So a few days ago, with no ulterior motive whatsoever, I suggested that Donald Trump was the closest thing to a realist that realists were going to see in this presidential race.
There have been some responses from realpolitik quarters. They appear to be less than pleased with my suggestion.
The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison “can think of many reasons why realists wouldn’t want to get behind Trump.” They mostly revolve around the fact that Trump has talked to Middle East hawks such as Danny Dayon and Daniel Pipes and has spouted a lot of bombastic silliness about the Middle East.
If realists truly want to make a difference in American foreign policy, however, these objections are small beer. A realist would not necessarily care about the Middle East all that much. There are no great powers in the region, after all. From a realpolitik perspective, the United States should be happy if Russia expends blood and treasure to support proxies and preserve stability there. Which, by the way, is the position of one Donald J. Trump.
As for Trump’s less-than-pure-realist advisers, c’mon, all presidential candidates talk to different people. Rand Paul even talked to Bill Kristol and Dan Senor at one point — does that mean Paul now has neocon cooties or something? If realists want to make a difference in the presidential campaign, it seems to me they should fight for their worldview and talk more with the candidates who display some sympathy with realpolitik principles. And that would be Trump.
Over at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt eeyores his way through the roster of viable presidential candidates and their foreign policy views. On Trump, he writes:
Contrary to what Dan Drezner seems to think, Donald Trump is not the preferred candidate of foreign-policy realists. Trump is a nativist and a xenophobe, not a realist, and the offensive bombast that has carried him to the top of the polls is something no realist could endorse. Realism emphasizes the need for clear strategy, warns against making unnecessary enemies, and recognizes that even powerful countries have to work with others and that complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Realists do worry about how the gains from cooperation are distributed, but no realist that I know opposes a relatively open trading order, favors imposing high tariffs on China, or supports building walls to keep immigrants out. Realists also understand that Muslim-bashing of the sort that Trump has practiced is actively harmful to U.S. interests and a boon to groups such as the Islamic State. …
The real worry is that we have no idea what Trump’s foreign policy would be. We don’t know whom he listens to on the subject (maybe no one), what books he’s read, or whether he understands how modern diplomacy or real war is conducted.
So let’s take Walt’s objections in reverse order. I honestly don’t know how Walt can say that we don’t know anything about what Trump thinks about foreign policy. To reiterate some links, Tom Wright has dug into what Trump has been saying for 30 years on this subject. Josh Rogin’s interview with Trump’s chief policy adviser also seems like a significant data point. This evidence can’t be hand-waved away.
Walt is of course correct about Trump’s bombastic and ill-considered rhetoric toward many countries. But what if Trump is just aping the tactics of the last great realpolitik president, Richard Nixon? Nixon was a big believer in the “madman theory” of foreign policy rhetoric. As president, Nixon pursued a ruthlessly realpolitik approach to world politics. True, this policy did not turn out so well for the Bangladeshis, the Cambodians or the Chileans. But on the issue that realists care about the most — great power politics — it would be hard to begrudge Nixon’s successes. It seems hat Walt is making the perfect the enemy of the good here.
Finally, I completely agree with Walt about Trump’s xenophobic and nativist campaign rhetoric. But one could say that these nationalist sentiments are more sympatico with realism that Walt cares to admit. Well, I won’t say that, but Brian Rathbun’s 2012 article in International Studies Quarterly kinda sorta does:
The competitive and greedy view of social relations offered by classical realism sounds a lot like the beliefs that underlie social dominance orientation (SDO). Structural realism’s emphasis on the role played by fear and uncertainty echoes right-wing authoritarianism’s (RWA) threatening view of the world. SDO and RWA are both conservative phenomena, and consistent with this, I find that realists are the most conservative and right-leaning of all the international relations scholars … even if they are mostly politically moderate.
Doesn’t the above paragraph also describe Trump?
If realists do not want to support Trump because they do not like his domestic policies, that is perfectly understandable. If realists do not want to support Trump because they have ethical qualms about his racist sentiments, well, good for them. But to bring this back to a point I made last month:
This has been a problem for academic realists for the entire post-Cold War era. One could posit that until 2015, the two most prominent politicians to approximate a realist worldview — Patrick Buchanan and Ron Paul — also held political views that could be politely described as nativist and more accurately described as racist. The problem for realists who want to proudly articulate their worldview is that the political standard-bearers they would have to embrace have been just God-awful human beings.
This raises a much deeper political point might that realists need to confront: Why is it that the post-Cold War politicians who are the most amenable to realism also amenable to more toxic political views? Or, as Ross Douthat tweeted: