Trump’s Inverse Wolfowitz Doctrine


It’s official: Germany hates Trump.

Across the whole German political spectrum, Germans have denounced Trump. The grievances are many:

  • Trump has demanded that NATO countries, and Germany (NATO’s second-largest economy) accelerate defense spending to meet the agreed target of 2% of GDP, which Germany has resisted, saying it prefers to focus on diplomacy and international development aid.
  • Trump only grudgingly agreed to deal with the EU as a bloc on trade issues, previously insisting that he would only make deals with individual countries.
  • Trump took on German car manufacturers, the crown jewel of German industry, reportedly promising to “stop” Germany’s exports of millions of cars into the United States.
  • Before his inauguration, Trump called the EU a “vehicle for Germany,” implying that the union benefits Germany at the expense of its other member states.
  • Probably most egregiously from a German perspective, Trump announced that the US would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. Environmentalism and climate change are truly sacred-cow issues in Germany.

It would appear that Trump (or, if you prefer, Trump under the influence of Stephen Bannon and the nationalist wing of the White House staff) is purposely driving a wedge between the United States and Germany.

But why?

The Wolfowitz Doctrine is the world we live in

I believe that Trump and his nationalist advisers believe in a kind of inverse Wolfowitz Doctrine, an infamous Pentagon document written by the now mostly discredited Paul Wolfowitz in 1992, at least as far as it concerns the EU.

Wolfowitz wrote that a major benefit of US security guarantees is that they tend to suppress the military development of US allies like Germany and Japan that otherwise might re-arm and become military rivals of the United States. Wolfowitz argued that expanding NATO and covering more countries under the US security umbrella would solidify American global dominance.

Regarding Europe, Wolfowitz urged “to prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements which would undermine NATO” and to encourage the expansion of the European Community (the precursor to the EU, the founding treaties of which were signed in 1992 and took effect in 1993) to cover Central and Eastern Europe, arguing that this would serve American interests and secure American influence.

You might recognize the above as being basically how the world order ended up developing over the past 25 years, and as representing the Democratic Party’s current view of how the world should continue to develop.

But in 1992, the Democrats pushed back hard against the Wolfowitz Doctrine, with then-Senator Joe Biden criticizing the Pentagon for promoting a “Pax Americana, a global security system where threats to stability are suppressed or destroyed by U.S. military power,” saying “the Pentagon vision reverts to an old notion of the United States as the world’s policeman–a notion that, not incidentally, will preserve a large defense budget.”

Needless to say, the party roles have now reversed, with liberal multilateralists, including the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment, using the term “Pax Americana” as an ideal, not a slur.

How did we come full circle on this, where the world envisioned 25 years ago, at the time considered a right-wing imperialist fantasy, has now come to fruition, and yet the right wing rejects its own vision while the left (or, at least, the centrist left) has come to embrace it?

America loses control of multilateralism

When Wolfowitz was writing his doctrine in 1992, less than a decade had passed since Ronald Reagan–despite violent protests in West Germany involving up to a million protesters–had successfully installed Pershing 2 medium-range nuclear missiles in West Germany. Those missiles were eventually destroyed under the 1988 US-USSR Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but their installation was a powerful display of the United States’ ability to impose its will within the framework of NATO security arrangements.

Compare and contrast with America’s role in NATO today: as Obama famously complained to The Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg last year, the United States’ Western European allies strong-armed the US into taking military action in Syria (unsuccessfully) and Libya (successfully).

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, what Wolfowitz and other right-wing American hawks feared was that a pacifist Europe would go its own way, no longer forced to be aligned with the US by the Soviet threat, building a separate power center that would eventually lead to one or more European military rivals appearing that would not be under US influence or control.

As for Russia, Wolfowitz believed that it would cease to be relevant as a conventional military threat and the United States should work to eliminate Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

Back in 1992, binding former Socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe into the European Community economic bloc seemed like the best way to tie them permanently to capitalism and an American-dominated West. This was 8 years before the introduction of the Euro, and just months before the Maastricht Treaty officially formed the European Union. At the time, the economies of the former Warsaw Pact were in tatters and expansion of European integration was viewed as something the Western Europeans would need significant nudging to accomplish.

It seems like a lifetime ago, but you have to remember that most people in the West, the Soviet Union was considered the enemy because it was Communist, not because Russia’s interests were somehow incompatible with those of the West. The thinking was that as long as the United States could keep the Communists out of power, Russia would be nothing to worry about, which is why American consultants and spooks pulled out all the stops to help make sure Yeltsin won his 1996 re-election campaign.

To liberals, the defeat of Communism meant “the end of history“; with Communism thoroughly discredited, liberal democracy had emerged triumphant as the ideal form of human government, and liberal democracies wouldn’t have any reason to go to war with each other. Liberals wanted to see an increased role for the United Nations, with the end goal being an abolishment of war except for UN Security Council-sanctioned, multilateral, limited military actions meant to keep rogue actors in check.

What ended up happening was more like Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” theory: in a world not divided by artificial ideologies that purported to subsume national cultures and religious identity, countries and groups of countries would develop systems of government suited to their own history, culture and religious beliefs.


