What Trump’s ‘Principled Realism’ Means in Practice

Foreign-policy experts analyze the new Trump doctrine as Middle East leg of overseas trip ends

President Donald Trump this week laid down a doctrine of “principled realism” in U.S. foreign relations, which experts see as a combination of the president’s “America First” agenda and a return to pre-Obama normalcy.

Trump made the statement Sunday during a speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia, during which he tried to lay out the framework for a new American foreign policy in the Middle East.

“It’s sort of a restating of Trump’s view of America First.”

“It’s sort of a restating of Trump’s view of America First,” said Kyle Shideler, director of the threat information office at the Center for Security Policy.

Shideler said he views Trump’s trip to the Middle East as a commitment to less military intervention in the region while rejecting a wholesale retreat. He said that after eight years of former President Barack Obama’s distancing of America from traditional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia in favor of fruitless engagement with Iran, Trump is seeking once again to isolate the Shiite Muslim regime.

“The definite focus has been realigning U.S. interests in the Middle East back to familiar ground,” he said. “Matters in the Middle East are terribly complicated.”

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Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Trump’s trip to the Middle East suggests a foreign policy that prioritizes U.S. interests over human rights.

“Whether this is principled or not, it’s too early to tell,” he told LifeZette. “We have not seen the outcome yet.”

The proof will be in Trump’s ability to get results on a range of issues not just in the Middle East but beyond, like successfully confronting “L’il Kim” Jong-Un, North Korea’s mercurial leader, Cohen said, and getting him to “stop his insane mad dash to a deliverable nuclear weapon.”

Return of ‘Realpolitik’
Cohen said Trump appears more interested in what Saudi Arabia can do for America than what is happening internally within that country. He said the outlook harkens back to the 1960s and 1970s, when then-President Richard Nixon and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger navigated a complicated world of friends, foes, and alliances of convenience.

“The president’s trip and declarations so far — and the declarations of [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson — suggests this is a full-fledged return to realpolitik that we haven’t seen since the days of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger,” he told LifeZette.

Even if Trump does not make human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy, Cohen said, the president should be willing to press the issue as a tool against America’s repressive adversaries. It is a strategy that Ronald Reagan pursued with great effect during the Cold War, he said.

“Principled realism can and should criticize countries that are major violators of human rights, like Iran, just as Ronald Reagan, who was the realist, used human rights against the Soviet Union when it was in the U.S. interests,” he said.

Robert Kaufman, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California, said he does not see Trump’s “principled realism” as all that different from the “moral democratic realism” he has used in his own books.

The Trump administration asserted before the trip that the president would talk about human rights in Saudi Arabia.

“But he really did,” said Kaufman, pointing to Trump’s call for Muslim countries to drive extremists from their countries.

Kaufman said Trump has put together a solid foreign-policy team and has “evolved” on some foreign policy issues. For instance, he said. Trump struck the right tone with his military response in April to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in a rebel-held stronghold of the war-torn country.

“Whether it’s Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan, what good foreign-policy presidents know or learn is that it is a blend of ideals and self-interest,” he said.

Choosing Lesser of Evils
Kaufman, author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America,” said Trump’s first Middle East trip stands in sharp contrast to Obama’s “groveling” speech in Cairo, Egypt, in 2009. He said Obama’s apologetic tone achieved no benefits in a region sensitive to perceptions of weakness.

Kaufman said a foreign policy that is so cynical as to view everything through the prism of self-interest is not effective, either practically or ethically. At the same time, he added, the realities of the world dictate that the United States deal with unsavory characters. He pointed to a famous quote by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill explaining his alliance with the Soviet Union during World War II: “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

America should prefer democratic governments, Kaufman said.

“You choose the lesser evil if one is not available,” he said.

Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Muslims Saving Tomorrow, praised Trump for speaking clearly and unequivocally in the Muslim world about the need to confront Islamic extremism.

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“For years, we have been saying it’s important to face the issue head on,” she said. “He went into the belly of the beast, and he did it without political correctness … It was very powerful, with a lot of clarity, and I don’t know if another U.S. president has said it more clearly.”

One area where experts doubt Trump’s ability to deliver on ambitious rhetoric is on the issue of brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians. At times, Trump has suggested the elusive peace deal would be easier than some believe, although he sounded less sanguine during a joint appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, said peace is not possible until both parties genuinely want it. The Israelis do, he said, but the only peace acceptable to the Palestinians is one that does not include a Jewish state.

If Trump follows the well-worn path of American presidents trying to bring peace by leaning on Israel to make concessions, he will not succeed, he said.

“I can guarantee you he won’t, at least if he wants to do it the way that it’s always been tried before,” he said.

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