Trump’s Conservative-Realist Approach Will Outlast Trump

Anne Applebaum laments the death of Wilsonian world order, in her latest column for the Washington Post. Let us for a moment skip over the fact that the notion we ever had a Wilsonian order is debatable. It is also, arguably, impossible as an aspiration, as any international relations theorist worth his salt would tell you.

History is cyclical, with intense “Great Power” rivalries, sprinkled with short-lived Hegemonic peace. The post-Cold War era was one such peaceful era. But it is over. Applebaum, however, remains undeterred. Liberal ideologue that she is, she claims that Trump single handedly destroyed the Wilsonian order. Oh, how pristine it was, with never-ending nation building in toxic primitive regions, wars of choice, and unsurpassable war debt.

Applebaum isn’t the only one here, however. There are two distinct lines of argument against Trumpian mercantilist realpolitik, and both come from the reigning liberal/neoconservative coalition of American foreign policy intelligentsia. One is that the world without the United States is receding to undemocratic “illiberalism.” This is blatantly false, to put it charitably. The European “illiberal” countries like Poland and Hungary are still democratic, in the sense they reflect the will of their people. They are just a conservative/nationalist democracy, as opposed to a liberal or social democracy, with open borders, mass migration or state-directed trans rights, for example. That’s apparently their great fault, that they value “narrow” nationalism, as opposed to utopian internationalism.

The second line of attack from liberal/neoconservatives is the lament of America abdicating its global role. This is mostly meaningless, of course, and fails to take into account first, whether the United States has any choice given the new structural realities of world politics, and second, what the American public wants to prioritize. And all of them think Trump is the cause, of American retrenchment. Trump is not, obviously. He is simply the effect of a failed quarter century of foreign policy. And, given the new structural realities of global politics, Trumpism will live beyond Trump himself.

President Donald Trump’s first national security strategy document is a testament to that, and it is a significant break from the previous administrations, and immediate post-Cold War consensus. Great power rivalry is back, and Trump makes no effort to hide it. In fact, this strategy is at least superficially honest about what it wants or desires. While Trump in his speech was more conciliatory in tone, mentioning that Russia and the United States are cooperating in spheres concerning terrorism, or China and the United States are cooperating with regard to North Korea, the document itself is clear in its understanding that Russia and China are in a great power rivalry with the United States. It terms this rivalry “strategic competition.” There is a certain bravado in trying to take on all great power centers across the world like the EU, Russia, China, Iran, etc., at the same time, but one might argue that global politics post-Libyan intervention and migration crisis has created an inflection point. Documents like these are guidance, instead of action plans, but it gives a glimpse of the administration’s priorities.

The core theme of the policy document is a more accurate version of Reagan-era “peace through strength” thinking, which is finally making a comeback. The Trump Administration highlighted four key areas of focus. Protecting the American people and securing the border seems to be the first one, which reflects the growing sentiment to look inward , reflective of an American public who are tired of interventionism. Securing infrastructure, material and cyber, means that America is getting ready to retaliate against potential interference from outside, a hint to other nation states. Promoting American prosperity, which is a bit vague as to how that is to be done in the era of reneging of trade pacts, goes unmentioned. The document does highlight fair trade, so chances are there might be a tariff decision and protectionism against China and the EU coming soon. Finally, promoting American influence abroad by supporting the rule of law and private-sector-led economic growth among our allies and trading partners, acting generously while also avoiding policies that encourage dependency. This also follows labeling Iran and North Korea as rogue regimes.

But the major deviation comes in Trump’s break with Europe, which is long overdue. Conservative, Anglo-American realist foreign policy giants, from Lord Palmerston and John Quincy Adams to Winston Churchill and Henry Kissinger, always claimed that alliances are not, cannot, or should not be permanent. The underlying logic is simple. Nation-states change over time, and that includes demographics, values, technology, military power, economy and aggregate power. Those factors, along with a change in the global balance of power, result in changes in what a great power considers its vital interest. It is, therefore, foolish to expect alliances to remain the same over long periods of time. Britain was allied with several countries and balanced against different rising great powers in different periods of time in its history.

Likewise, it is foolish to imagine that the interests of United States will cause her to be aligned with the same countries with whom her interests were aligned in 1945, or even 1989. The European Union, for example, under the leadership of Brussels, Stockholm, and Berlin, consistently clashed with Washington  on Iran, mass-migration, Jerusalem, Cuba, the Nord Stream gas pipeline, Russian sanctions, and China to name just a few. This rift will only continue to grow.

