Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Is Donald Trump a Realist?

Evan Vucci/AP.

Back in early 2016, Tufts University political science professor and Washington Post columnist Daniel Drezner posed two interesting questions: Is Donald trump a realist? And if so, why don’t more contemporary realists embrace him as one of their own?

At the time, Drezner found that realists, especially those present in the academy, weren’t coming to trump’s defense. Why was that? Drezner believed that “if they’re being intellectually honest,” they would openly claim Trump as one of their own, as this could’ve been realism’s “moment in the sun.” Given that realists often complain that their views aren’t widely shared within the US foreign policy establishment, which advocates more interventionist, activist policy positions, why not back the candidate that seemed to give the US a chance at correcting America’s litany of foreign policy mistakes?

Makes sense, I suppose. Based on his message or platform, as Drezner saw it then, Trump appeared, at least in speech, to be the epitome of what realists would want in a US president. After all, Trump voiced support for upgrading US military power, distancing the US from various international institutions and agreements, focusing on getting Americans back to work and enhancing economic productivity, confronting economic and security free riders in Europe and Asia, taking on a rising China, and getting the US out of Syria. All together, these policy positions signified a shift in US foreign policy to a new era of more restrained US foreign policy interests, great power competition, and boosting American power—all of which are consistent with the application of realist logic and principles to US foreign policy. 

Now that we’re almost two full years into Trump’s presidency, it’s a good time to reflect on this debate. In 2015/16, Donald Trump, candidate for the US presidency, seemed like a realist-oriented aspiring politician. Is that still true today? Is Trump, as US commander in chief and president, a foreign policy realist? Interestingly, Trump himself has claimed the realist mantle, arguing that he’s a principled realist. Is he right? At this point, we have more than enough data to make a reasonable critical assessment. To do so, let’s evaluate trump and his presidency on two dimensions: foreign policy and leadership.

On foreign policy, Trump does share some theoretical and logical similarities with realism. He has carried his skepticism of institutions and multilateral pacts with him into his presidency. In short, if the US isn’t able to wield such institutions to its advantage, so goes the logic, then it’s not worth it to work with or through them. Why? Because most institutions, by design, attempt to constrain the ability of the great powers to act and wield power globally. Given this logic, and given his statements on the campaign trail, it should not be a surprise that, under Trump, the US has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate Agreement, the INF Treaty, and various UN bodies. Trump has also repeatedly criticized NAFTA, NATO, the WTO, and the EU.

But that’s not all. He has challenged China on trade. He has requested, and seems to have gotten, NATO members to begin devoting more spending to their defense budgets, thereby reducing a tad Washington’s concerns about Europe’s free riding. He has renegotiated NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, making slight alterations to the original agreement, to America’s favor. Trump has also scrapped human rights and democracy promotion abroad, the very things which, according to realists, have driven the US into a host of costly wars and quagmires in the post-cold war period. All of these things are connected to seminal realist concepts and arguments, like relative gains, inter-state competition, power, the perils of alliance dynamics, and so on.

Yet, there’s more to the story of Trump’s presidency. Put simply, despite all of the above, Trump has pursued several policies that are inconsistent with realism. For instance, Trump placed roughly 2000 troops inside Syria to fight ISIS, and then expanded the mission, committing to keep US forces there indefinitely to eliminate ISIS safe havens and guard against Iran (and its proxy Hezbollah) gaining a permanent foothold in Syria. So while Trump campaigned on getting out of the Middle East’s protracted conflicts and reducing America’s footprint there, he’s actually done the opposite, upping US commitments to the Middle East.

Furthermore, Trump’s foreign policy lacks strategic focus, or better known among academics and intellectuals as a grand strategy. Essentially, realists have written the literature on grand strategy. In their view, it’s crucial that state leaders have an organizing principles, goals, and interests to motivate and properly direct the course of their foreign policies, so as to avoid letting their policies turn adrift, aimless, and costly. Trump, by contrast, doesn’t operate in a big-picture, comprehensive way. His foreign policy is purely transactional and driven mostly by Trump’s rapport with fellow state leaders. If foreign leaders are willing to flatter Trump, stay at his hotels, say nice things about him, and make minor concessions to US foreign policy, then America’s POTUS is willing stand with them. Of course, there are perils to this approach.

