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.

Moreover, while improved relations with Russia (a “reset” by another name?) are to be welcomed, it takes two sides to improve relations. There has been much talk about the kinds of concessions that the United States might make to Moscow, such as lifting sanctions or formally recognizing Russian interests in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. There has been far less clarity regarding what the Trump administration might expect in return. Surely the president, who authored (with a ghostwriter) a book called The Art of the Deal, should know that no deal without reciprocal concessions is worth terribly much.

His tweets and other public musings notwithstanding, Trump has in practice thus far proved himself to be very much the realist. As a result of his meeting with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, he no longer speaks of abandoning NAFTA, but rather updating it. As a result of his meeting with Prime Minister Abe of Japan, he no longer speaks of Tokyo going it alone militarily. He may have taken a call from President Tsai of Taiwan, but he has openly reverted to a “One China” policy and has yet to fulfill his promise to label China a currency manipulator. Whatever he may have tweeted about NATO, he has yet to withdraw one soldier from Europe, or curtail American military exercises with NATO allies or non-allies such as Sweden. Indeed, the administration is contemplating increasing force levels in Europe, notably in the smaller members of NATO. This is hardly a sign of receding American interest in that organization, but it is a message to Russia that belies the president’s seemingly mild response to Moscow’s aggressive behavior. Indeed, the president no longer speaks of having the United States withdraw from any international organization, including the UN, to whom he has appointed a top-flight ambassador, former governor Nikki Haley.

Realists were disconcerted when the president insisted that he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A visit from King Abdullah of Jordan, whose commitment to peace in the region is beyond doubt, put paid to that idea, at least for time being. The king argued persuasively that moving the embassy would undermine any efforts by the president to forge an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, the president also backed away from his musings about a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and counseled Prime Minister Netanyahu not to approve the construction of ever more settlements. It was now the turn of the ideologues, both in Israel and the United States, to squirm in discomfort.

The president has shown himself willing to modify his ideological stance even with respect to immigration. Once the courts had made it clear that his original executive order would not stand, Trump issued an amended order that dropped Iraq from the list of countries to whose citizens an American visa would not be granted. He recognized, however belatedly, that Iraq was critical to his objective of totally defeating the Islamic State, and he responded accordingly.

In sum, the president has thus far revealed himself to be far more of a realist than might have been expected from his rhetoric either during the campaign, subsequent to his election, or since he has taken office. No doubt he will continue to rattle domestic and overseas observers with his late-night musings, and the presence of Steve Bannon and his acolytes at the center of power rightly will be a source of consternation for foreign governments as well as many American policymakers and experts—on Capitol Hill, among many in the military and national-security civilians, and in the think-tank world. Nevertheless, and for the time being at least, even Trump appears to recognize, perhaps grudgingly so, that the world of international security is not the New York property market. He may be backing into a realistic assessment what is needed to pursue an effective national-security policy, and that degree of realism should be a source of cautious optimism for all who look to continued American leadership in an increasingly unstable and challenging world.

Dov S. Zakheim is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest. He was under secretary of defense (comptroller) from 2001 to 2004 and deputy under secretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985 to 1987.

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