The failure to understand the simple fact that Trumpism is purely an effect of a failed imperial foreign policy, and not a cause, in incredible to observe. The United States now stands as a hegemon, and now faces what Great Britain faced during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956: massive debt, a disinterested public that wants to avoid any foreign entanglement, new growing peer rivals and structural realities, a bygone unipolar moment, and a new multipolar great power rivalry.  In a way, Trump’s strategy simply reflects these structural changes and aspirations of Americans, who are tired of paying their hard-earned cash for this Wilsonian and imperial foreign policy. Conservative Realism is about strength at home and prudence and restraint abroad.

NATO funding remains a major thorn, and while Trump took credit for some countries increasing their funding for NATO, the strategy still makes it a point that countries should pay for their security. Trump is right about rich European countries living on American taxpayers. But it is not true that Europe is  supposed to pay for Trump. That’s not how it works. And there’s no way Trump will be able to make Western European countries pay 2 percent of GDP for NATO, simply because there is no longer a Soviet Union to fear. American foreign policy at this stage is more aligned with East and Central European states, which are traditionally socially conservative and are wary of Russian military designs and EU social engineering. That is unlikely to change, and sooner or later, American policymakers will need to adjust to this new reality.

What Trump’s national security strategy does, however, is highlight how Americans define a conservative foreign policy for centuries. The last quarter-century was one of imperial hubris, which even when under nominally conservative governance wasn’t conservative in nature. It was a coalition of the liberal and neoconservative alliance, which was as radical and utopian as it gets. Conservatism or realism isn’t about changing the world according to our own values and vision. It is about conserving and preserving strength and having a hard-nosed understanding of capabilities. It is about strong law and order, security on the city streets, and defense of the realm. And most importantly, it is about a narrow understanding of patriotism, renewed civic nationalism and loyalty to the land under one’s feet, and not some vague broad allegiance to some internationalist ideology, whether Trotskyist Marxism,  radical Islamist, liberal/neoconservative interventionism, or institutionalism.

The national security strategy document, while simply a guideline, is important in the sense that it renews focus on realpolitik rather than values. Trump will be gone, but Trumpism will live, simply because of the structural changes that occurred in the world in the last decade and a half.  Neverending mindless interventionism promoting human rights and democracy in toxic regions is out, and narrow nationalist great power politics is back, whether one likes it or not. A foreign policy, based on Westphalian sovereignty, imitating the Concert of Europe, must make a comeback. This policy document just reflects the simple reality, something Applebaum and other latter-day Wilsonians fail to comprehend.

About Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, and a member of Centre for Conflict, Security, and Terrorism. He is also a regular analyst for Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, and a regular essayist for various publications, including The National Interest, The Federalist, and Quillette Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.

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27 responses to “Trump’s Conservative-Realist Approach Will Outlast Trump

  • One line stood out in this article. Modern day Democracy is stated as “They reflect the will of the people” and not ‘address’ the will of the people. Taking into account that the will of the people is easily managed through our media that reflection of it to show the merest attention to what the people really care. I agree with that perception of modern day Democracy. We no longer have that form of Democracy set up by our founding fathers. Our Capitalist system will not allow that, especially when it is predatory.

    Invariably predatory Capitalism where usury siphons the money from the people into the hands of the few leads to Plutocracies. Our elite run this nation and after they have molded what we should believe in they decide to reflect that belief. India is even a greater Plutocracy where the will of the people are molded and reflected by an elite.

    I disagree that Russia poses less a threat since the collapse of the Soviet Empire since she has since formed an alliance with China. Russia’s CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Org) and China’s SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Org) have formed an alliance which includes the Central Asian Muslim nations. This alliance spans the Asian continent from the China Sea to the East to Eastern Europe to the West. If Both Russia and China simply place a no fly zone over this massive region all transatlantic flights will be grounded.

    The “will” of the people now focuses on the human rights abuses of Iran or the problems surrounding Israel. The human rights abuses of India far surpass that of Iran and I personally find the Sino/Russian alliance a greater threat than Israel. But that “will” of the people, molded by the elite is the one DC will address.

    • Russia and Texas have the same GDP. I’m not terribly worried about them. They play a crappy hand as best they can but there’s only so much you can do with a pair of fives.

      • Moscow commands a greater army than Texas and those who rule Russia have less interest in the welbeing of the people than those who rule Texas. Texas does not have an alliance that could match that between Russia and China Texas is not a nuclear power capable of using it even if she was.
        finally when it comes to our economy and politics the only real comparison is our own history. Going by that our economy was freer from elite control in the years before 1913 than after. Our political apparatus started brilliantly and stayed that way for a long time before giving into a full fledged Plutocracy.

      • You’ve explained why Texas squirms under the thumb of its California hegemon.

        Hah ha.

      • I am not sure what you mean by that unless you mean Texas produces more than Russia, but Texas does not have an army and is under the control of DC. She is a state, Russia is a nation. Her alliance with China means they produce more anyway this is a specious argument.

    • “Predatory” doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means. As for “capitalism”, please define what you mean by that in 25 words or less. Note that the Soviet Socialists acquired capital, deployed capital, and sought to maximize their return on capital. Do you consider socialists to also be capitalists and if so, why?

      I prefer the term Adam Smith used, “the system of natural liberty”, to describe the economic system that predominates in the USA instead of the term “capitalism” which was mostly popularized and injected into common discourse by 19th and early 20th century Marxists and other opponents of liberty. Adam Smith’s term promotes clear thinking. The Marxist-popularized term confuses ones thinking.

      • Capitalism being a system primarily run by private enterprise, but because of all the connections to the government I guess we have a form of crony Capitalism. Doesn’t Russia have a Command Economy? or a Socialist economy or both?
        my use of predatory Capitalism was not fully defined. I agree. example Insurance companies who put enough obstacles to prevent from paying on their policy to sales tactics that practice deceit. or false advertising (Natural products being one or that Tobacco is harmless) . Recently almost entire shelves of products are marked “Kosher” including aluminum foil. A little research led to the fact that there is a small tax attached to products marked “Kosher” which then go to around 400 Jewish orgs. That is a hidden tax I should not be paying. Even the Grocery manager did not know about that. It is predatory to me. Our entire system has been made that way. We were not like this in the late 19th century or even the early 20th. Credit cards were introduced in the 60’s
        finally the nature of a predator is sneaky and camouflaged. It is not open and clear.

      • Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” is a great book that is the underpinning of our system but honestly do you believe we have a system of “natural liberty”? which implies hardly any government regulations, or interference. We have every form of government ‘participation includ city, county, state and federal.

  • I hope Mr. Maitra is correct. However, it is always possible for those with a vested interest in the ‘status quo chaos’ to ignore even the obvious and squander even more blood and treasure before retiring to the their offs-shore havens and leaving the rest of us to clean up (or merely wade around in) their mess.

  • “Trump’s Conservative-Realist Approach Will Outlast Trump” issued by Putin.

  • The comparison with Britain in the Suez crisis makes very little sense. In 1956 the British pound was under exchange controls; it would be another quarter century before they would be lifted. The Royal Navy and British Army were in permanent decline, in terms of numbers of ships, aircraft, sailors and soldiers. China and Russia, our strategic rivals, maintain exchange controls on their currencies while Europe and Japan are content to let their most basic import – energy – continue to be priced in U.S. dollars. Trump is adopting precisely the policy that allowed a cold, often wet island in the North Sea to become the greatest Imperial Power in history: the U.S. will control the seas and the skies but require its allies to bear the major burdens of any fighting on the ground. It was precisely when Britain ceased trying to win continental wars with its Army that its hegemony became established and its ability to leverage its finances literally exploded. By 1775 Britain was already the most heavily-indebted country in the world; yet for next 139 years its IOUs were considered the safest investments in the world.

    • I agree completely. This author is about a hundred years early. The only reason anyone pretends to be our rival is because we haven’t been roused to deny them access to the oceans worldwide yet. There is not a threat to us in this world other than Russia that can survive more than a year of economic warfare with us with their government intact.

      If China angered us enough, we could deny them all oceanic trade outside East Asia with six carriers.

      • The “war” with China has started a long time ago without our knowing it–security breaches, data hack, IP theft, etc. The past presidents knew the threat, but they chose to ignore it. So the US is losing, for quite sometime know. War with hard weapons is out of date. When Trump is trying to ban the bad guys from coming in, the liberal Left is welcoming them with open arms, just like the dumb EU countries.

    • I disagree. The analogy of the current US situation with that of the UK during the 1956 Suez Crisis is a useful one. It’s not perfect but no analogy is. “(I)n permanent decline, in terms of numbers of ships, aircraft, sailors and soldiers” describes the USA’s military today and for the foreseeable future. Don’t get too wrapped up in the question of exchange controls, the USA’s relative financial might is waning and as interest rates rise as expected (another element of Trumpism at work) then the USA risks an absolute decline as well. The USA’s “control (of) the seas and skies” is being challenged by Russia in Syria and along the Lithuania-Poland-Ukraine belt and by China in the North Philippine Sea* and the seas around Taiwan. Add to those challenges that our so-called European allies are increasingly unreliable (as Britain discovered about its own ally, the USA, in ’56).

