Takeaway: Two presidential foreign policy visions have competed for over half a century, Eisenhower and JFK. Trump will probably be closer to Ike.

Will Trump Be More JFK or Eisenhower On Foreign Policy? - trump eis or jfk

No description of a future Donald Trump foreign and security policy is more apt than Winston Churchill's definition of the Soviet Union: "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Adding to the mystery, Trump has already walked back on at least two disturbing statements during the campaign: on torture, thanks to the intervention by General Jim Mattis; and on the Iran nuclear deal, where Trump now says he will no longer "tear up" the deal on Day 1; instead, he'll hold Tehran's "feet to the fire" on adherence.

These are two significant shifts; expect others to follow, particularly on the three areas where Mr. Trump has tried to outline his policy priorities:

  1. China
  2. Trade
  3. ISIS

But what these shifts might be is anyone's guess.


Far more useful than guessing about discrete foreign policy challenges is to project Mr. Trump's grand vision of how he'd lead our nation over at least the next four years in its relations with the rest of the world. On this grand "vision thing" (to quote Bush41), two presidential narratives have competed for over half a century:

  • The first is Dwight Eisenhower's. Our 34th President resisted numerous recommendations to intervene abroad, including vetoing the JCS on the use of nuclear weapons to help the French in Vietnam! Ike deployed US troops overseas exactly once - in Lebanon, in 1958. Although a five-star general, Eisenhower was far from a military interventionist; if there was a guiding philosophy for Ike, it was John Quincy Adams' famous dictum that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." 
  • A polar opposite narrative is President Kennedy's vision, one that was prophetically summarized in his Inaugural address: "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the survival and success of liberty." This was, in short, a breathtakingly interventionist foreign and security policy. The Vietnam Memorial is its tragic epitaph.


Where might Donald Trump fall in this spectrum of America's grand foreign policy vision? Probably closer to Ike than JFK.

  • Despite the Trumpian bluster, a fair reading of the president-elect's foreign policy views "at 30,000 feet" suggests restraint on the projection of American power - and certainly of liberal American values. "Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo," he stated in his convention acceptance speech. Mr. Trump's repeated skepticism of our alliances and alliance partners reinforces a domestic-centric philosophy.
  • Further, Mr. Trump has clearly deferred to Russia on Middle East policy, essentially sub-contracting the dirty work of fighting ISIS and handling Bashir Assad to Vladimir Putin. Only on China does there appear to be an inclination by Trump to lead an across-the-board economic and security challenge.


Watch Mr. Trump's Inaugural address and his slate of key sub-cabinet nominees, especially at State and Defense, for additional signs of his strategic vision. At this point, the best guess on where he might head is framed more by the views of John Quincy Adams than JFK, and ironically, more by the global vision of Barrack Obama than Bush43.

As one wag recently prophesized, Mr. Trump is likely to continue the 44th President's slow disengagement from the rest of the world, but to do it "more colorfully." Unexpected global events can of course change all of this; in the meantime, it's "America First," global issues second.


The above is an institutional research note written by Hedgeye Potomac National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman USA Ret. To access additional institutional research ping sales@hedgeye.com.