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.

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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.