      By the way, how many so-called government shutdowns, debt-ceiling crises, and credit rating firm downgrades did the British government have in the 139 years from 1775 to 1914? The USA is already a less reliable debtor than Britain was when “its IOUs were considered the safest investments in the world” and the USA is not becoming more reliable.

      P.S. By the way, “literally” does not mean what you seem to think it means. “Figuratively” is probably what you meant but as an emphasizer it doesn’t work the rhetorical trick that you aspired to pull off, does it?

      * aspiring regional hegemon Communist China prefers the name South China Sea

  • The past four administrations completely squandered our “unipolar moment.”

    “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.”

    Or, as Trump would simply say: “Sad!”

  • Excellent article. I believe there is an entrenched globalist world government/order that has had a hand in many colour revolutions, assassinations, arms dealings, mercenary hiring and of course propaganda. They have almost unlimited resources and will stop at nothing to achieve their ends. Trump is in for the biggest fight in his life and I’m sure he knows that. I’m 100% behind him (even though I’m not an American!)

  • USA is not a democracy it’s a constitutional republic. Regarding his legacy, it boils down to not fearing results of convictions and his recognition of Jerusalem is the best example. Everyone thought the middle east would be on fire from it INCLUDING Israel, and yet what came of it? NOTHING! There was no boogyman to fear. He is leveraging everything well and doing an excellent job. God bless Donald Trump, America, and I hope one day my democrat friends will talk to me again, God bless them too.

    • Every time someone says we’re not a democracy, and I ask them to define a Constitutional Republic, they give me a definition that King George’s government would satisfy (the one we rebelled from). As such I’ve come to regard it as a terribly unenlightening thing to say, producing little heat and no illumination in almost all cases.

      The fact is the USA is the international symbol of Democracy. You should ask an Englishman what he thinks about the notion that the USA is not a democracy sometime.

      • What we’d like and aspire to has nothing to do with how America works or what it is. Our president swears to uphold a constitution, not to uphold democracy. His democratic election is empowered by the constitution (secondarily). But primarily, social interest is what truly makes authority- leveraged by money and military might. Therefore the democratic ideal is tirtiary at best to American ideals. And the world has not looked up to America since Ronald Reagan…until today. And its not because of democracy. Its because of power. Donald Trump is not asking anyone’s permission here to build a wall. He told them to close up the daca deal on his terms. He didnt ask permission to recognize Jerusalem, he just did it. He didn’t ask permission to confiscate bank accounts of Venezuela’s top leaders, nor did he ask permission from Seth Klarman about clearing 1 billion of Puerto Rico’s debt to his hedge fund. So we have some elections and their outcomes are questionable, but no one questioned him once elected, because he had the military and cia on his side. Maga

  • Trying to decide whether this realignment is really happening or just a fond hope.

    The neocons aren’t dead yet, and the progressive left, though inchoate, fragmented and factionalized among its many (self) interest identity groups, is very much alive.

    The former will want to revive the big intervention machine and the latter wants to fund the utopian Swedish-style welfare state.

    In other words, our money’s not safe.

    By that I mean not just every penny of the money we have but that of generations to come.

  • As one commenter on an article at WSJ just said:

    GDP Soaring
    Jobs at Full Employment
    Consumer Confidence All TIME HIGHS
    Retail Sales posting largest percentage gain IN HISTORY
    USA is now the largest net exporter of energy in the world
    170,000 manufacturing jobs per month created

    We’re rapidly approaching the level of relative strategic power we had circa WW2. This is not, even remotely as the author suggests, the end of the American hegemony. This is simply the second chapter.

    There is no comparing the UK at Suez to us. WE are the reason the UK was humiliated there, and we are stronger today than we were then. China and Russia together are no USSR, either.

    From Guam to Panama to the Arabian Sea there is no power that can even think of challenging us.

    The author thinks we follow the British template. But we are not only an island – so to speak – we are also a continental power with all the endurance that suggests.

    • “..there is no power that can even think of challenging us.” except from the domestic liberalism plus the hugely corrupted Obama administration that weaponize DOJ and FBI for its Left wing political gains. The liberal left is trying to lynch its duly elected president. If Trump were to fail, it would be failed by no one other than the liberals Left. It is not to hard to imagine that US is in the blink of civil war.

  • Today’s threat is not the USSR; but Russia, China, Iran, and the several Global Terrorist Networks funded by them (who are in fact the reason for the massive Islamic migration (reflecting the lack of cultural awareness of many ethnic Europeans).

    Disarming in the face of these threats is simply cowardliness and a willingness to be made into serfs or dhimmi slaves.

  • “This policy document just reflects the simple reality, something Applebaum and other latter-day Wilsonians fail to comprehend.”.. and the domestic liberals refuse to realize and admit.

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