Is Donald Trump a Realist?

Donald Trump at CPAC 2017. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Michael Vadon

Trump’s early missteps are slowly being replaced with a realistic assessment of America’s national-security toolkit.

President Trump, when he was candidate Trump, was a darling of the realists. And for good reason—his motto was “America First”; no longer would the United States sacrifice its own interests to benefit those of other states. To that end, he promised to renegotiate trade agreements. He would declare China a currency manipulator. He questioned the value of military alliances, especially if allies did not pay more to defend themselves. He seemed comfortable letting Japan and Korea go nuclear if they sought to rely less on the American strategic nuclear umbrella. He opposed increasingly open immigration policies, such as those promoted by President Obama and implemented by several European states, notably Germany. He was not enthralled with the notion of nation building. He had little time for major nongovernmental institutions such as the UN. Most notably, he advocated a more harmonious relationship with Russia, which he saw as a key to resolving the Syrian Civil War.

Realists are beginning to have second thoughts. It is one thing to put American interests first. It is quite another not to recognize that those interests include alliances and trade agreements, and even, in some cases, multinational organizations. In terms of his rhetoric, especially his tweets, it appears that the president does not recognize the subtlety of that difference.

The president seemingly believes—or has been led by his closest advisors, notably Steve Bannon, to believe—that trade issues are purely a domestic matter and do not impinge on national security. Thus he was quick to announce that the United States was no longer interested in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. What he has failed to recognize is that by doing so, he has opened the door to a Chinese-led trade partnership in the Pacific that would freeze out the United States. Moreover, whereas the TPP, indeed other trade agreements, include provisions that would limit other states’ unfair trading practices, such as the exploitation of child labor (which permits underpricing of products competing with those of the United States, which bans such labor), a new China-led trade pact would have no such provisions.

Of course, the president could offset such foreign advantages by imposing new tariffs on foreign goods; he has indeed promised to do so. Yet it is unclear how the American economy would benefit from a trade war with its Pacific trading partners, since they are likely to retaliate with tariffs of their own. Moreover, since so many elements of the value chain that underpins American-produced goods actually are foreign made, any new barriers that the Trump administration might impose could seriously harm American manufactures. To some extent, abrogating the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement would result in similar disadvantages for American producers, particularly with respect to Mexican goods that are part of the production value chain. These are hardly “America First” policies; indeed, they smack of the very kind of ideologically driven impulses that make realists shudder.

The president may have emphasized during his campaign for office that he opposed Operation Iraqi Freedom; in practice, to abandon Iraq or, indeed, Afghanistan would be to hand those countries over to Iran and the Taliban respectively. Iran’s influence in Baghdad continues to grow, as does the Taliban’s reach in Afghanistan. Given Trump’s deeply held concerns about both Iran and terrorists, it would hardly be putting “America first” to give them even more influence in those troubled countries.

President Trump’s tweets regarding the utility of alliances overlook their value to American national security. It is true that many allies are spending far less on their national security than they did during the Cold War, and therefore seem to be relying on the United States to bear the costs of their protection. Nevertheless, the president does not appear to be cognizant of the noncash contributions of allies that do have significant monetary value. Examples include the cost of supporting and maintaining overseas bases, whether in Europe, Japan, Korea or the Arabian Gulf, and the savings resulting from pre-stocking equipment in allies as varied as Israel, Kuwait, Qatar, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Japan and—a non-ally—Sweden.

Again, the president’s seeming indifference to international organizations might seem sensible with respect to several United Nations agencies—for example, its Human Rights Council—or even the United Nations itself. But it makes no sense whatsoever with regard to the International Monetary Fund, or the World Bank, which are essentially American creations and whose activities continue to be dominated by Washington’s preferences. Were the United States to exit the IMF and the World Bank, China would be sure to fill the vacuum. It has already launched its own Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to compete with the World Bank in Asia. Given the president’s vocal concern about China’s growing economic influence, to leave these organizations to Chinese competition, or even their domination by Beijing, would be a major setback for U.S. interests.

Indeed, the same might be said of NATO; there is hardly a NATO initiative that did not have its origins in Washington. Were NATO to be disbanded, many of its members would no longer respond positively to American initiatives, as has long been the case. Moreover, NATO provides a unique advantage to the United States: by deploying its forces and equipment overseas, and committing itself to deter aggression against its overseas allies, the United States virtually ensures that in any conventional conflict, and even perhaps in the earliest stages of a nuclear conflict, it would not be fighting on its own territory. Walking away from NATO could hardly be described as ensuring that America is “first.”