Randall Schweller, professor of political science from Ohio State University, wrote in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs that there are reasons to cheer about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. That statement itself makes Schweller an outlier. Schweller’s argument hinges on three fundamental points which appear to be well-understood by the administration, in part because the president’s own worldview is instinctively mercantile and transactional:
- First, the United States is at a disadvantage in global trade, and has been constrained from throwing its weight around by free trade dogma. While that has led to a Pinkerian “global middle-class upliftment,” it has hollowed out the West. Trump, being an “America First” nationalist, holds that no matter how many people are lifted out of poverty in China and India, it is the American working class whose interests are to be safeguarded by trade policy.
- Second, Trump has also attacked one of the greatest myths of the “norm and rule-based liberal order” as detrimental to American hegemony. To put it simply, Trump does not believe that the geopolitical hegemon should voluntarily put itself under multilateral rule of law at the cost of its own relative power. Trump’s America refuses to be chained, and instead intends to leverage the full might of whatever is left of American hegemony and unipolarity to create a favorable geopolitical scenario. Furthermore, he seeks to respond to what he perceives as the economic freeriding of the European Union, and the strategic rivalry of China, the only other potential peer rival of the United States when it comes to relative power.
- The third point—and related to the second—is that Trump has refused to entertain any further free-riding from rich countries. That, Schweller argues, is nothing new. The difference is that Trump didn’t just stop at reprimanding feckless Europeans but actually threatened to take the next (undefined) step.
While discussing Schweller’s essay, a friend of mine from D.C. pointed out that the risk here is to attribute too much individual coherence to Trump. While that may be true, it is also the standard procedure of foreign policy. The entire Libya misadventure, which led to the devastation in the North African coastline and led to Europe’s southern flank being vulnerable to millions of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, is tied in with the political roles of Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice, and was pursued in light of this backing even when Obama himself was reticent about any further military misadventure in a chaotic region. However, history will remember it as Obama’s folly. Likewise, policy decisions under Trump, both good and bad, will be attributed to Trump himself, and not some unknown bureaucrat’s memo.
But, that led me to wonder, how much is Trump’s personal opinion or worldview important when it comes to the direction of American foreign policy? Put simply, is Trump’s agency more of a factor in shaping the global order than the structure of geopolitics and forces of economics? And what could be a post-Trump, post-liberal grand-strategy of the United States?
To understand the debate, one needs to have a fundamental grasp of what realism in foreign policy is. Realism, as a theory of international relations, traces its roots to realism in philosophy and history. The origin of the term can be traced to the Melian Dialogue, in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, where Athenians attempted to persuade the inhabitants of Melos, a small free island in the Aegean and Spartan ally, to give up their sovereignty and neutrality. The Melians appealed to Athens’ sense of justice, equality, and norms. But the Athenians were unmoved, and instead coldly reminded the Melians that Sparta was a land power, that Melos was an island, and that Athens was in control of the sea. Amoral power and expediency, therefore, trumps morality in the geopolitical sphere. The rhetoric is molded accordingly, over the narrow and often hidden realpolitik based on strategic and economic interests. Interest is the defining concept of philosophical and historical realism. Humanity is a war of all against all (Hobbes), leaders and statesmen must have a balance or face a paradox of ruling through love and risking indiscipline and chaos, or ruling through fear and risking revolt (Machiavelli), and an enemy’s enemy is always an ally (Kautilya). War is simply a form of politics (Clausewitz), and prudence, restraint, and balance are therefore the keys to statecraft (Talleyrand, Metternich, Castlereagh). After all, there are “no eternal allies or perpetual enemies, but only interests which are eternal and perpetual” (Palmerston). This is the view of the realist school of thought.
