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Make America First Again: Grand Strategy Analysis and the Trump Administration

Make America First Again: Grand Strategy Analysis and the Trump Administration by Jacob Shively. Cambria Press, 2020, 256 pp.

In 2016, President Donald Trump fashioned his campaign around the slogan “Make America Great Again” with promises to make sweeping changes to US domestic and international policies. Four years on, amid a raucous and pandemic-altered race, one might ask what his administration’s grand strategy is and how it evolved. In Make America First Again, Jacob Shively steps in to answer these questions. A published author and frequent contributor on foreign policy and strategy, he received his doctorate in political science from Indiana University–Bloomington and is an associate professor teaching international relations at the University of West Florida.

Dr. Shively makes his foray into the evolving strategy process by utilizing a grand strategy analysis (GSA) framework to analyze President Trump’s foreign policy strategy, surveying promises and actions from the 2016 campaign to the fall of 2018. He carries the framework throughout the book to provide an intellectual rigor for his conclusions—that would otherwise be filled with opinion and supposition—for an administration midway through its term in office.

The book’s second chapter fully delves into the ins and outs of grand strategy as a framework for analysis. Much of the chapter is a defense and explanation of the GSA framework. While this discussion is helpful, it could have been shortened to allow for more focus on the book’s subject of the president and his administration’s grand strategy. Shively also lays out empirical elements that permeate his subsequent analysis and poses two fundamental questions: “What was the Trump administration’s grand strategy?” and “How much did Trump himself shape the grand strategy?” (p. 63).

With the framework settled, Shively separates the first two years of Trump’s presidency into four logical, chronologically based sections covering the candidacy to early 2017, spring to summer 2017, fall 2017 to spring 2018, and summer to fall 2018. Each section is topically organized around notable events occurring during these time spans. He teases out details to bring together key administration actors, external factors, and the president’s thinking. The progression of the narrative outlines the transformation in agenda from a neoconservative bent through “principled realism.” The author provides insight into the interplay between principal policy advisors and the president as the administration (driven primarily by staff changes) and the president converged on a nationalist agenda. The analysis is thoughtful and lucid as he ties in all four elements of national power—diplomatic, informational, military, economic—to underscore the evolving nature of the nation’s and the administration’s strategic direction.

In the end, Dr. Shively classifies the president as a nationalist with a mixed record of success. Throughout the period, the consistency between the president and his principal advisers increased. However chaotic the administration’s actions were during this time, there was a common theme to tie the actions. He points out that although the “specific form of ‘America First’ varied over the two years, it always returned to a few key principles that are most accurately called nationalism” (p. 210). So it would seem that, like much else in life, the execution of the strategy had varying degrees of success. Dr. Shively grades the administration low on policy implementation and substance, gives failing grades for the management process, and assigns mixed grades for the handling of specific actors.

The book’s analysis ends before the advent of the COVID-19 crisis and subsequent election cycle. Like the first draft of history that newspapers provide, Shively offers a first draft on a yet unfinished presidency. His assessment of a near-real-time, evolving process is insightful and reasoned. Those looking to understand the evolution of our nation’s strategy over the last few years can find answers in Make America First Again.

Lt Col Benjamin L. Carroll, USAF

 

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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