The content and trajectory of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy have defied the expectations of many of his supporters as well as his critics across the political spectrum. The president has moved a long way from his campaign positions of denigrating the value of America’s democratic alliances and renouncing America’s role as the world’s default power.
Trump’s core national security team — Secretary of Defense James Mattis, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — consider America’s military, political and economic power indispensable to deterring and defeating global threats menacing to America’s enlightened self-interest.
What Trump calls “principled realism rooted in shared values” has not crystallized into a doctrine. Moreover, the president’s volatility and unpredictability — partially cultivated but also intrinsic — make any prognostication’s about President Trump an endeavor marinating in conditions and caveats. Yet Trump’s actions speak louder and more favorably about the substance of his national security policy than his often contradictory and confrontational words on the subject. Several core premises suffuse Trump’s principled realism.
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First, Trump views international relations as a largely zero-sum game mandating American vigilance and a preponderance of power. His principled realism rejects categorically the illusions of globalists, liberal multilateralists, and post-modernists that international institutions and post-modern norms render the ineradicable danger of war obsolete. Trump has acknowledged — less often in word than in deed — that no adequate substitutes for American power loom plausibly the horizon, while demanding that our allies bear a greater share of the burden in providing for their defense.
In contrast to his predecessor, who saw “the arrogance of American power” as the problem, President Trump believes that the greatest dangers arise when our foes perceive us as irresolute and unprepared. He touts his program to rebuild the American military — the greatest single measure that the U.S. can take to restore the robustness of deterrence in vital geopolitical regions, which Obama’s assault on the moral and material basis of American power imperiled.
Second, Trump accords precedence to the threats emanating from great power rivals such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea rather than “unconventional threats” such as global warming or failed states. After briefly flirting with some version of Obama’s feckless reset toward Putin, the Trump administration has bolstered deterrence against Russian imperialism, reaffirming the importance of NATO, increasing the American presence in Eastern Europe, resisting rather than enabling Russia’s subversion of Ukraine’s independence, arming Ukrainian freedom fighters, and accelerating the development and deployment of missile defense.
Meanwhile, Trump’s calculated oscillations between reaffirming the importance of NATO and pressuring our derelict allies to do more has finally spurred some of them — most importantly Germany — to enact a sorely needed, long-overdue increase in defense spending and military presence in Eastern Europe. German defense spending has reached 2 percent of the GDP, its theoretical minimal target contribution, for the first time in years.
Likewise, the Trump Administration has backed our Asian democratic allies unstintingly in the escalating confrontation over North Korea’s nuclear program, reversing the dangerous erosion in American military capability, strategic clarity, and resolve emblematic of Obama’s vaunted but hollow pivot to Asia.
After initially flirting with an increasingly authoritarian, aggressive, and belligerent China bent on hegemony in the world’s most important geopolitical region, Trump quickly disabused himself of the illusion of his predecessor that either the PRC or Russia would collaborate with us to diffuse the gathering North Korean danger. Trump has wisely relied primarily on our democratic allies in the region as well as cultivating new ones his predecessor neglected. Above all perhaps in the long run, the president has revived President George W. Bush’s prescient initiative to facilitate a decent democratic India’s rise as a counterweight to China and radical Islam — a force that is also existentially threatening to Indian democracy.
In the Middle East and South Asia, President Trump has made substantial though tentative progress repairing the damage that the Obama Doctrine had wrought, putting distance between the United States and his traditional friends while appeasing and enabling a virulently anti-American, anti-Semitic Iranian theocracy using the Prozac of an unenforceable nuclear agreement to cross the nuclear threshold. His more vigorous and more wisely conceived diplomatic, economic, and military strategy has broken the stalemate that ensued during the Obama administration’s fight against ISIS. Trump has also succeeded in laying the framework for a tacit coalition between Israel and Saudi Arabia — both of which Obama deeply antagonized — to contain and confront Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.
Third, Trump’s principled realism repudiates the Obama administration’s time-based approach to the employment of military force, making withdrawal the priority over consolidating victory in favor of “one based on conditions. ” Unveiling his new strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan, the president emphasized “how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce the dates we intend to begin or end military options. … Conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategies from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.”
