Donald Trump Will Not Save Realism from Itself

Foreign policy realists, for all of their intellectual heft, have historically struggled to translate their academic theories into actual government policy. Not only have realists failed to prevent costly U.S. interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria from occurring, but they have also been unsuccessful at advocating for and implementing acceptable alternative policies in place of these interventions. By any serious metric, realism has failed to deliver on its promise of a better alternative to current American foreign policy. The long list of realist failures is even more depressing when compared to the barren list of realist successes. Reflecting on this catastrophic track record, it is understandable that some realists would seek to find a shortcut to the long, hard road to policy relevance. Some realists, therefore, aim to outsource political responsibility for their ideas to an external champion, one who could then enact realist principles by diktat once elected.

Yet the recent decision by the Center for the National Interest (where I am currently a resident junior fellow) to invite Donald Trump to deliver a major foreign policy speech in Washington, D.C. represents a new low in realism’s search for a political champion. It is indicative of the flawed and counterproductive strategy that certain parts of the broader realist movement have adopted for furthering their goals. While the Center’s leaders later claimed that they invited Trump out of a benign desire to expand the scope and tenor of the foreign policy conversation in this year’s election, this line of argument is unconvincing. The Center’s defense of the event offered several approving statements of Trump’s views, and the tone of the speech was more that of a booster rally than a serious presentation. While previous coverage by the Center’s flagship publication, The National Interest, was highly critical of Trump, this has been replaced by more moderate criticism, tentative approval, and simpering praise. Whether intended as an endorsement or not, the Center’s invitation is tantamount to tacit, if not explicit, approval of Trump’s positions. As such, it is well in line with the opportunism displayed by others who have sided with Trump, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, and former presidential candidate Ben Carson.

To understand why some purported realists would be so desperate as to turn to Donald Trump as a potential savior, it is first necessary to understand the many broader underlying causes of realist foreign policy failures. First, modern realism remains primarily an academic theory of international relations. While some foreign policy practitioners (Henry Kissinger is an oft-cited example) have sought to translate realist theory into action, most of realism’s main proponents today, such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Barry Posen, Michael Desch, and Charles Glaser, have ignored the lure of government positions and remain, first and foremost, scholars. This contrasts with the neoconservative movement, whose greatest scholars have often also worked in government. Whether by choice or not, contemporary realists have rarely involved themselves wholeheartedly in the policy process and have refused to enter government service at a high level. As such, they have often situated themselves as external critics, rather than decision-makers.

Second, realists have failed to articulate a compelling, plausible, and — most importantly — acceptable narrative for America’s role in the world that both the public and elites can rally behind. Their vision that foreign policy should be conducted primarily, if not solely, on the basis of the rational interests of the state is naïve in that it undersells the role of domestic interest groups in the policy process. When realists do highlight the role of these interest groups in the formulation of foreign policy they rightly engage with an alternative explanation for foreign policy outcomes. Still, realists often bemoan how interest groups preclude a more measured, rational approach to policy rather than accepting the reality that they are a part of the process.

Foreign policy decisions always have distributive effects in the domestic sphere, meaning these decisions create winners and losers depending on the decision. Many realist policy positions (particularly those that are derived from structural and systems level theory) enrage, rather than placate, powerful domestic interest groups. For example, arguments for reducing military spending, changing the U.S. military’s force structure, and potentially cutting ties with long-standing allies all directly challenge entrenched interests, diminishing the probability of these policies being enacted.

Third, unlike other foreign policy ideologies, such as neoconservatism and liberal interventionism, realism currently lacks the organizational weight of think tanks, other research organizations, and donors to both provide a suitable arena for their ideas and train new generations of practitioners to enter into government service and carry those ideas forward. Beyond the Center for the National Interest, there are few organizations that directly seek to propagate realist views. Outside of the libertarian Cato Institute, other smaller, realist-friendly organizations such the Charles Koch Institute and the newly founded Niskanen Center are still working to grow their influence and carve out a foreign policy niche.

