(Originally published by the Centre For Land Warfare, New Delhi, India. Republished here, with added links.)
Is Donald Trump a Foreign policy Realist or a Huntingtonian crusader? And if he is or isn’t, what can we predict from his administration? This question needs an urgent assessment, as that might answer whether there’s a possibility of a massive civilizational war in Middle East, which will directly affect all great powers, including India.
The literature on this is still somewhat open ended, and there is unsettled debate that went on for months. Dan Drezner started it, when he claimed that Realists should endorse Trump, as he had stark interest based and cynical approach unseen in American FP consensus for a while. To his credit, he has, since then corrected his position, and now thinks Trump is Huntingtonian and believes in civilisational clash. However, the debate raged on. Rosa Brooks wrote Trump has a coherent Realist foreign policy, as did Bjornson, in Dugin’s website in Russia. Rovere went ahead and even categorised Trump as Nixon-Kissingerian. Joni Ernst said she’s a Realist and she wants to vote Trump, although to be fair, there can be sufficient doubt that she knows what Foreign policy realism is. Luttwak recently wrote, Trump’s foreign policy ideas contain a lot of rationality and realism.
The push back against this was extreme as well, predictably, mostly from Realists (including yours truly). Walt wrote that Trump is quite obviously not a realist, as did Jeremy Shapiro. Zenko agreed and wrote the only realism that can be attributed to Trump is magic realism. Robert Kaplan concurred. John Mearsheimer, in fact went ahead and prescribed a neorealist foreign policy that Trump “should” follow, but which, for all practical purposes, is highly unlikely to pass given the reflexive blob-ian thinking prevalent in DC.
Where do we stand now, and ultimately what is Trump and how would he chart his foreign policy? The answer has two components in it, and one variable to tie it up.
Without going into theoretical details of what foreign policy realism is or what philosophical roots it traces its origins from, there are currently three primary assumptions that shapes a Realist foreign policy. First of all, Realists of all shades agree on the primary assumption that international system is anarchic, and there is no global policeman to enforce any international law or norms. As a result, norms, values, law, trade and domestic concern, while all important factors, fades in comparison to a Great power’s interest and spheres of influence, and raw aggregate power to achieve those interests. It is in this part, the Realist theory of IR and Realism as a foreign policy gets more complicated.
Assuming that states act primarily keeping their survival in mind, in international affairs, the existential threats for great powers therefore differ. For example, Syrian civil war, while a terrible human tragedy, is not an existential threat for American interests. Infact, other than North Atlantic, or Asia-Pacific, the two regions which are or can be considered existential for US hegemony, every other region of the world is an area where US can choose whether to engage in a conflict or not. Syria, of course, on the other hand, is the only middle eastern warm water naval port for Russia, and an existential Sunni threat to Iranian influence in the region. For those two powers, it is not a choice, but a prime concern for their geopolitical influence.
Donald Trump tapped on to this transactional approach and public mood. A military strategy of Buckpassing or Bloodletting in Middle east would have been perfectly sufficient for maintaining overall American offshore balancing role, but instead, both the Liberals and NeoConservatives steadily spent American blood and treasure in a region which is of steady declining geostrategic importance.
Trump channeled some of the concerns Realists have long raised. NATO burden sharing and Middle East interventions are classic examples. Bob Gates and Ash Carter raised similar concerns about NATO but Europeans were too complacent thinking American security umbrella will forever be there to cover European security needs, as European states steadily decrease their military and Intel spending and increase social welfare…until Trump happened. Similarly, American public, just like majority of the academic Realists, is opposed to intervening in Middle East, as PEW surveys proved over and over again both during Libya and Syria. Trump understood and channeled such concerns, and therefore sounded like he is a stark Realist.
Unfortunately, there’s where the similarity ended. While raising important points, with regards to NATO and Middle East, Trump is on a collision course with China, something no Realist would advice, at least not at this stage. Realists believe in relative gains, and no Realist worth his salt would suggest starting a devastating trade war with China. No Realist would also radically alter Taiwan policy, simply because logically Taiwan is qualitatively no different than Georgia in 2008, and it is puerile to expect American cavalry to rush in to save Taiwan and risk war with China. Infact, Kissinger, in his last long interview, actively suggested that a burden sharing and G2 with China would benefit overall long term American interests more.
Similarly, while there is scholarly consensus among Realists that Russia is a declining power in the long term, with declining demographic trends, mono industrial economy, and one way brain drain, there is however no Realist who would suggest that Russia is not a Great power. While agreeing to the fact that there are areas where the West can cooperate with Russia, like Islamic terrorism, nuclear proliferation and space cooperation, Realists would still argue that Russia is the only country that can realistically pose an existential challenge to US, due to her sheer military might. Russia also has its own specific spheres of influence, just like any great power, which needs to be respected.
So, what evidence do we find of Trump’s policies? Till now, his foreign policy team are filled with either prospective Neocons, and clash of civilisation enthusiasts, who wants to double down on a moral crusade with Islam and Islamism, and simultaneously antagonize the second biggest American peer rival in Asia-pacific. While it’s unlikely, that Trump can go full Huntingtonian, even if he wants, as the structural constraints of world politics, as well as the logistical limitations of a global civilizational crusade will hinder such grand standing, it is fair to conclude, that the debate about Trump being a Realist is over for good. Trump, for all practical purposes, is a mercantilist, without any coherent vision or universal grand strategy, and his chosen team thus far is contradictory to his proposed isolationism. Only time will tell, which pull is stronger, further engagement and civilisational crusade, or a draw back from the liberal overreach America is already suffering from.
Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is in great power politics and Neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.