The Skeptics

Can Realists Escape Trump?

Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy speech last Thursday showed what a nightmare Donald Trump is for foreign-policy realists, like me. Sure, Trump makes regular statements about allies, autocrats and war that seem consistent with my kind of realism: a more peaceful and less ambitious U.S. foreign policy. But he combines those thoughts with various bad and terrible ones—on trade, immigrants, torture, ISIS and more— and markets the package with the gravity and honesty of a dude on a corner trying to sell you the Rolex he has in his coat.

Trump’s endorsement may taint the realist notions he’s been poorly articulating on the trail, especially once he loses, as is likely. He offers defenders of our current meddlesome, bellicose and counterproductive strategy a perfect foil. He allows them to conflate prudent military restraint with protectionism, nativism and incoherence, label it all isolationist demagoguery, and then exhort everyone, in the name of decency, to toss the baby out with the bathwater.

That’s partly what Clinton is doing in the speech by casting the election as “a choice between a fearful America that is less secure and less engaged with the world, and a strong America that leads to keep us safe and our economy going.” Setting up that choice may be good electoral politics, but it’s bad for U.S. foreign policy, or at least for sensible discussion of it. We could easily be less aggressively engaged in the world and safer and richer for it, without closing down borders or withdrawing economically.

Some commentators suggest that realist academics should support Trump, or already do. Their reasoning is that Trump takes realist views, at least compared to other prominent politicians. Like modern realists, Trump questions the need for permanent alliances with rich allies facing limited threats; laments allies’ freeloading; criticizes the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Libya; suggests that allies’ acquisition of nuclear weapons might lower U.S. defense burdens; sees deals with autocrats like Putin and Assad as a way to avoid worse results; and doubts the U.S. military’s utility in nation building and democratization.

Despite those views, almost no realist openly backs Trump—even using a capacious definition of realist that includes watered-down, Washington-insider types. Why not? Maybe a few hide their support out of social or professional caution. More likely, policy differences and general dislike are the culprits.

For one, Trump’s realism is flimsy at best. The shallowness and inconsistency of his foreign-policy utterances make it difficult to pin him with any -ism. Whether he would govern according to his realist-sounding talk is unclear.