect Trump's foreign policy views have been much-debated but remain largely inchoate. His career prior to the presidency leaves few clues as to what his approach to national security issues might be. The campaign that brought him to power largely focused on domestic issues. And the opening days of any president's tenure are probably not the best time to draw firm conclusions.

The study group will examine the Trump Administration's nascent foreign policy, as it unfolds in real-time, by focusing on at six traditional areas of focus: Russia, the Middle East (Syria and Iran), Climate Change, Asia, and trade policy. In each case, students will discuss and seek to understand the Obama Administration's approach, and assess early indications of (and implications for) continuity and change by the Trump Administration. An objective would be, by the end of the study group, for students to be able to describe the new Administration's foreign policy with as much precision as possible and to distill from this examination what could someday come to be known as a "Trump Doctrine," encapsulating the new Administration's world view.

NOTE: weekly topics are subject to change, based on shifting schedules of our guests and topical news developments.

February 15

Presidential Foreign Policy "Doctrines": from the Cold War to Trump

We will look back at previous post-Cold War administrations, consider their overarching strate-gies and discuss how we would describe their foreign policy "doctrines." We will discuss why we seek to impose ideological consistency on foreign policy, when, as with domestic policy, many administrations seem to adopt a more ad hoc, rather than ideologically consistent, ap-proach. We will closely examine the Obama Administration's approach to foreign policy, and assess how future historians will describe the Obama foreign policy doctrine. And we will have a preliminary discussion of the some of the foreign policy traits emerging in the Trump Admin-istration.

Guest: Adam Entous, the Washington Post (via Skype) and former Secretary of State John Kerry

February 22

East Asia: Obama to Trump

Students will discuss the Obama Administration's approach to Asia, starting with the "pivot to Asia" (later dubbed the "rebalance"), the enhancement of U.S. alliances in the region, the man-agement of a complex bilateral relationship with China, the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsu-la, and the apotheosis of the rebalance with the conclusion of the Transpacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) in late 2015. We would also discuss early indications of how the Trump Ad-ministration will approach Asia policy, including in the economic realm after the apparent rejec-tion of the TPP.

Guest: Evan Osnos,Staff Writer and China Expert, The New Yorker

March 1

Trade and Economic Statecraft: Obama to Trump

Using TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as a starting point, students will discuss the Obama Administration's approach to foreign economic policy, and consider are-as in which President Trump, who has expressed opposition not just to these potential agree-ments but to previous trade agreements such as NAFTA, will approach these issues. 

Guest: Matt Vogel, Former Special Assistant to President Obama for International Economic Policy and Chief of Staff to United States Trade Representative Michael Froman

March 8

Middle East policy: Obama to Trump

Focusing on Iran, Syria and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, students will discuss the Obama Ad-ministration's approach to the Middle East, including the Iran nuclear deal, the response to the Arab Spring, the infamous "red line" and response to Syria's use of chemical weapons, negotia-tions with the Israelis and Palestinians, the rise and demise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the various attempts, through diplomacy and other means, to bring an end to the Syria conflict. We would also discuss early indications of how President Trump will ap-proach these challenges.

Guest: White House Middle East Coordinator and Special Assistant to the President Rob Malley, the Obama White House's top Middle East advisor

March 22

Climate Change: Obama to Trump

Students will discuss the Obama Administration's approach to climate change, including the dis-appointing result of the Copenhagen Conference of the Parties meeting in 2009, the successful Conference of the Parties in Paris in 2015, and a series of ambitious results in 2016: an agree-ment on emissions by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an amendment to the Mon-treal Protocol to account for hydrofluorocarbons, and ensuring enough countries ratified he Paris Agreement to allow it to enter into force. We would also discuss early indications of what could be a starkly different approach to climate change by President Trump. 

March 29

Russia policy: Obama to Trump

Students would discuss the Obama Administration's approach to Russia and consider likely areas of continuity and change in the Trump Administration. We would look back at the Obama first term's "Russia reset" and the completion of the START II arms control treaty, as well as the dis-integration of U.S.-Russia relations during the second term, as a result of deep differences over Syria and Ukraine. We would discuss the role of Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign and early indications of U.S.-Russia relations under President Trump. 

Guest: Former Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs of State, Ambassador Victoria Nuland, the Obama Administration's top diplomat for Europe and Russia

April 5

Counterterrorism/Defeating ISIL: Obama to Trump

Student will discuss the Obama Administration's approach to counterterrorism, with a focus on the conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), including attempts to codify a legal framework, improve transparency and fight by, with, and through foreign partners. We would then discuss the Trump Administration's early efforts to expedite and intensify the conflict with ISIL and new restrictions on travel for citizens of certain countries to the United States, which have been justified on counterterrorism grounds. 

Guest: Josh Geltzer​, Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism under Presidents Obama and Trump

April 12

Discerning Trump Doctrine

Students will draw on discussions of key issues from earlier in the semester to offer early hy-potheses of how future historians may eventually describe President Trump's approach to foreign policy. They will propose description of the "Trump Doctrine" and debate the merits of each oth-er's accounts, in a (likely futile) attempt to reach an overall consensus.