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Donald Trump: another neocon or finally a realist?

For many the new President of the US is a controversial figure. His firm declarations related to focusing on American interest are a source of fear among superpower’s allies. At the same time his tenure isn’t free from actions based on ideas. The world is wondering: is Donald Trump a continuator of George W. Bush’s neoconservative diplomacy or rather an author of its own doctrine founded on the realist school of international relations. For all of us it would be better, if the second option were the actual one.

Both perspectives are considerably different. Though both stress the importance of national interest, the neocons are driven by a number of ideas. The opponents blame them for believing that the US should remain “a world sheriff”, who keeps a close eye on international order and reacts when anyone violates international norms. The neocons consider it necessary for America to show its power constantly so that others respect its dominance. They also are interested in intervening in faraway lands, even if its not in the administration’s vital interests. That’s the thing that makes them similar to the so-called liberal hawks.

On the other hand realists believe that the US should simply counterbalance threats, and aim at maintaining its own power. Contrarily to neocons, they believe that the opportunities should be exploited and the influence should be broadened wherever it’s possible. At the same time the interventions, which are grounded just in moral constraints should be limited. To sum up, the two perspectives differ in that the realists consider peace as a result of avoiding unnecessary conflicts and the neocons support the notion that peace is possible only by forming the world in accordance with the American worldview and by using any means required to fullfil such a goal.1)The Neocons vs. The Realists, The National Interest 2008.

It was already during the electoral campaign that Trump tried to present his foreign policy as a realist. He criticized taking part in wars in the Middle East, which weren’t related to American interests. The then candidate stressed that the diplomacy conducted by his predecessors had resulted in over-stretching of American resources and limiting possible options in the decision-making process. He was also sceptic about the chances for democracy-promotion and he rejected ideas-based operations.2)Trump ran as a foreign-policy realist. Instead he’s become another interventionist neocon, Quartz 2017-05-04.What’s important, he announced his plans for a detente with Russia and his readiness to negotiate with North Korea.3)Trump leaving neocons in dust, The Hill 2016-05-23.At the same time he pointed out that the US won’t sacrifice its interests in favor of others. For Trump the reassessment of the alliances is a must, just like the fact that the allies should participate to a higher degree in financing common security initiatives. It wasn’t also impossible for him to use Japan and South Korea to balance the threat coming from Beijing and Phenian by giving nuclear weapons to America’s Asian partners. Trump considered it to be a way of limiting costs of protecting those two countries.4)Is Donald Trump a Realist?, The National Interest 2017-03-17.

The realist perspective is supported by many citizens. According to Pew Research 60% of Americans think that the US should focus on resolving its own problems, while other states ought to cope with theirs. The understanding that all of countries have their interests, which should be acknowledged by the superpower, is in fact a deeply realist assumption. Also international relations researchers such as John Mearsheimer noticed that Trump’s actions are similar to those undertaken in the last period of the Vietnam war.5)Trump leaving neocons in dust, The Hill 2016-05-23.This disastrous conflict forced the US to take a step back and reassess its engagement in wars that are unimportant in the light of American interest.

From the beginning of his presidency Donald Trump made some decisions, which may be considered realist. He limited the state’s expenses on foreign aid and increased military funding. The president started to cooperate with Russia and Turkey regarding the Syrian conflict. One can even argue that he made regional powers responsible for restoring peace.6)Don’t Be Fooled: Trump’s Return to Realism in American Foreign Policy by Joshua Turner, Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research 2017-04-09.Of course, some believe that the attack on al-Assad’s forces is a first step towards intervention. However, this act of aggression should be treated rather in terms of enhancing prestige aimed at presenting the capabilities of American power. It’s somehow similar to throwing MOAB on ISIS in Afghanistan. Those are manifestations of military strength which aren’t reducing the state’s resources but are showing attachment to specific values.

We need to remember that all of the aforementioned issues don’t mean Trump’s policy is void of ideas. In his inaugural address he stated openly that he’s aim is to destroy jihadism. His rhetoric is based on the struggle between good i.e. the civilized world and evil,7)Trump’s Realist Vision, Chronicles 2017-01-23.which iss somehow similar to the one applied by George W. Bush in the period before the invasion on Iraq. The West was presented as responsible for fighting the barbarity. What’s more important, such ideas are typical for neocons.

In a Rijad speech Trump announced his readiness to implement the so-called “principled realism”. He understands it as a policy focused on common interests but also embracing certain values. The ideas accepted by Trump may be defined as anti-radicalism. The President is aware of different views on human rights and cultural differences, yet he despises the extremism, which is embodied in ISIS and its ideology approving violence.8)Will Trump’s ‘principled realism’ let autocrats off the hook?, The Washington Post 2017-05-24.The other example is the US relations with Cuba: Americans are allowed to do business with the Cubans, but not with their government. Trump is trying to promote democracy and take care of the power’s interests at the same time. According to some, the President is trying to forge a doctrine which will balance ideas and raison d’état.9)Trump’s New Foreign Policy of „Principled Realism”, Selous Foundation 2016-07-03.

Trump’s voice is the decisive one. However, the advisors which surround him also matter. Obama’s term and the limited intervention in Libya are the best instances: the way the US army engaged in the conflict was nothing more than a compromise between two groups, i.e. realists in the army (who discouraged Obama from intervening) and liberal hawks with Hillary Clinton as their leader.10)Obama administration still deeply split on Libya, World Tribune 2011-03-30.It’s the same when it comes to the current administration. Shortly after the election Trump appointed two enemies of Iran, namely James Mattis and H. R. McMaster, and Nikki Haley known for her reluctance towards Moscow as his main advisors.11)Trump ran as a foreign-policy realist. Instead he’s become another interventionist neocon, Quartz 2017-05-04.Other experts try to glue realism with neoconservatism and point that diplomacy should be formed on the basis of ideology and democratic values, but also permit the existence of friendly undemocratic regimes.12)Realist or neocon? Mixed messages in Trump advisor’s foreign policy vision, Brookings 2016-07-19.There were also some realists who backed the rapprochement with Russia – those were General Michael Flynn and Carter Page, and others like Senator Jeff Sessions, who argued there’s a need for a “healthy dose of foreign policy realism”.13)The Magnificent Seven: Trump’s Top 7 Foreign Policy Advisers, Katehon 2016-03-30.

Some of Trump’s decisions can’t be considered as realist, but they aren’t neoconservative either. For instance, there’s the issue of resigning from the TPP deal. As a result, China’s power and influence over Asia will increase and the problem of child labor will continue. The second matter is important as TTP meant to limit it and make American products more competitive because of eventual levelling of production costs. There is also some announcements about introducing tariffs, which some American manufacturers support while other oppose.. Trump is also quite inactive when it comes to international organizations. He is also accused of throwing Iraq and Afghanistan in the hands of Iran and Talibans respectively.14)Is Donald Trump a Realist?, The National Interest 2017-03-17.

Except for the above problems, Trump is considered to be unaware of tenets of realism, though he likes to make references to them. According to some, realism assumes that the ideology of human rights and democracy should be abandoned, yet it also accepts using it as an instrument in advancing self-interest. Trump’s decisions are cooling relations with democracies. At the same time he’s strengthening bonds with authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia. Unambiguous resignation from using ideology as a foreign policy tool may hardly be considered as realist.15)Trump Is No Realist, The National Interest 2017-05-27.On the other hand we’ve got to understandthe President for supporting states that may counter-balance Iran’s growing power in the region.

Though Trump is a commander-in-chief, he’ll have to reconcile different views in the government. His diplomacy will be absolutely different from that of his predecessors. It won’t be pure realism, but many of its ideas will be embraced. We can expect positive changes related to using American resources and burden-sharing with allies regarding security. For the partners it may come as a shock, but in a long-term perspective it will help the US to remain a superpower and react appropriately to threats coming from other states, mainly Russia and China.

Realism stresses that diplomacy should be highly professional. Neoconservatism on steroids based on military threat was useful when it came to North Korea or Iran. Realists believe that the state’s strength lies in the ability of countering conflicts without even referring to one’s own military power. It’s more difficult, yet it ensures greater stability in the international system.

Some argue that Donald Trump is in fact going back to the roots of GOP. His speeches remind of those from the interwar period when the American right voiced the need to limit engagement in the world unless the US interests were at stake. After World War Two many of the republicans criticized the excessive use of power and waging senseless wars. They believed that the country should focus mainly on protecting its own citizens.16)The Neocons vs. Donald Trump, The New York Times 2016-03-10.

Trump is considered to be a particular kind of hawk.17)Trump Still a Jacksonian, Not a Neocon, NewsMax 2017-04-18.He stresses he minds his own business until someone attacks him (then he’s ready to retaliate using any means necessary). He also believes in a <em>bellum omnium contra omnes</em>, which forces people to react in a firm way sometimes.18)Trump’s Self-Pitying Aggression, The Atlantic 2016-05-19.Therefore, we may expect he’ll be unwilling to use force, unless the security of the US is threatened.19)Trump Still a Jacksonian, Not a Neocon, NewsMax 2017-04-18.Time will tell if Trump’s presidency is exactly such. Right now we can hope, there will be fewer conflicts, the new ones won’t be provoked and the balance of power will appear in individual regions (and as a result the world will become a safer place). However, it means that Washington will tolerate the existence of undemocratic regimes, which have no respect for human rights and cause their citizens to suffer. The realist has no delusions: we can’t save everyone and shape the global order unilaterally.

References   [ + ]

1. The Neocons vs. The Realists, The National Interest 2008.
2, 11. Trump ran as a foreign-policy realist. Instead he’s become another interventionist neocon, Quartz 2017-05-04.
3, 5. Trump leaving neocons in dust, The Hill 2016-05-23.
4, 14. Is Donald Trump a Realist?, The National Interest 2017-03-17.
6. Don’t Be Fooled: Trump’s Return to Realism in American Foreign Policy by Joshua Turner, Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research 2017-04-09.
7. Trump’s Realist Vision, Chronicles 2017-01-23.
8. Will Trump’s ‘principled realism’ let autocrats off the hook?, The Washington Post 2017-05-24.
9. Trump’s New Foreign Policy of „Principled Realism”, Selous Foundation 2016-07-03.
10. Obama administration still deeply split on Libya, World Tribune 2011-03-30.
12. Realist or neocon? Mixed messages in Trump advisor’s foreign policy vision, Brookings 2016-07-19.
13. The Magnificent Seven: Trump’s Top 7 Foreign Policy Advisers, Katehon 2016-03-30.
15. Trump Is No Realist, The National Interest 2017-05-27.
16. The Neocons vs. Donald Trump, The New York Times 2016-03-10.
17, 19. Trump Still a Jacksonian, Not a Neocon, NewsMax 2017-04-18.
18. Trump’s Self-Pitying Aggression, The Atlantic 2016-05-19.

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