‘Cancel Culture’ Is the Trump Doctrine

Christian Le Miere

AFP Photo: Jung Yeon-je

Since the Second World War, most American presidents have had key aspects of their foreign policy defined in terms of a “doctrine.” For the Trump administration, that doctrine is coming into clearer view as this year’s elections approach.

The doctrine perhaps is best described by a term that Donald Trump has railed against in the past – “cancel culture,” which involves the withdrawal of support for, denying public space to and abstaining from engaging with certain public figures or entities deemed to be odious. For Trump, cancel culture is “the very definition of totalitarianism” – particularly when it involves rechristening institutions named after, or removing statues of, controversial figures.

But the term has also become an apt one to describe the Trump administration’s own foreign policy. With the announcement that the US would seek to prevent the use of the Chinese video-sharing social networking app TikTok and encourage the acquisition of its US and other Western-based assets by Microsoft, the similarities have become starkly apparent.

This is not the first “cancelling” of Chinese companies by the Trump administration. The US government has been working tirelessly for more than a year to persuade its allies to avoid the use of Huawei technology in 5G infrastructure projects. Trump issued an executive order in May 2019 that theoretically prevented US companies from exporting products to Huawei, following a similar ban on Chinese telecommunications company ZTE in 2018.

But it is not just leading telecoms companies that have fallen foul of the Trump administration’s cancel culture. Over the past year, the Bureau of Industry and Security has added 72 Chinese companies to its “entity list,” which imposes licence requirements on foreign companies that severely curtail how US companies can deal with those entities. And, of course, the entire tariff war can be seen as an attempt by the Trump administration to decouple the US and Chinese economies, effectively cancelling trade between the world’s two largest economies.

Trump’s cancel culture doctrine extends far beyond just economics, though. In July, the US government closed China’s consulate in Houston, curtailing Beijing’s diplomatic engagement. In March, the US stated that five Chinese state-run media outlets would have to cut their US-based staff by 40 percent, effectively “deplatforming” those entities in America.

Nor is the Trumpian cancel culture restricted to China. Trump has instituted or threatened a series of tariffs on imports, amounting to a form of boycott. From steel and aluminium to washing machines and solar panels, Trump has tried to cancel America’s trade with key partners – notably, members of the EU – and rivals, in order to bolster its own manufacturing.

In addition, the administration has withdrawn from key international agreements and organizations, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran and the World Health Organization. Although all of these agreements and organizations still exist, by removing the participation of the world’s largest economy and diplomatic power, the Trump administration is moving as close to cancelling them as is within Washington’s power.

And in military terms, the Trump administration has attempted to withdraw or reduce support to a range of operations and deployments, from Syria to Afghanistan to Germany. Trump’s pledge to “end the forever wars,” even though it has been unsuccessful, is nonetheless an attempt to cancel the US’s interventionist policy and engagement with allies.

A doctrine of cancel culture is not necessarily a negative development. The Obama administration was also more isolationist in military terms than its immediate predecessors, and US interventionism has not always had positive effects. But the Trump administration has taken isolationism to a new level, effectively cancelling the US’s global diplomatic leadership role by undermining alliances and agreements. The Covid-19 pandemic is an excellent example where an international crisis could benefit from a single, determined leadership role from the US, but it has been totally lacking under this administration.

It may be that Washington’s cancel culture is short-lived. A Biden administration would almost certainly engage more with allies and competitors alike, and the campaign has already laid out how such an administration would work with China on issues of mutual concern. Previous bouts of US isolationism, such as in the Carter administration, have often been followed by even greater engagement. Furthermore, it is difficult to build an inspiring message of hope around a cancel culture doctrine.

Nevertheless, the Trumpian cancel culture doctrine is likely to have lasting effects on both America’s political psyche and its standing in the world. The tearing down of monuments to US engagement will not be easily reversed.


Christian Le Miere is the founder of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London and The Hague. Previously he was a senior advisor to an entity in Abu Dhabi and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.