Over the past few weeks, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been a little tough on academic realists and Donald Trump on matters of American foreign policy. I have argued that the former tend to whinge too much about their lack of influence on foreign policy, and the latter tends to whinge too much without any apparent foreign policy advisers.
Over the weekend, however, Bloomberg View’s Josh Rogin did some reporting about Trump’s foreign policy team, and it turns out that these two issues are now related.
Rogin reports that Trump has talked to a few foreign policy people (Harvard-educated historian Daniel Pipes, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Dayon, former Defense Intelligence Agency head Michael Flynn). In his interview with Trump policy adviser Sam Clovis, Rogin also reveals that Clovis speaks exactly like Trump (“There’s a lot more to [Trump’s foreign policy] than what our opponents and the pundits think. We play them like a five-string banjo because at the end of the day, they are going to look stupid.”)
The big story, however, is that Trump and his advisers think of themselves as stone-cold realists:
Trump’s narrow definition of “national interest” does not include things like democracy promotion, humanitarian intervention, the responsibility to protect people from atrocities or the advocacy of human rights abroad. Trump believes that economic engagement will lead to political opening in the long run. He doesn’t think the U.S. government should spend blood or treasure on trying to change other countries’ systems.
“This is a long game; it’s not a short game,” Clovis said. He faulted neoconservatives who “think you can go out there and in three weeks after Iraq collapses you can create a constitutional democracy over there.”
The Trump campaign thinks of this approach as pragmatic and realistic. Like classical realists, Trump wants to deal with states and governments, not non-state actors or international organizations. That, according to his advisers, is why he sometimes seems to praise strongmen who lead their states as executives with absolute power. Trump sees Putin and other dictators as businessmen doing what any CEO would do, fighting for their organization.
If they’re being intellectually honest, they would. Trump’s team hits on the major realpolitik talking points with respect to American foreign policy in these sentiments: a reluctance to expend U.S. blood and treasure overseas, an assumption of other states as rational unitary actors maximizing their interest defined as power, a reluctance to export American values, and a deep disdain for neoconservative approaches to the world. We also know from Tom Wright that Trump evinces a strong relative gains view of great power politics, checking another realist box. And a lot of what Trump is saying resonates with American attitudes on this subject.
So here’s my question to academic realists: After reading complaint after complaint after complaint that realism has been marginalized, it turns out that the leading candidate for the GOP nomination for president this year is a budding realist. He certainly sounds more realist than, say, Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton. And yet questions have been raised about his foreign policy gravitas.
This is the perfect moment for realists to intervene in the marketplace of ideas and publicly endorse Trump. Sure, he’s not a perfect realist, but that candidate doesn’t exist (much like the perfect neoconservative or perfect liberal internationalist doesn’t exist). Sure, he has said some controversial things, but academic realists have not shied away from controversial pronouncements either. If realists really want to have some skin in the American foreign policy game, they will not find a better vessel than Trump.
For all I know, academic realists are secretly advising Trump. But this is about the marketplace of ideas and speaking truth to power. The public, particularly the GOP public, is anxious about American national security. They deserve to know whether what Trump is saying is consistent with a viable foreign policy worldview. For a school of thought that believes it lacks influence, this is the perfect moment to marry its rigorous, severe logic with the emotive language of a flesh-and-blood candidate for president, and possibly help to reduce that candidate’s massive unfavorables in both the country and the foreign policy community.
This is realism’s moment in the foreign policy sun. It will be interesting to see whether any academic realists take the opportunity to seize it.