In addition to their small numbers and size, these organizations face other challenges, many of them self-inflicted. For instance, they oftentimes treat realism or foreign policy in general as an afterthought rather than their primary mission. Moreover, they generally adopt an educational focus, instead of aiming to directly impact foreign policy development through informal lobbying, networking inside of government, or otherwise influencing the legislative process. While due in large part to the legal status of many of these organizations as 501(c)(3)s, this indirect approach limits their influence and runs the risk of realist ideas bouncing around an echo chamber rather than truly entering the marketplace of ideas. Finally, whereas other think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for a New America Security are well known for serving as holding pens for prospective executive branch appointees, current realist organizations do not employ potential appointees, both a result and cause of their lack of influence.

Given these shortcomings, it is easy to understand why realists would be eager to find themselves whisked to the top by a sympathetic elected official, thereby circumventing the process of building an organizational backbone, training future government officials, and raising boatloads of donations. With the untimely political demise of their onetime standard-bearer (and former Center for the National Interest favorite) Sen. Rand Paul, pragmatic realists found themselves stuck in the unfortunate position of searching for a new figurehead amid one of the most polarizing and vitriolic presidential campaigns in recent memory.

Enter the Donald. Looking back, it is possible to see why some realists would have been willing to take a long-shot bet that Trump could serve as their champion. Despite a decidedly strange cast of foreign policy advisors, his initial foreign policy vision called for a more restrained approach, disavowing nation-building and its attendant waste of military force. This approach would be well in line with current realist thinking on U.S. grand strategy.

Still, provided the chance to prove his realist bona fides — or demonstrate any coherent understanding of foreign policy whatsoever — Trump stumbled badly. The initial reviews of his recent speech were almost universally poor. Reading the full transcript of the speech leaves little guess as to why. Not only did Trump fail at his primary mission to lay out a consistent, authoritative, and compelling foreign policy mindset, but he revealed once and for all that, for all the lip-service that he might pay to quasi-realist ideas, he lacks a deep understanding of realist tenets, and the policies he is likely to enact do not align with those tenets.

Many of the problems in current U.S. foreign policy that Trump diagnosed in his speech are valid, such as the abject failure of U.S.-led nation-building in the Middle East and the United States subsidizing of the defense spending of its allies. Still, rather than relying on a principled realist approach to dealing with U.S foreign policy issues, Trump was all over the map on his proposed policy solutions. For instance, the United States cannot “finally have a coherent foreign policy based upon American interests” and yet also toss around cheap talk about combating ISIL. From Trump’s speech: “I have a simple message for [ISIL]. Their days are numbered. I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. We must as, a nation, be more unpredictable. But they’re going to be gone. And soon.”

This is the foreign policy clarity that realists have been waiting for? It is neither clear nor a policy. Very few of the ideas in Trump’s speech were realist in origin, and even if they had been, they wouldn’t have been good policies. Trump sees spending on the military as efficient and effective in accomplishing national security goals; realists believe that neither is the case. Trump sees combating international terrorism as a profound national interest; many realists argue that it is an overblown issue that is not a true threat to American security. Trump thinks the United States should “defeat terrorists and promote regional stability” in the Middle East when the only key American interest in the region is oil. There are so many logical flaws and errors in Trump’s analysis that it is difficult to pick a representative few.

The temporary marriage of convenience between the Center for the National Interest and Donald Trump is a symptom rather than the disease itself. It is emblematic of a political movement that has not only failed to convince policymakers of its merits, but also failed to build the requisite organizations to garner true influence and train the necessary individuals to become the leaders and policymakers of the future. Many of the failures within the realist movement are of its own making. Failing to diagnose the root cause of the problem will only exacerbate its negative effects. Ditching any and all associations with Donald Trump is only the first step to making realism great again.


Alexander Kirss is currently a Resident Junior Fellow at the Center for the National Interest. He earned his M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago and B.A. in Political Science from Williams College.

Image: DonkeyHotey, CC