Donald Trump Should Embrace a Realist Foreign Policy

An HH-60H Sea Hawk helicopter flies over the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Flickr/U.S. Navy

But can he take on the infamous Washington “Blob”?

There is also no looming threat to dominate the Gulf, which means the new administration should move most of America’s military forces out of that region and station them over the horizon. The United States would monitor the regional balance of power from afar, but only reintroduce troops in the event a potential hegemon appeared on the scene. This policy of offshore balancing, coupled with quitting the regime-change business, would also ameliorate America’s terrorism problem, which is fueled in part by the U.S. military presence on Arab territory as well as the endless wars the United States has waged in the greater Middle East.

The Trump administration should let local powers deal with ISIS and limit its efforts to providing intelligence, training and arms. ISIS is a serious threat to them but a minor problem for America, and the only long-term solution is building better local institutions, something the United States cannot provide. Regarding Syria, Washington should let Moscow take the lead in shutting down that conflict, which means helping the Assad government reestablish control over most of the country. A Syria run by Assad poses no threat to the United States; indeed, both Democratic and Republican presidents have long experience dealing with the Assad regime. If the civil war continues it will be largely Moscow’s problem.

The new president should also work to improve relations with Iran. It is not in the U.S. interest for Iran to abandon, or not renew, the nuclear deal it recently struck and race to acquire a bomb. Tehran is more likely to take that step if it fears an American attack. After all, nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent. Therefore, the United States should seek to mend fences with Iran to take away its main incentive for acquiring nuclear weapons.

There is bad news, however, and it concerns East Asia. If China continues its impressive rise, it is likely to try to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. The Trump administration must go to great lengths to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon.

Ideally, Washington would rely on countries in Asia to contain China, but that strategy will not work. Not only is China likely to be far more powerful than its neighbors, but also they are located far from each other, making it difficult for them to form an effective balancing coalition. The United States will have to coordinate these efforts and throw its considerable weight behind them. American leadership is indispensable for dealing with an increasingly powerful China.

The fact that no country threatens to dominate either Europe or the Gulf is a blessing, as it not only allows Washington to concentrate its military forces in Asia, but also allows American policymakers to concentrate their strategic thinking on how to prevent China from becoming a peer competitor. That mission should be of paramount importance for the United States in the years ahead.

Unfortunately, it is not clear whether the Trump administration will be able to adopt the realist strategy described above. The foreign-policy community, which has deep roots and cuts across both of the major political parties, will go to enormous lengths to tame the new president and make sure he sticks with liberal hegemony.

Should it prevail, there will be more terrorism, more failed attempts to spread democracy, more lost wars, and more death and destruction across the greater Middle East. And most importantly, it will be difficult for the United States to concentrate on containing China, mainly because liberal hegemony sets no priorities. It calls for the American military to be everywhere. Let us hope Trump is able to defeat the Blob once he is in the White House, as easily as he did in the campaign.

John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

Image: An HH-60H Sea Hawk helicopter flies over the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Flickr/U.S. Navy