“Peace Through Strength” – the Realist and Reaganesque Essence of Trump’s Grand Strategy

Unlike his predecessor, and like President Reagan, President Trump undoubtedly believes in American exceptionalism and in standing behind our allies. Nevertheless, there is no question that he will pursue American national interests at the expense of universal or globalist visions of “world order.” In other words, America will resume its leadership role in the world, but there will be no more idealistic interventions to spread liberal democracy and pursue nation building.

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By Paweł Piotr Styrna | January 24, 2017

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President Donald J. Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence.

What is the essence of Donald Trump’s foreign policy and grand strategic vision?

That is a question many are asking, and a great deal of confusion surrounding it stems from hysterical accusations and dishonest, caricatured misrepresentations by the media as well as liberal and (some) neocon foreign policy talking heads.

The winner of the 2016 presidential election has been described in shrill and often mutually-contradictory ways as a neo-isolationist, neo-imperialist, a warmonger, and even a “Russian puppet.” Some have even portrayed Trump’s foreign policy vision as essentially un-American and inconsistent with our values. Thus, for example, commentator David Brooks asserted that Trump (along with Putin and Marine Le Pen) has no respect for the “bipartisan belief in American foreign policy, based on the post-World War II institutions, that believed in [a] democratic, globalist world, which Russia and the Soviet Union was often seen as hostile to.”

This echoes the claims made by many “Never Trumpers” and Hillary Clinton’s spokespeople during the election. Others, yet, have alleged that Trump is woefully unprepared to lead the U.S. on the international stage and doesn’t really have a coherent grand strategy at all. Some of Trump’s statements and nominations have also admittedly contributed to this disorientation, but there are plenty of detractors more than willing to twist the incoming president’s words and take them out of context. A more dispassionate and honest analysis can help us discern a certain overarching logic in Trump’s geostrategic vision.

Trump’s statement, made on the primary campaign trail, that Putin and his adjutants are people he can work with admittedly sounded naïve. Similarly, Trump’s choice of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson — perceived by some as overly pro-Putin and Russophile — raised quite a few eyebrows, both on the left and the right. Making deals with Putin’s government was, not that long ago, a key part of Tillerson’s job. However, he was also known as a tough negotiator and, during his confirmation hearings, admitted that Russia poses a “danger” and labeled the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea “illegal.”

Furthermore, Trump’s decision to make John Bolton, a well-known “Russia hawk,” Tillerson’s deputy at State signals that the new president is attempting to follow a policy of “speaking softly but carrying a big stick.”

Similarly, the fact that Trump tapped Gen. James Mattis to lead the Defense Department is another indication he wants to adhere to a “good cop, bad cop” approach: if the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, or anyone else don’t want to accommodate Trump and Tillerson, then they’ll have to deal with “Mad Dog” Mattis!

Mattis’ nomination is also a sign that Trump was serious about this promise to rebuilding and strengthen the US military. The new president inherited a hollowed-out military and a foreign policy mess from Barack Obama. It will take time to set things right. Meanwhile, the Russians and the Chinese have built-up and modernized their armies considerably during the “Obama window of opportunity” (furtochka Obama) and the Islamists in Tehran received $150 billion and a nuclear breathing spell. Donald Trump realizes that our armed forces and nuclear arsenal must be considerably stronger to credibly deter our enemies. His plans to bolster our military capabilities send a clear message to the world: the U.S. will not appease anyone, including Putin.

Liberal Russia-baiting is undoubtedly a sign of political desperation. Given the left’s proven ability to implement sudden, 180-degree shifts on almost any position, it may also be an attempt to goad Trump — who some see as ego-driven, highly sensitive to slights, and unpredictable — into overreacting. At that point, the left can confidently strut about and assert: “see, we told you Trump is a dangerous, volatile warmonger!”

The down-side of the left’s recent “discovery” of the Kremlin threat is that its shrill, hysterical, paranoid, and conspiratorial attitude can actually harm the cause of those arguing for a stronger stance against Moscow. After all, reasonable people usually avoid being associated with issues promoted by individuals or groups viewed as tinfoil-hat lunatics. Besides, where were all of these liberal born-again Russia hawks when Obama appeased Putin for years?

It is obvious that the left’s newly-found Russophobia is nothing more than a political ploy to delegitimize Trump: drowning liberals are currently clutching at straws.

The bottom line is that Donald Trump is fundamentally a realist.

President Trump believes in putting his own country’s interests first (“America First”), but he is not an isolationist as commentator Charles Krauthammer recently implied. The essence of his foreign policy vision is also undoubtedly Reaganesque — “peace through strength.” President Ronald Reagan blended realism and idealism, and Trump appears to seek the same kind of balance.

Unlike his predecessor, and like Reagan, Trump undoubtedly believes in American exceptionalism and in standing behind our allies. Nevertheless, there is no question that he will pursue American national interests at the expense of universal or globalist visions of “world order” which — paradoxically — often lead to disorder. In other words, America will resume its leadership role in the world, but there will be no more idealistic interventions to spread liberal democracy and pursue nation building around the world.


Paweł Styrna is a Ph.D student in Russian history at a DC area university. He holds two MA degrees, one in modern European and Russian history (University of Illinois at Chicago) and another in statecraft international affairs (Institute of World Politics in Washington DC). Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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