Texas National Security Review

The Conservative Realism of the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy

How to relate interests, values, and costs in American foreign policy

U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement on the administration's strategy for dealing with Iran, in the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House, October 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement on the administration's strategy for dealing with Iran, in the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House, October 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

American conservatives are in the midst of a debate about how to relate interests, values, and costs in American foreign policy. This is not a new debate. As Colin Dueck’s introductory essay to this roundtable highlights, such arguments have been “common to all presidencies from both parties since World War II.”1 To students today, what might seem new is the divisive tone in debates among conservatives. Even so, historians recognize that the contemporary debate is muted in comparison to controversies prior to both World War I and World War II, during the Cold War, and beyond.2

Today, conservatives fall more or less into three schools of thought. The first is the conservative internationalism of the Republican establishment, which holds that the United States should not only defend its interests but also seek to uphold the liberal international order. The more ambitious neoconservative offshoot of this school calls for Americans to shoulder the costs of acting as the world’s policeman and promoting American values universally. This group defends the interventions in Iraq and Libya and has called for intervention in Syria and the broader Middle East. It has been criticized by other conservatives for advocating unconstrained interventionism and risking geopolitical overreach.

The second school of thought is that of the conservative non-interventionists, and it argues for American retrenchment. Such conservatives believe that American security commitments and engagement abroad are likely to drag America into unnecessary conflicts. They define vital U.S. interests narrowly and, while supporting a strong national defense, see few contingencies in distant regions that merit the use of force. In their view, the use of military force has “backfired, making Americans less safe and secure.”2 Conservative non-interventionists argue for staying closer to home and, in some cases, suggest that U.S. alliances are more a burden than a benefit. They are skeptical of policies designed to advance American values, preferring to see the United States lead by example. This group is highly conscious of the costs of American policy.

The third school of thought — conservative realism — includes the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy. In crafting its National Security Strategy,4 the administration sought to respond to key shifts in the geopolitical order, including the resurgence of great power competition, to acknowledge limitations in American power and agency and to modernize U.S. engagement with other countries and institutions. Its emphasis is on advancing U.S. interests and leaves other countries to make decisions about their own values. Conservative realism is sensitive to costs, not only in open-ended interventions, but also is terms of burden sharing with allies and partners.

The National Security Strategy of the Trump administration advocated for a strategy of “principled realism” — it is realistic because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics and that “the American way of life cannot be imposed upon others, nor is it the inevitable culmination of progress.”5 It is principled because “it is grounded in the knowledge that advancing American principles spreads peace and prosperity.” The strategy is animated by four principles.

The first is sovereignty: the preservation of American freedom of action and the unwillingness to cede control of decisions to multilateral organizations or other collective bodies. This view has deep roots in American conservative thinking, including skepticism of the United Nations and even hesitancy to support NATO at the beginning of the Cold War. As Dueck’s essay points out, the Trump campaign sought to appeal to conservative non-interventionists who stress U.S. sovereignty, and criticized conservative internationalists who champion U.S. engagement in multilateralism. However, this should not be mistaken for advocacy of retrenchment.

Instead, Donald Trump is wary of any separation of policy decisions from democratically elected leaders. His criticism of the European Union is rooted in a view that it diminishes popular democracy by undercutting the sovereignty of its member states. This position is neither isolationist nor anti-European. Rather, it arises out of a deep concern that the European Union is not fulfilling the objective for which it was originally created: to have a strong and capable group of European allies that are a source of order on the continent and can radiate stability in their wider neighborhood. As the various electorates in Europe are indicating, there is growing discontent with the path the European Union has chosen over the past decades and skepticism about the value of having surrendered many competencies to higher decision-making bodies too removed from the nations they are supposed to serve. Trump is similarly wary of giving up power to undemocratic bodies such as the United Nations. He is willing to work through such organizations, but his north star is whether these organizations produce actions consistent with U.S. interests and values.

Those who view the president as an opponent of the so-called liberal international order are off point. He is not intent on tearing down this order, but rather is merely raising questions about whether institutions established over 60 years ago are up to the task of today’s challenges — and whether they are serving U.S. interests. He comes from the business world and does not take the value of these institutions as a given. He consistently asks how they perform and what benefits accrue to the United States. Critics should remember that many Americans are also asking these questions.

The second principle is the need to respond to a world defined by competition. Trump’s National Security Strategy put competition front and center. Trump came into office suspicious of what one observer has referred to as “the unrestrained optimism of the era of globalization in the 1990s.”6 He called out the competitions that were unfolding across political, economic, and military spheres, all accelerated by advances in technology. Trump sees the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. The nature of the order the United States has created and led over the last century has not been static. It has allowed, and even encouraged, the rise of new powers. This order provided a foundation for other states to grow, and some of these states emerged as competitors or adversaries. The reality is that the liberal international order has enabled the rise of illiberal powers that seek to exploit that order to their advantage.

