President Donald Trump’s international relations rationale, consisting of actions such as enticing Iran into war and battling China on trade, has been described by many as inconsistent and dangerous. Yet, in reality, he is following a long line of American diplomats practicing a type of international relations theory, developed over centuries, that focuses on power and the ability to wage war.

As expertly described by Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis in his book On Grand Strategy (2018), Trump’s position can be viewed through the lens of Isaiah Berlin’s proposition that political actors are either foxes or hedgehogs. For Berlin, hedgehogs view the world through one singular idea that governs their policies and actions, whereas foxes see many different, and at times seemingly contradictory, ideas and visions.

Examples of foxes include Abraham Lincoln who initially pursued numerous avenues for winning the Civil War and maintaining the stability of the union before settling on abolitionism when he found it was politically expedient to do so. [1] This demonstrates an ability typical of foxes, which is to react adeptly to changing circumstances. In contrast, Trump, who falls in the category of hedgehog like many of his predecessors, views the world through the unwavering narrow lense of American power. This is expressed by his “America First” nationalism that rejects globalism and shared world ideas in the form of NATO or the UN. Even as new challenges arise, Trump appears unlikely to adapt or change his beliefs.

Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin views a return to a great Russian “empire” as a fulfillment of his political destiny. His maneuvers, especially in relation to Crimea and Syria, are symptomatic of an international relations policy devoid of a clear methodology but focused on a single idea or goal – the ultimate fulfillment of Berlin’s hedgehog.

Gaddis delves deeply into historical figures whose political philosophy can be assessed with this dualism, such as Xerxes, Tolstoy, Machiavelli, and John F. Kennedy. It is also worth noting that, according to Gaddis, a key facet of Berlin’s philosophy on the intellectual path leaders should take is the need for good temperament: “temperament makes the difference between slips and safe arrivals.” [2]

This is combined with the ability to consider alternatives to one’s desired policy. According to Berlin, foxes and great leaders in general, such as Franklin Roosevelt, must have the ability to maintain an array of ideas by considering all angles and possibilities before making a decision. Trump is guilty of putting his ego before rationality and thus falls into the trap of being unable to genuinely consider opposing opinions. This has dangerous implications for both foreign and domestic policy.

While it could be argued that Trump shares similar traits to Putin, Putin separates himself with regard to the ability to assess international issues and to directly implement policy conducive to his goals. For Gaddis’ interpretation of Berlin’s argument is that “consistency in grand strategy” is “less a matter of logic than of scale.” [3] In short, in order to successfully carry out the grand strategy, leaders have to appreciate the global stage on which their actions are scrutinized and be able to adapt well to various and rapid developments.

Putin, although ruthless and quasi-tyrannical, understands the duality of a strong public persona complemented with a ruthless and detached intelligence and security apparatus. Unfazed by criticism and unbeholden to interest groups, he is able to grapple with domestic and international policy questions with significantly more ease than Trump. Though Trump may attempt to construct international clout to mirror this strongman image, in reality, his intellect appears insufficient to produce the results necessary to convincingly justify his ego. As Gaddis explains, hedgehogs know  “with such certainty how the world [works] that they [prefer] flattening topographies to functioning within them.” [4]

According to Gaddis, historical figures that fall into the category of hedgehogs include Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte and 20th-century totalitarians such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. These initially successful but ultimately flawed actors, who were toppled by their own self-interest and egotism, are hardly successful company for Trump to be amongst.

Trump, be it dismantling the Iran nuclear deal, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem or embracing proto-authoritarian rulers, is intent on “flattening topographies” and completely deconstructing the status quo. [5] Berlin argues that this hedgehog stance leads to “positive liberty” that could, “if carried to extremes, [lead] to tyranny – removing contradictions by silencing them.” [6] Not to imply that Trump is a tyrant, but his actions and mindset are reminiscent of a man who can’t quite grasp the complexities of international relations, is not adaptable, and ultimately succumbs to his own egotistical drive for success.

As Gaddis argues, grand strategy is “the alignment of potentially infinite aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” [7] In short, it is an oversimplification to say that Trump is arrogant and a bully. Instead, to truly understand his mindset and corresponding actions, one has to consider Berlin’s evaluation of the hedgehog, and thus recognize that Trump exhibits traits seen amongst leaders for centuries. His grand goals are limited by public opinion, Congress, and the judiciary. He takes Machiavellian realism and melds it with Clausewitzian policy of seeing war and conflict as a whole as a legitimate political tool by which he can expand America’s global power and defeat his enemies at home.

Of course, it is unlikely that Trump is consciously following the advice of these 16th and 18th-century political philosophers. Nonetheless, he undoubtedly portrays the same characteristics that Berlin ascribes to his hedgehogs: proud, determined, powerful, but ultimately flawed and thus guilty of displaying authoritarian instincts when challenged. It is worth noting that Berlin’s assessment is not perfect or exhaustive, for not every flawed leader is a hedgehog. Yet, Trump exhibits traits that have been found among many of the so-called greats of history. However, every would-be strongman found, at one point, that their worldview and tactics would only get them so far and that, ultimately, their authority and abilities were constructed on faulty pretenses  – as demonstrated by Brutus’ knife or the British Navy. How Donald Trump will react when he discovers these limits of the hedgehog remains a compelling and perhaps concerning question.

Edited by Sophia Dilworth

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Feature image by Vincenzo Camucci via Wikipedia


[1] John Lewis Gaddis. On Grand Strategy. (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 240.

[2] Ibid., 309.

[3] Ibid., 307.

[4] Ibid., 310.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 312