Fourth, Trump’s principled realism downplays principle to excess, especially his often repeated Obama-like categorical rejection of ever imposing American values. This is politically untenable and strategically unwise. The most successful U.S. grand strategies, such as Truman’s and Reagan’s, largely succeeded by reconciling ideals and self-interests. Notwithstanding Trump’s unhealthy attraction to strongmen such as Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping in China, and Erdoğan in Turkey that initially led him astray, Trump’s policy on this score is better than it sounds.
Generally, he has given precedence to bolstering our decent democratic allies: Japan, South Korea, India, the Eastern European members of NATO, and Great Britain. A decent democratic Israel now knows it has friend rather than an enemy in the White House. Even moral democratic realists such as this writer defend on ethical as well as practical grounds a tacit alliance with Saudi Arabia against the greater danger of Iran as the lesser geopolitical and moral evil, where an insufficient number of plausible democratic allies exist as an alternative.
It remains troubling, however, that Trump eschews American values despite his actions contradicting his rhetoric most of the time.
Fifth, Trump’s transactional view of politics distinguishes his principled realism from the more venerable versions of conservative internationalism, such as Reagan’s. Unharnessed to principle, the art of the deal can dangerously descend into unsteadiness, unpredictability, and expedience inimical to vindicating the national interest, rightly understood.
Sixth, Trump’s economic nationalism carried to excess, grounded in his excessively zero-sum game view of politics, may undermine principle and realism. Though Trump has legitimately insisted on fair trade, free trade as well as the spread of freedom serve America’s enlightened self-interest most of the time.
Seventh, Trump’s principled realism strives to restore a more traditional notion of sovereignty as the cornerstone of international politics. States that cannot control their borders cannot responsibly govern or defend themselves. Here, too, Trump’s presumption can become dangerous if taken to the excess of a categorical imperative.
For all the legitimate caveats and qualifications, the rationale and results of Trump’s “principled realism” have served as a salutary corrective to Obama’s dangerous doctrine. Whether Trump’s foreign policy proves ultimately to be principled and realistic hinges on whether he can harness his self-destructive impulsiveness, leaven his power politics with more principle, restore American prosperity and realize that decent democratic allies constitute more of an asset than a burden — especially to thwart China’s bid for hegemony in the world’s most important geopolitical regions.
Trump will also find it more difficult than he imagined always to eschew regime change as a method of consolidating a rightly ordered peace when the United States goes to war. Although Trump may denounce nation-building publicly and claim “we will not dictate … how people govern their complex society,” Nadia Schadlow, deputy assistant to the president and the Trump staffer responsible for writing Trump’s national security statement, knows better than to eschew democratic regime change as a categorical imperative. Her superb book “War and the Art of Governance” details why translating victory on the battlefield into desirable political outcomes sometimes calls for the post-war establishment and maintenance of decent democratic regimes when possible and prudent to address the root cause of the conflict. Our failure to heed that lesson after World War I contributed mightily to World War II.
Our determination to establish stable liberal democracies after World War II contributed mightily to achieving a durable rightly ordered peace between the United States and its vanquished foes. Stable liberal democracies are more reliable partners for the United States. It is therefore in America’s enlightened self-interest to sustain and extend the zone of democratic peace in vital geopolitical regions against hegemonic threats rooted in the character as well as the capability of menacing regimes.
As Secretary of Defense Mattis observed in April 2016, President Trump “inherited a strategic mess.” President Trump cannot solve all of America’s problems in a single day — a self-evident truth he often honors by creating grandiose expectations impossible to fulfill. Even so, Trump’s principled realism deserves — provisionally, at least — more credit than his legion of rabid critics admit. We are less unsafe and deterrence less precarious than it was six months ago because Trump has infused American grand strategy with the strategic and moral clarity sorely lacking over the previous eight years.
In the immortal words of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, but … sometimes you find you get what you need.” For all the legitimate reservations and caveats, Trump’s principled realism in its current configuration trumps the four more years of Obama’s “dangerous doctrine” that Hillary Clinton had in store for us.