The content and trajectory of 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 essential to deterring hegemonic threats in vital geopolitical regions. The President has fired Steve Bannon, the paladin of a sizable segment of Trump’s core constituency clamoring for American strategic retrenchment different in rationale, but similar in outcome to Obama’s Dangerous Doctrine that weakened America. Instead, Trump’s core national security team—Secretary of Defense James Mattis, UN Ambassador Nicki Haley, and National Security Advisor 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 prognostications 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 principle realism.
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 postmodernists 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 on the horizon, while demanding that our allies bear a greater share of the burden for 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.
Second, Trump accords precedence to the threats emanating from great power rivals such as Russia and China rather than “unconventional threats” such has 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, rebuilding the American military, increasing 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, including in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Trump’s calculated oscillations between reaffirming the importance of NATO while 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.
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 his predecessor’s illusion 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 both also existentially threatening 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 by putting distance between the United States and its traditional friends, while appeasing and enabling a virulently anti-American anti-Semitic Iranian theocracy that is using the Prozac of an unenforceable nuclear agreement to cross the nuclear threshold. Trump’s better conceived and more decisively executed diplomatic, economic, and military strategy has broken the stalemate that ensued during the Obama Administration’s diffident fight against ISIS. Trump has 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 certain approach to the employment of military force, which made 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 time tables—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 applied to excess, at least rhetorically. American ideals often serve, rather than undermine, America’s self-interest. Historically, the most successful U.S. grand strategies such as Truman’s and Reagan’s largely succeeded by reconciling power and principle. Notwithstanding Trump’s unhealthy attraction to strong men such as Putin in Russia, Li Ping in China, and Erdogan 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 a 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, in a region where an insufficient number of plausible democratic allies exist as an alternative.
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. It remains troubling, however, that Trump continues to eschew imposing American values as a categorical imperative. The United States still has a vital interest in sustaining and extending the democratic zone of peace when possible and prudent.
Sixth, Trump’s economic nationalism, if carried to excess and 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 serves America’s enlightened self-interest most of the time, especially with decent democratic regimes.
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 salutary corrective to Obama’s denigration of sovereignty will become dangerous taken as a categorical imperative rather than a strong presumption.
For all these 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. 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 in the breach, creating grandiose expectations impossible to fulfill.
Even so, Trump’s principled realism deserves—provisionally at least—more credit than his legion of rabid critics admits. We are less unsafe and deterrence less precarious than it was six months ago because Trump has infused American grand strategy with strategic and moral clarity sorely lacking over the previous eight years. To paraphrase the immortal words of the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want, but perhaps it may turn out to be what we need.” Trump’s principled realism sure beats hands-down four more years of Obama’s Dangerous Doctrine that Hillary Clinton had in store for us.