No, @realDonaldTrump Is Not a Realist

When it comes to geopolitics, the Donald’s worldview is fantasy and folly — not realism.

DE PERE, WI - MARCH 30: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks out and waves to speak during a campaign event at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI on Wednesday March 30, 2016. (Photo by )
DE PERE, WI - MARCH 30: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks out and waves to speak during a campaign event at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI on Wednesday March 30, 2016. (Photo by )

The Trump for President campaign may have begun as a self-promoting, ego-gratifying lark, but his success on the campaign trail seems to have convinced him he really is the best person for the job. It hasn’t hurt that his Republican rivals have been a decidedly unimpressive lot or that he has profited from the same disenchantment with an entrenched political class that has helped Bernie Sanders beat expectations among Democrats. It’s going to be an interesting summer.

To reach the White House, however, Donald Trump has to demonstrate to the voters that he can do more than plaster his name on buildings, insult women and minorities, make fun of Jeb Bush, and waste a lot of the money he inherited from his more accomplished father. If Trump is going to win the nomination and then the general election, he needs to convince a lot of Americans that he won’t pilot the ship of state onto a reef. Which is no doubt why he agreed to a lengthy interview on foreign policy with New York Times reporters Maggie Haberman and David Sanger last week.

Trump’s responses in that interview (and a number of his earlier comments) led a few observers — notably Dan Drezner and Thomas Wright — to suggest that Trump is “a neo-realist at heart” and to wonder when the realists were going to jump on his bandwagon. Indeed, Trump’s various pronouncements even led John Feffer of Foreign Policy in Focus to wonder if Trump was the campaign’s “useful idiot,” ideally poised to challenge “the bipartisan consensus that the United States should lead the world.”

Sorry, guys, I’m not going to go there, and fortunately I don’t have to. Trump may have said a few things that echo realist ideas, and his criticisms of past blunders such as the Iraq War are in line with realist opposition to that war, but his overall worldview and most of his other utterances are at odds with realism’s core elements.

The case that Trump is a “closet realist” rests on two pillars, both expressed in his interview with the Times. First, he has repeatedly accused U.S. allies of “free-riding” on American protection and suggested he’ll drive a harder bargain with those deadbeats. It is true that some realists (including yours truly) have made similar suggestions in the past, but so have nonrealists going all the way back to the 1960s. Indeed, U.S. officials from both parties have long complained about alliance burden sharing, and with good reason. Does anyone remember the proposed 1971 Mansfield Amendment, which called for halving U.S. troop levels in Europe so that the Europeans would do more? The resolution didn’t pass the Senate, but the possibility alarmed U.S. allies in Europe and helped convince them to ramp up their own defense efforts. And Trump does have a point: U.S. GDP is about 46 percent of the NATO total, but the United States provides nearly 75 percent of total alliance defense spending. This isn’t a “realist” argument, however; it’s just a fact (and one that no doubt resonates with the American taxpayer).

Second, Trump also suggested in the interview that it might not be so bad if a few U.S. allies — such as Japan or South Korea — acquired nuclear weapons. Once again, realists such as the late Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer have proposed similar measures at various times, though neither scholar advocated rapid or wide-ranging proliferation or suggested it would be desirable in all circumstances. Rather, the realist case for the spread of nuclear weapons is more limited: 1) It sees these weapons as useful for deterring direct attacks on their possessors but not for blackmail or conquest; 2) It maintains that the fear of retaliation would deter new nuclear states from using their weapons; 3) It argues that the slow spread of nuclear weapons would increase stability in some regional contexts; and 4) It points out that all-out U.S. efforts to keep states from going nuclear were not without costs. And to be fair to the Donald, he’s not wrong to suggest that a Japanese or South Korean nuclear deterrent would be more credible than their relying on Washington to risk a nuclear exchange on their behalf.

I’d wager a ton of money that Trump has never read a word of the scholarly literature on the complex topic of extended deterrence, and there are a number of other reasons why letting these states go nuclear might not be desirable for them or in the best interest of the United States, but the core argument he’s making here is not a radical one. After all, that same logic explains why close U.S. allies such as Britain, France, and Israel were unwilling to rely solely on U.S. security guarantees and wanted nuclear arsenals of their own.