It is in this light that realism started to develop as a discipline of international relations. British historian E. H. Carr’s classic work The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919–1939 was the earliest antidote to the optimism and faith in post-WWI institutions. But it was only after the Second World War that realism flourished as a theory in the United States. Hans Morgenthau, Carl Schmitt, George Kennan, Reinhold Niebuhr, Samuel Huntington, and Henry Kissinger were all either classical realist academics or practitioners of conservative realpolitik and statecraft. Morgenthau in his classic Politics among Nations claimed that balance of power is the ultimate aim of states for peace, and cautioned against public opinion, emotion, and morality as a means to statecraft, remarking upon the “incompatibility between the rational requirements of a sound foreign policy and emotional preferences of a democratically controlled public opinion.” According to Morgenthau, “Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place. The individual may say for himself: “Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish),” but the state has no right to say so…There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action.”
Neorealists like Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt made realism more robust and falsifiable with structural theories. The school of neorealism deviated from classical realists as it started to rely less on human emotions, or statesmen and their individual rationality, and more on the structures of world politics. To put it simply, the fundamental concepts of realism remained the same—the world was still considered anarchic, balancing was still the key and nation-states, and great powers were still the primary actors of international relations—but structural theories suggested that the actions of great powers and nation-states are dependent on structural forces like economics, industrial capacity and efficiency, geography, and military power. For example, Stephen Walt’s Balance of Threat theory determines four different causal variables, like aggregate power, geographic proximity, offensive power, and offensive intentions, on which depends a set of hypotheses of balancing and bandwagoning by different states when they face a threat. Likewise, there are several other sub-theories, within the realist school of IR which determines and calculates offense-defense balance, security dilemma, etc.
Needless to say, there are some marked differences between realists. Waltz himself thought his theory was systemic rather than causal, in the sense that it can determine patterns in state behavior, but is incapable of predicting individual state behavior, just like a theory of macroeconomics will be useless in explaining the behavior of an individual firm (an assertion subsequently disputed by Colin Elman). Within neorealism, offensive realists believe that states behave more as power maximizers, while defensive realists believe that states behave more as security maximizers. This debate still rages on today.
Naturally, the policy suggestions based on those theories are also very different. For example, two realists sitting in Washington, D.C., will probably agree on China having the greater potential to be a great power competitor and threat when compared with Russia, based on structural factors like GDP, relative power, industrial efficiency, and militarization, etc. However, they might still differ on whether to accommodate China (and buck-pass the security burden to Asia when it comes to arming Chinese neighbors), or to contain China and form a set of alliances to counter Chinese expansionism. These will both be reasonable choices but will depend on which school of realism they believe in.
Realism as we know it today is not one single uniform theory, but a whole paradigm containing multiple theories dealing with various factors of state behavior, all within the fundamental principles of international anarchy, nation-states as primary actors, and interests defining behavior. Realism, in almost all its variants, is associated with classical conservative political temperament, in the sense that it relies on conserving resources, prudence, and strategic restraint. Realists are factionally opposed to liberal internationalists or institutionalists, Marxists, and neoconservatives. It opposes all foreign policy approaches which are utopian, idealist, interventionist, and internationalist in nature.
While this might appear harsh on the surface, realists of all stripes believe that cultures and regions are not the same, and there’s more misery in promoting ideas and values through means of force. Aspiring hegemony usually ends in imperial overstretch and disaster, as well as peer rivals banding together to balance the potential hegemon. That doesn’t mean great powers are always rational. There are miscalculations and hubris. But that usually results in a severe lesson of history as the expansionist power is balanced in the Darwinian system. Power, as Kenneth Waltz wrote, begs to be balanced.
This brings us back to seeing the world as it is: ahead of us. Whether Trump himself is a realist is a matter of considerable debate that has been going on since he won the presidency. But that is irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. Trump is an effect of the last quarter century of liberal internationalist policy, not the cause, and to attribute the directional changes of American foreign policy to an individual would be fallacious. The realist understanding of post-liberalism is easier to define than from the perspective of other fields, such as those concerned with the cultural or economic facets of liberalism.
For the realist, the post-liberal era is characterized by the fading hegemony of liberal international institutions and the return of great power politics. By this definition, the post-liberal age is already upon us. We are only in the process of working out its full implications. Nor is this unexpected. The realist worldview predicts this consistent fluctuation between periods of peace and stability and periods of war and competition. As a result, the advent of a new period of tumult may well cause concern and urgency—but it does not bring on existential crisis.
