What you need to know
Donald Trump is perhaps the most realist of all candidates ever to be elected President of the United States, argues Crispin Rovere.
Early in the campaign I favorably labelled Donald Trump a Nixon-Kissinger realist. Since then two eminent realist thinkers, Robert Kaplan and Stephen Walt, have separately denied that Trump is one of them (us).
Kaplan and Walt have chosen not to support Donald Trump which is entirely their right. People make these judgments for a multiplicity of reasons, and sharing a worldview is just one of many factors for a person to consider. Nevertheless, their claim that Trump is not a realist is demonstrably false.
One clue as to their motivation is offered early in Kaplan’s piece where he says:
"He may have some crude realist instincts, but that only makes him a terrible messenger for realism. Realists like myself should be very nervous about his election."
Thus, denying Trump’s realist credentials appears to stem from some weird insecurity, as if associating realism with Trump threatens to discredit a whole school of international relations.
As to the substantive arguments, Walt is hard to respond to as he effectively says that Trump isn’t a realist except for everything Trump says or does – in recent days, Stephen Walt appears to have walked his claims about Trump back somewhat, while stopping short of acknowledging that Trump is a realist, he would appear to accept that description. Kaplan at least puts forward a case, and this is what is addressed below.
As Kaplan explains, realism includes a hierarchy of needs, and for readers I would add that realism prescribes that the nation state remains the highest form of authority. Since the first priority of the state is survival, power dynamics govern the relationship between states and this provides the framework for the global order. It's when Kaplan moves from defining realism to defining realists that our views diverge.
Being a realist simply means subscribing to a certain worldview. Yet what Kaplan describes when he discusses realists is not a worldview but a religious vocation; he even claims realists "worship" truth. After this, Kaplan’s critique descends into a series of personal slurs, accusing Trump of being an illiterate liar who isn’t conservative enough, that have nothing whatsoever to do with realism.
Empirically speaking, Donald Trump is perhaps the most realist of all candidates ever to be elected President of the United States. First of all, there is what Trump explicitly says about his foreign policy approach: "In a Trump Administration, our actions [...] will be tempered by realism."
That’s unambiguous. Trump has also made clear time and again that he isn’t interested in exporting American values at the expense of stability and security. Indeed, Trump goes much further than any of his predecessors or even most Americans – he expressly rejects the concept of American exceptionalism. In other words, Trump sees the United States as a country with interests like any other. His unsentimental realist worldview is beyond doubt.
As Kaplan implies, two realists can and do take opposing positions on a given policy issue, yet some things Kaplan says about realism are actually wrong. For instance, Kaplan says realism is about ‘moderation’ and being ‘wary of change’. In reality, realism demands flexible, even radical, adjustments to policy settings in response to changing circumstances; unhealthy attachment to the status quo being a fundamentally anti-realist position.
And this brings us to NATO. According to realism, all alliances are temporary. This is because alliances serve the interests of states and those interests evolve with changes to the global order. This is independent of ethics. After all, states can maintain friendly relations without being in formal military alliance. There is no ethical issue with this, nor is there when an existing alliance is terminated.
The point here is that, from a realist point of view, NATO should exist only so long as it serves the interests of the member states, and no longer. And frankly Trump is right, NATO served U.S. interests during the Cold War, but as presently constituted NATO is both a heavy cost burden and a strategic liability for the United States. For the realist, it is lunacy for the U.S. to risk nuclear confrontation with Russia over the Baltic States for the sake of ‘credibility’ when the NATO commitment itself is fundamentally incredible.
Now don’t get me wrong, any accommodation with Russia must absolutely settle the long-term security of loyal Baltic allies, but that’s a moral imperative, not a realist one. That’s also why I strongly endorse Trump’s NATO policy of getting the European allies to pay up. If France and Germany actually had a defence budget that Moscow couldn’t laugh at then Baltic security would be immeasurably enhanced. Western European allies should be encouraged (or compelled) to deepen military integration with the Baltic States while expanding defense capability at home.
Kaplan concludes with a nonsensical contradiction. He says that "realists, at least the respectable kind, harbour an internationalist vision."
Therefore, in Kaplan’s world to be a realist is to not be one at all. The only possible conclusion: Donald Trump is far more realist than he.
This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article.
TNL Editor: Edward White