Central to this diagnosis is the administration’s emphasis on great power competition. The Trump National Security Strategy addressed in a straightforward manner the realities of global competition and the power shifts taking place in the world. Engagement with China, Russia, and Iran had not succeeded, as all three powers exploited the accommodating posture of the United States. The Trump administration called for the United States to reestablish a policy based on peace through strength, reversing the disastrous defense budget cuts under sequestration, and developing a national defense strategy to reestablish the balance of power in key regions.

Trump, like other realists, does not believe that the arc of history will take care of America’s security problems. He dismisses the view that new power equilibria (such as the rise of China) will not matter because international rules and domestic regimes would ultimately lead to convergence and political harmony. He has challenged the idealism of conservative internationalists, questioning whether the world is inexorably progressing toward liberal democratic values.7

These views have been upsetting to critics from the right and the left. An op-ed, published early in the Trump administration, by then-National Economic Advisor Gary Cohn and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, cited the president’s “clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”8 Critics disputed this assessment, with some calling it Hobbesian.9 Yet, events have borne out Trump’s view. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of a genuine community of common purposes with such states as China, Russia, and Iran.

The third principle is an emphasis on catalyzing change. Trump, conscious of the costs of ambitious policies, is cognizant that the United States cannot and should not bear undue burdens. He believes America’s agency is limited. Also, even as the United States remains the world’s sole superpower, it is not a hegemon capable of controlling all outcomes.10 He therefore believes that realism requires a new emphasis on catalyzing actions by others.

This has been a repeated theme throughout his administration, whether called “burden sharing” or sharing responsibility. When the president visited the Middle East early in his tenure, he called on leaders of Muslim-majority countries to take the lead in fighting radical Islamists ideologically. Although other presidents, whether Republican or Democratic, have called out allies and partners to do more in terms of defense spending, the results have been uneven. Trump’s approach, on the other hand, has been more forceful and direct. In a sense, he understands that catalyzing change sometimes requires making others uncomfortable.

In this respect, the Trump administration actively seeks cooperation, in security matters as well as trade, but demands reciprocity. The president has reached out to modernize America’s alliances, even as he forcefully argues that these allies must meet their defense spending obligations. And it has started to work. More NATO allies are now increasing their spending on defense, while Germany may be more willing to consider diversifying its natural gas supplies.11 Similarly, the president wishes to advance trade agreements but insists that such deals address persistent, structural trade imbalances, many of which are the result of tariff and non-tariff barriers, as well as currency manipulation. He has demanded that countries such as China stop stealing America’s intellectual property — the United States loses about $600 billion a year to intellectual property theft, with China accounting for the majority of cases.12 For the president, it makes no sense, from an American point of view, for the United States to care more about European or East Asian security than about its allies in those regions. As a businessman, he cannot abide unfair trade relationships.

The fourth principle is an unabashed confidence in the United States. He believes in American exceptionalism. “America,” he has stated, “has been among the greatest forces for good in the history of the world.”13 He sees a restoration in American confidence at home — through, for example, a growing economy — as an essential foundation for an effective foreign policy. He knows that the free world cannot stand up to revisionist powers without the leadership of a confident America, though he does not believe this means the United States should be a policeman in all the world’s hotspots or should impose its values on others.

These principles come together to support a strategy that focuses on geopolitical competitions in regions central to U.S. interests, particularly Europe, the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere. Trump sees the global competition with revisionist powers as playing out in these regions. He places priority on these contests, even as he recognizes that the United States will continue to play a role in other regions as well. He has questioned the idea of a “global” order. Rather, what is unfolding is a composite of regional equilibria that are being threatened by revisionist powers. This may seem a trite statement, but for the past several decades America has been chasing a “global order” that is impossible to achieve — while America’s rivals have been busy altering facts on the ground through wars (Russia in Ukraine, Iran throughout the Middle East), economic imperialism (China in Asia), subversion and disinformation (Russia and China), and even building new real estate (China in the South China Sea). What this administration has done is to reject the idea that a global order can be attained while regional balances are tilting in favor of U.S. competitors.

In each of these critical regions, the president, to the dismay of some conservative non-interventionists, has pursued activist, integrated strategies. In doing so, he has sought cooperation with allies and partners, though, unlike conservative internationalists, he has demanded reciprocity. His competitive response to regional revisions has been to bolster U.S. defense and catalyze greater efforts by others, with the objective of creating balances of military power sufficient to deter conflict or defeat any open challenge that might come.

At the same time, Trump seeks to come to terms with America’s adversaries. He seeks to reach deals with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. His competitive policies are designed to create incentives for those powers to enter into balanced agreements that achieve American objectives but that respect the legitimate interests of America’s opponents. While Trump is realistic in terms of his expectations, the design of his policies toward U.S. adversaries has always been to deter conflict, check their destabilizing actions, and cooperate when and where possible.