In April 2016 I delineated the Trump Doctrine, which was the central through line message of the President’s campaign, as (emphasis mine):
America’s allies are taking advantage of our treaty and other obligations in the national security space; America’s allies and peer competitors are ripping the US off through our trade agreements; the US should go it alone if it can’t renegotiate better deals; and only a President Trump could guarantee that the US would be treated fairly – or else. That only a President Trump could guarantee that the US would be treated fairly, whether in national security arrangements or global trade, was simply an extension of one of the major, if not the major theme of his campaign: Donald Trump would be treated fairly or else and only Donald Trump could guarantee that Americans, especially the forgotten men and women as he phrased it, would be treated fairly or else.
As I wrote two years later, after the most recent demonstration air strikes by the US against Assad’s government in Syria, the Trump Doctrine was a form of strategic communication genius:
That the US will be treated fairly or else, and that only a President Trump could guarantee that happening became the central, unifying theme of his national security and foreign policy approach was actually a stroke of strategic communication genius. A significant amount of the President’s initial strategic communication approach was through tying his primary opponents, the Republican National Committee, and the broadcast and cable news networks in knots about treating him fairly. This included trying to get Megyn Kelly removed from debate moderation after he felt she treated him badly, as well as actually dropping out of a GOP primary debate on Fox News and holding a competing charity event for veterans because he did not like that Fox wouldn’t comply with his demands. And if they failed to do so he’d deal with them harshly. Then candidate Trump threatened his fellow primary opponents and the RNC by making it clear that if he didn’t feel he was being treated fairly by them, then the “or else” would be his running as an independent candidate, thereby splitting the Republican vote for president, and handing the election to the then presumed Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton.
By making this the dominant theme of his national security and foreign policy approach, he was able to make a singular through line for his campaign – “I, Donald Trump, will be treated fairly or else by the GOP, the RNC, and the news media; only I, Donald Trump, can guarantee that you the forgotten men and women of America are treated fairly in regards to both domestic politics and foreign policy; and only I, Donald Trump, can guarantee that the US will be treated fairly or else there will be serious and severe repercussions for the GOP, the RNC, the news media, elected and appointed officials, and America’s allies, partners, and peer competitors”. Here was the simple through line to connect Make America Great Again both domestically and internationally by placing America first. It is also the essence of the real Trump Doctrine: President Trump and by extension the forgotten men and women of America, as well as America itself, will be treated fairly or else.
We now have an excellent empirical example of the Trump Doctrine in effect in Ukraine. As the NY Times reports, the Ukrainian government stopped cooperating with Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation regarding former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, his connections to Russia, as well as potential connections between Manafort, the President’s campaign, and Russia. They’ve also decided to slow walk their own investigation.
In the United States, Paul J. Manafort is facing prosecution on charges of money laundering and financial fraud stemming from his decade of work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
But in Ukraine, where officials are wary of offending President Trump, four meandering cases that involve Mr. Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, have been effectively frozen by Ukraine’s chief prosecutor.
The cases are just too sensitive for a government deeply reliant on United States financial and military aid, and keenly aware of Mr. Trump’s distaste for the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into possible collusion between Russia and his campaign, some lawmakers say.
The decision to halt the investigations by an anticorruption prosecutor was handed down at a delicate moment for Ukraine, as the Trump administration was finalizing plans to sell the country sophisticated anti-tank missiles, called Javelins.
The State Department issued an export license for the missiles on Dec. 22, and on March 2 the Pentagon announced final approval for the sale of 210 Javelins and 35 launching units. The order to halt investigations into Mr. Manafort came in early April.
Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Parliament who is an ally of President Petro O. Poroshenko, readily acknowledged that the intention in Kiev was to put investigations into Mr. Manafort’s activities “in the long-term box.
At NY Magazine, Jonathan Chait suggests this may be because someone in the administration bribed the Ukrainians. Quite simply: stop cooperating and you’ll keep your financial aid and get the weapons you want.
It is of course possible that Ukraine reached this decision on its own, completely independent of any suggestion from Washington. It is far more likely that somebody in the administration proposed a quid pro quo, and Ukraine quite rationally decided it would rather have weapons to defend itself against the next Russian aggression than participate in an investigation that the president of the United States regards as a mortal threat.
The latter possibility cannot be assumed as fact, of course. But it is striking that when the missile sale came up in December, almost nobody even considered the possibility that it might be used as a bribe to shut down Ukrainian cooperation with Mueller.
I think Chait is reading far too much into the Ukrainian government’s decisions to both stop cooperating with Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation and to put their own on indefinite hold. The Ukrainians, like President Moon in the ROK and the Qataris, have simply recognized what is in their own best self interest by accurately assessing who the President is, how he understands the world, and what is therefore the best way to interact with the him, other US officials, and the US in order to achieve their self interests. Think of all three of these as real world examples of the effects of the Trump Doctrine – ensuring that the President will be treated fairly in order to avoid the or else.
The NY Times‘ reporting supports this conclusion.
David Sakvarelidze, a former deputy prosecutor general who is now in the political opposition, said he did not believe that the general prosecutor had coordinated with anybody in the United States on the decision to suspend the investigations in Ukraine, or that there had been a quid pro quo for the missile sale.
Ukrainian politicians, he said, concluded on their own that any help prosecuting Mr. Manafort could bring down Mr. Trump’s wrath.
“Can you imagine,” Mr. Sakvarelidze said, “that Trump writes on Twitter, ‘The United States isn’t going to support any corrupt post-Soviet leaders, including in Ukraine.’ That would be the end of him.”
Last summer, another member of Parliament, Andrey L. Derkach, initiated an investigation into leaks to the news media about Mr. Manafort’s dealings from Ukrainian law enforcement, saying they put at risk vital American aid to Ukraine. He has openly opposed any Ukrainian role in aiding the special counsel’s investigation.
Ukraine, Mr. Derkach said in an interview, would be taking grave risks if it assisted in what he called a politicized investigation in the United States. In Ukraine, he said, “everybody is afraid of this case.”
It will be important to look out for and to see where else the Trump Doctrine comes into play in international relations. Which other state and non-state actors decide to make sure the President feels as if he’s being treated fairly in order to avoid the or else. Or which state and non-state actors simply decide not to engage on specific issues and problem sets to avoid creating the impression they are not treating the President fairly so as to avoid the or else. And what effects it has on how the global system is ordered and functions.