Throughout the presidential campaign and since Donald Trump’s election, former diplomats, retired generals, and foreign-policy analysts have attempted to decipher, explain, and predict his foreign-policy strategy. Will he pursue the big-stick model of Teddy Roosevelt? Embrace a neo-Nixonian “madman” strategy? Is Trump actually a champion of foreign-policy realism, or perhaps no realist at all?
But all those questions make the same mistake — they assume the incoming administration has an incipient grand strategy at all. In reality, the president-elect’s foreign-policy approach is explicitly anti-strategic. Rather, Trump’s worldview suggests the outlines of a doctrine of “tactical transactionalism” — a foreign-policy framework that seeks discrete wins (or the initial tweet-able impression of them), treats foreign relations bilaterally rather than multidimensionally, and resists the alignment of means and ends that is necessary for effective grand strategy.
The Trump administration seems determined to muddle through its foreign policy without initial guiding principles, benchmarks for progress, or the means of adjudicating between competing objectives, and with a wildly improvisational leadership style that has no precedent in recent history. Such an approach is dangerously nearsighted and presents an exceptionally high risk of failure — not only in achieving his few stated foreign-policy goals, from the defeat of the Islamic State to the containment of China, but also in assuring basic peace and prosperity for the American people.