In any case, those two points are pretty much the extent of Trump’s alleged “realism.” Nowhere in his Times interview do you find references to the core logic of realist theory or the key tenets of a “realist” foreign policy. Trump talks a lot about power and strength but doesn’t say where it comes from, and he never identifies what U.S. vital interests are or presents a George Kennan-esque focus on key centers of industrial power. There is no indication that Trump understands the workings of balance of power theory — arguably the core idea in the realist canon — and there’s little sign that he grasps the essential features of a globalized world economy.

Furthermore, realists in academia and in the policy world support the basic principles of free trade and oppose the protectionist ideas Trump routinely invokes. Realists favor free trade not because they believe economic interdependence guarantees peace, but because they regard economic power as the foundation of national strength and international influence, and they believe protectionism and autarky are strategies that weaken a state’s economy over time. Trump is correct that one needs a strong economy to be a great power — let alone a global superpower — but his ideas on how to preserve that status are so … well, 17th century. No prominent realist would embrace them.

One could go on. In his Times interview, Trump repeatedly declares that he’d be able to get better deals with countries like China or Iran by “walking away” from the table or slapping sanctions on them. This view completely ignores a central tenet of International Relations 101: All states have vital interests that they will make sacrifices to defend, and no country — not even the United States — can impose its will on everyone.

Indeed, there’s a deep contradiction in Trump’s entire worldview. On the one hand, he repeatedly tells Haberman and Sanger that the United States used to be strong but is now very, very weak. But on the other hand, he also seems to think the United States is so powerful that it can issue demands, impose sanctions, threaten to “walk away” (or worse), and expect other states to obediently fall into line. This isn’t “realism”; it’s the sort of fantasy world of U.S. omnipotence one associates with Bush-era neoconservatism.

Trump’s grasp of geopolitics is equally shaky and decidedly contrary to contemporary realist thinking. He says he’s worried about China, but he also says he’d be willing to pull U.S. troops out of the region. Most realists today regard China as America’s only potential “peer competitor,” however, and they see East Asia as the one place in the world where U.S. military power might still be “indispensable.” Trump seems more worried about the Islamic State than about the long-term balance of power in Asia, but most realists do not see the Islamic State as an existential threat and believe it should be handled primarily by local forces.

Last but not least, Trump’s instinctive approach to politics and diplomacy is at odds with familiar realist principles. In a world where no world government exists to protect states from each other and where security is of paramount importance, adopting policies and using rhetoric that isolates rivals and attracts support from others is the acme of skill. In Trumpland, by contrast, insulting political rivals, denouncing entire religions, and expressing contempt for other nations is normal behavior. Realists prefer to “speak softly and carry a big stick”; Trump’s modus operandi consists of waving the big stick while running a big mouth.

Trump, in short, is no realist. And even a casual reading of the Times interview shows that he doesn’t know much about foreign affairs. His worrisome combination of ignorance and braggadocio may sink him in the general election, but I wouldn’t take that outcome for granted just yet. Why? Because he’ll be running against a foreign-policy record that is not that easy to defend. If you consider where the United States and the world was in 1992, and you look at where we are today, one sees a series of follies and failures and only a few isolated successes. And that’s why a growing number of Americans are rejecting the hyperactive strategy of liberal hegemony the United States has been following for the past two decades and why some people find Trump’s crude nativism appealing.

The sad reality is that the American foreign-policy establishment has done a poor job since the end of the Cold War — and that’s a pretty charitable assessment — and it’s not that surprising some voters think Trump could do a better job. I’m convinced they’re dead wrong, but I’d just as soon not submit this particular hypothesis to an empirical test.

Postscript: There’s a final reason to question whether Trump is a “realist.” Many people think President Barack Obama’s views on foreign policy reflect a realist perspective and cite his recent Atlantic interview as supporting evidence. Given how critical Trump is of Obama, it’s hard to see how both of them could qualify for the realist label. I’ll address the question of Obama’s “realism” next week.

Photo credit: JABIN BOTSFORD/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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