In this new world, and particularly after the failure of (mostly) unilateral US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the West became one of a number of competing civilizational “poles,” and the United States’ role in NATO, and later formal groupings like the G7, became significantly more restricted than it was in the Cold War, when the US had a free hand to lead the Free World from a global security perspective.

The Wolfowitz Doctrine was aimed at extending the reach of institutions and groupings that, in the eyes of Wolfowitz and other right-wing American hawks, the United States would always dominate, and thus would expand American freedom of action.

But something happened along the way–rather than evolving into an American-dominated Imperium, the West turned into a partnership where the non-American partners ended up with more freedom of action than then they had before. They could take the parts they liked (mutual security guarantees backed by the US war machine) and dispense with the parts they didn’t like (knuckling under to unpopular US demands like the Pershing 2 missiles). The West became a corporation in which the US is a major stakeholder, but one that is bound by consensus-based decision-making.

America’s role as “leader of the Free World” became a symbolic one, a kind of “first among equals,” rather than the Cold War situation where the US could impose its will on the rest of the Free World. This became abundantly clear by 2003, when key NATO partners came out strongly against the US invasion of Iraq.

And this is why liberals came to love the Wolfowitz Doctrine. What they wanted all along, and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, is a world where the more aggressive, reactionary tendencies of the United States are curbed by its more liberal-minded allies. One in which the US is just another country acting within a rules-based framework, whose “exceptionalism” is based on its adherence to liberal democratic values and its role as standard-bearer for liberal democracy in the world, rather than an awe-inspiring, exceptional ability to bend other countries to its will.

This also explains why American right-wingers have fallen out of love with the West and with multilateralism in general. The West is now a club in which the United States, in their view, is the only member in which conservatism is a serious political force that wins national elections from time to time (the Conservative Parties in the UK and Canada aren’t nearly as conservative as American conservatives). I think that today, many American conservatives wouldn’t put the US in the same Huntingtonian civilizational category as Europe. As we’ve seen with Trump, and to a lesser but still significant with George W. Bush before him, when conservatives are in power the rest of the West does all it can to restrict the US government’s freedom of action when it contradicts European liberal values. This never would’ve happened to Reagan!

The same thing could be said about trade: 25 years ago, what was good for the worldwide expansion of American corporations was considered by conservatives to be good for America, and it was liberals who railed against the corporate rape of the developing world. Perhaps not surprisingly, however, the world changed American corporations perhaps more than the corporations changed the world. Trump’s economic nationalism, supported by many conservatives, is aimed at establishing a “power vertical” over US business to make it work to the disproportionate benefit of the United States.

So why pick on Germany?

I think the Inverse Wolfowitz Doctrine is a different way of increasing American influence–it means abandoning the approach of the last 25 years where the US pushes from the outside to expand Western institutions and then works from within those institutions to dictate to allies or, failing that, to build a consensus that favors US interests.

I think the Inverse Wolfowitz approach, which some have criticized as a “protection racket” but I think is more subtle than that, is to call attention to, or even possibly create, situations where allies on their own initiative come to the United States for help on security, economic and other matters.

I think that Trump, with the intellectual and strategic support of Stephen Bannon and the economic nationalists, are purposely creating a situation in which Germany is forced to take an overt leadership role as an antipode to a conservative-led, nationalist United States government, with the goal of then gaining leverage over Germany and renegotiating the terms of the Western alliance.

The calculus behind this is that there are other European countries, obviously the UK, probably Poland and Hungary, but also probably a number of others, that will recoil at the prospect of Germany gaining even more power in the EU and Europe. The possibility that a “more EU” campaign to combat Trumpism will be joined by France, whose new leader is getting along famously with Merkel, will further frighten smaller European countries and those, like Poland and Greece, that are socially more conservative and fiscally less responsible.


Depending on how high renegotiating the terms of the Western alliance ranks in Trump’s constellation of ever-changing priorities (and it appears to rank pretty high), even Trump’s flirtation with Russia could be seen as a gambit to squeeze the Europeans and create a point for negotiation with them.

This all puts pressure on Germany to scramble to keep the EU together. By bringing up trade, NATO contributions and climate change all at the same time, right before the German elections in September, with German business meanwhile pushing Merkel to start rolling back Russian sanctions, the Trump Administration is trying to create multiple points of leverage with the hope that eventually the Germans will squeak and start making concessions. And some conservatives already think it’s working.

That’s the Inverse Wolfowitz Doctrine: squeeze ’em and make ’em come to us. Will it work? I think that if Trump had been able to get his own administration off to a smoother start, and if he had moved in lockstep with the Republican Party to pass big pieces of legislation, consolidate power and marginalize the Democrats, it could’ve worked. I think that the clouds surrounding Trump’s early days in office make it so that any ally that might have been tempted to come hat-in-hand to Trump looking to negotiate a deal on his terms would find the risk and uncertainty to be greater than the potential reward.

If Trump and his team get their shit together, maybe the squeeze-and-wait strategy will bear fruit, but it doesn’t look like it will happen this year.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s