Look at US policy toward the Middle East. Team Trump has decisively cast his lot with Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). MBS buys America’s weapons, gets along well with Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, fashioned himself as a reformer, and is happily pushing back against Iran, and so the White House has invested considerably in MBS, betting that he, and he alone, holds the keys to solving the Middle East’s array of problems. While not optimal, it’s fine, but only as long as MBS remains in power and free from trouble and misdeeds. We now know that’s not the case, given his role in the Khashoggi affair. MBS is now on shaky ground, suffering significant global blowback, including a severely tarnished image, and we have to wonder if his position domestically is in jeopardy. If he falls anytime soon, the entirety of America’s Middle East foreign policy goes down the drain, with possibly dramatic and costly consequences.

Another policy issue that realists, especially more internationalist realists, criticize is Trump’s apparent willingness to vacate US global leadership. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass terms this “American abdication.” Trump’s propensity to withdraw from existing international agreements and institutions, in combination with his team’s widespread divestment from global diplomacy on a host of issues, has fostered the rise of power vacuums in Europe and Asia. Under Trump, America is increasingly alone, and so are its allies, who have to live without the customary assurances that Washington has their backs. This has, in turn, created an increasingly destabilized world, with Russia and China pressing outward, fomenting disturbances in their neighborhood and beyond. This world is exactly the kind of world that realists—who prize stability and balances of power—abhor.

Let’s turn to the second angle I’d like to explore: Trump’s leadership. This is something that has gone largely ignored in the Trump-realism debate, which has tended to emphasize discrete foreign policies pursued and adopted by the Team Trump. In a sense, that’s not surprising. Academic and intellectual realism is usually framed as a systemic, or 3rd image, theoretical framework that “black boxes” things inside the state, like domestic politics and leadership issues. For many realists, what’s most important are anarchy, systemic power dynamics, and inter-state interactions. One problem, however, is that the historical literature, and even some of the old school theoretical tracts, that informs realism often takes leadership as quite consequential. And it’s a particular type of leadership that’s most prized by many realists, especially those who research foreign policy, decision-making, and narrative case studies: leaders who are rational, wise, strategic, and tough.

Think about realism’s embrace of Machiavelli, who is widely lauded as a master chronicler of pragmatism and power politics. In The Prince, Machiavelli argues that effective leaders are those who are ruthless about exercising power, value the health and security of the state over their own pride and glory and morals, manage well the staffers around him/her, and appreciate how humans and events really are rather than how they hope them to be.

Classic examples of this kind of leadership, according to realists, include Bismarck, Churchill, Reagan, and (George H. W.) Bush 41, among many others. Today, we can consider Vladimir Putin a contemporary example. He’s ruthlessly wielded power internally in Russia, stabilized the state, elevated Russia’s status globally, and has disrupted and undermined the interests of more powerful competitors. In short, Putin has played a bad hand—think about Russian chaos, instability, and weakness in the 1990s—into something much greater, allowing Russia to punch well above its weight internationally. If we’re being honest, Trump comes up well short in comparison to these leaders.

Trump’s time in office is notorious for continual chaos—in his administration, in US politics, and in US society more generally. Trump’s perpetual lies—numbering in the thousands by now—have eroded his credibility among large sectors of American voters. His approval rating has hovered around 35-40%—an amazingly low level of support given the strong US economy—and he’s just lost the House of Representatives to the Democrats. Trump’s erratic personality—manifested most clearly in his campaign rallies and Twitter account—results in a constant cycle of outrageous statements and then fierce blowback by the media. Polling data indicate that Trump’s numbers move in a more favorable direction during times when he’s relatively quiet and restrained; his numbers tank during his more irritable, erratic periods. This trend should be easy to learn, yet Trump’s wild personality and propensity for self-inflicted errors resurfaces time and again. Trump’s much-hyped management skills have translated into near-constant turnover in the White House, damaging leaks by his administration, and in-fighting and bickering among those staffers who have stuck it out. His close staff is filled with incompetents, kleptocrats, and suspected criminals. Plus, Trump is still under investigation for a host of possible criminal activities by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York.

So where does that leave us? How does trump fare as a realist? It’s a mixed bag, and that’s being charitable. As prominent realist scholar Stephen Walt recently stated, Donald Trump is the kind of guy to give realism a bad name. That’s, in short, how most realists view him. The two notable exceptions are Ohio State professor Randall Schweller and Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead, both of whom have lauded Trump for his realist credentials. But overall, realists today argue that Trump has instincts that seem to be consistent with realism, but he lacks a strategic vision, crudely executes foreign policy, and demonstrates little of the leadership qualities that realists traditionally value. I agree. At best, we have left a president whose views and policies do overlap a bit with realism, but who isn’t nearly the realist that he was labeled as years ago.

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