The global balance of power has changed in the last two decades. The heady post-Cold War days died a dusty death on the sun-drenched roads of Libya and Iraq. As both Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer pointed out in their new books, the grand strategy of liberal hegemony practiced under Clinton, Bush, and Obama was predicated on the promotion of values and democracy regardless of culture and history, often by means of force. That was paradoxical. Mearsheimer writes: “The universalist strand springs from liberalism’s deep-seated commitment to individual rights. There are no boundaries or borders when it comes to human rights: they apply to every person on the planet.”
Naturally, the universalist and the particularist strains of liberalism collide as liberals divide the world into good and evil, resulting in collapsing social contract at home and endless wars abroad. But as great powers are incapable of pursuing hegemony, regardless of intention, nemesis follows hubris and imperial overstretch leads to loss of hegemony and shift in balance of power.
Realists praise the fact that Trump has stayed away from further nation-building adventures and wars in Syria so far, despite tremendous domestic pressure from the liberal-to-neoconservative foreign policy establishment. However, a genuinely realist administration wouldn’t stay engaged in Afghanistan or Iraq to build institutions and spend billions of dollars. Instead, it would follow a strategy of “offshore balancing,” which would mean cutting down any threat if and when it arises while leaving the administration and management of these regions to local powers and warlords to duke it out. A truly realist administration wouldn’t be so deeply engaged in a war in Yemen, nor take a side in the Israeli-Saudi-Iranian proxy wars. A realist administration would understand that NATO in its current form is obsolete and that an “East European treaty organization” under American umbrella is more prudent, with the U.S. allied to countries which are genuinely fearful of both Moscow and Brussels.
Under a realist administration, American alliances would be with countries which pay their proportional costs in burden sharing, as no well-off European welfare state would ever pay their share, as long as the U.S. is there to subsidize. The reason European muscle atrophied is because the U.S. is there to break the glass in an emergency. That is a feature and not a bug, preventing any single hegemon from controlling the entire European landmass, thereby continuing the Anglo-American grand strategy of the last five hundred years. A true realist wouldn’t arm Ukraine, expand NATO further, or antagonize Russia and China simultaneously, as it is not prudent to push all the potential peer rivals to an alliance. The change in the strategy in dealing with the Islamic State from an engagement which focused on attrition to an engagement that focused on annihilation happened under Trump, to his credit. However, ISIS was already pummeled and under severe strain even before Trump came to power, due to Iranian ground forces, and Russian bombing blitz. Through the same lens, Space Force is essentially a reaction to Chinese hypersonic missiles and Russian aspiration to achieve satellite warfare capabilities.
In short, there hasn’t been much change in the American grand strategy under Trump, even though he might be instinctively aligned to traditional realist thoughts. Schweller is correct that the return of great power rivalry in the National Security Strategy was due to the changing structure of international politics, and signals a realist bent. However, one might argue that it was inevitable after 15 years of failed democracy promotion and counterinsurgency, as well as the growing threat of Russia and China, and that there’s no evidence the same wouldn’t have happened under any other president.
This highlights one of the most important distinguishing features of neorealism in relation to a post-liberal world order. It is less concerned with the internal politics of the U.S. or other countries. For the neorealist school, the changing dynamics of internal elites, culture, or economy have little impact on the self-interested actions of great powers on the geopolitical stage. If American bipartisanship has one last bastion of existence, it is in foreign policy. Therefore, the neorealist predictions of a post-liberal order and how it thinks about the dynamics of that order are not reliant on internal politics. Instead, the neorealist lens is trained on the relative power differences between the major players. It is the changing dynamics of interaction between the U.S., Russia, and China which have brought about a new stage of global politics. Whether the result is power transition, cold war or hard power conflict will also be steered by this interaction.
The age of democratic nation building adventures is gone, and with it the ability to automatically assume American hegemony. Great power rivalry is here to stay. As for Trump and his impact on American grand-strategy, the sage words of Henry Kissinger, a classical realist himself, is appropriate. “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”