Home/Daniel Larison/Realists and the Trump Trap

Realists and the Trump Trap

Dan Drezner is puzzled why Stephen Walt and I think realists have many strong reasons not to support Trump:

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.

In keeping with Drezner’s Star Wars reference, my first thought when reading this is:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4F4qzPbcFiA&w=854&h=480]

I don’t think most realists would see hitching themselves to Trump’s campaign as a way to “make a difference” in U.S. foreign policy debates. In fact, I’m pretty sure they* would conclude that this would be a good way for their ideas to be (further) marginalized and for them to be tarred by association with Trump. Walt describes a Trump presidency as a “leap in the dark,” which is a fair description of it, and Drezner keeps asking why realists don’t want to go take a flying leap. Perhaps because that would be the sort of short-sighted and ill-considered course of action that realists are warning other people against all the time?

Leaving aside some of Trump’s wackier and ill-informed statements about the nuclear deal, Yemen, etc., what would give realists any confidence that Trump would be a good bet with respect to managing great power relations? That touches on Walt’s point about competence, but it goes beyond that. While it’s good that Trump isn’t interested in fighting Russia over Syria (and it is a damning indictment of the other candidates that he is virtually alone in this), I don’t get the impression that he would be all that interested in reducing or managing tensions with great powers as a general rule. One of the running themes in Trump’s speeches is the desire to “beat” other countries, specifically China, so my guess is that a Trump presidency** would see a dramatic worsening of U.S.-Chinese relations and the raising of tensions in East Asia. How would he manage relations with the EU, India, Brazil, Australia, etc.? What is his position on the war in Afghanistan? Does he subscribe to the “no daylight” approach to managing allies and clients? Does he favor further NATO expansion? We have no idea, and Trump doesn’t seem inclined to give us many clues.

We have only the barest outlines of what Trumps wants to do, and much of what we do know is not reassuring. The only reason that this idea of Trump-as-realist is even being entertained at all is that every other presidential candidate is arguably even more irresponsible and reckless on foreign policy than Trump is. Maybe one could make the argument that Trump is the least awful candidate for realists, but that’s not saying a lot.

Realists also have the benefit of seeing what happens to vaguely realist-sounding candidates when they get into office. George W. Bush ran in 2000 espousing a “humble” foreign policy, eschewed nation-building, and talked up the need to improve relations with other great powers. In short, he said many things that realists could agree with, or at least avoided saying a lot of things they couldn’t accept, but he was also famously ignorant and incurious about the rest of the world. When there was a crisis, all of Bush’s supposed humility regarding the use of U.S. power disappeared instantly, and he and his advisers embarked on some of the costliest, most reckless policies in modern American history. Bush did all this while being surrounded by veterans of his father’s administration, who not only failed to restrain his worst instincts but also actively encouraged him to make bad decisions. In the event of a crisis, does anyone trust that someone with Trump’s temperament and fixation with “strength” wouldn’t do much the same or worse? If not, why would it be a good idea for people that care about the smart conduct of foreign policy to support him?

It occurred to me yesterday that Trump is the embodiment of everything that George Kennan disliked about mass democratic politics, so it probably shouldn’t come as a shock that a lot of the people that respect Kennan’s judgment aren’t fans of Trump.

* I don’t consider myself a realist, but I’m often counted as one and I’m sympathetic to many of their arguments.

** This isn’t likely to happen, but for the sake of argument let’s imagine that it does.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles