Donald Trump is only a few weeks into his presidency, but a pattern is beginning to develop around his foreign policy. In fact, in retrospect, this pattern is apparent in his personal and business dealings as well.
Before delving into his administration’s foreign policy, it is helpful to discuss some theories which students of international relations use to explain interactions among countries (“states” in international relations jargon). Since foreign policy is essentially the way in which one state relates to other states, these theories seek to explain how and why this interaction takes place.
There are four main theories of international relations (each has a number of sub-branches as well). These theories are also referred to as perspectives, since they acts as lenses which color the way we view inter-state relations. The major theories/perspectives are listed below, along with their main tenets or assumptions:
- States are the supreme actors on the international stage
- There is no authority higher than the state which can force its will upon it (i.e. the relationship among states is anarchic)
- States are rational, making decisions which are in their best interest (they are amoral in a sense, because what’s “right” is self-referential to their own interests)
- States desire to maintain and grow their power in order to pursue their interests and maintain their survival
- Rejects Realism’s focus on power politics
- Encourages international cooperation and the pursuit of actions which are mutually-beneficial to states
- Seeks to form international organizations and non-governmental organizations to encourage inter-state cooperation
- The Idealism branch within Liberalism values morality as a guiding factor in state interactions.
- Believes that interactions among states are a result of the “construction” of states, both historically and socially
- Tends to look within the state for causes of behavior, such as governmental structure and the personalities of leaders
- Believes that international relations is affected by ideas (i.e. and not just by power)
- Believes that issues of economics are of prime importance in inter-state relations
- Focuses on the competing interests of economic classes
- Believes that developed countries exploit poorer countries for natural resources
There are other lesser theories, but the preceding are the major groups. Notice that while Realism focuses on power politics, the other theories reject “power” as the primary motivating factor in international relations, each instead positing their own cause of state behavior.
With that said, let’s consider where President Trump and his administration sit within these four perspectives.
In looking at Trump’s statements on the campaign trail and his actions since his inauguration, I would argue that he tends to see the world through the lens of Realism. He seeks to grow U.S. power and pursue U.S. interests through this power, is skeptical of international organizations, and is willing to recognize that other countries also seek power to pursue their own best interests. Within this recognition that every country is seeking its own interests through power, he is willing to ignore a country’s inner motivations and the morality (or lack thereof) of its leaders.
In contrast, I believe that many of Trump’s critics view the world through the lens of Liberalism, particularly its sub-branch of Idealism which values morality in international relations. Note that one can be a political conservative, but still view international relations through the lens of Liberalism. The opposite is true as well: one can be a political liberal, but still view international relations through the lens of Realism.
The point, though, is that in international relations theory the Liberal perspective values international organizations and morality, while the Realist perspective rejects these in favor of rational self-interest and raw power. In fact, the preeminent “textbook” for the Realist perspective on international affairs is Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, in particular its quote from the Melian Dialogue: “The strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must.”
Keeping the Realist perspective in mind helps to illuminate Trump’s actions so far with regards to foreign policy. For example, it sheds light on why he is willing to work with Russia; he sees an advantage in the U.S. aligning with Russia in certain areas, believing it will ultimately help U.S. interests. It also explains why he “morally-equated” the U.S. to Russia recently. Frankly, I don’t think morals even figures into his thinking with regards to international relations (or in his business relationships), since he is a Realist (whether he recognizes this or not, he’s operating under its assumptions). What I mean is that, to Trump, his statement was likely viewed as “throw-away;” it served its purpose and now it’s done. Those who criticized Trump for stating that the U.S. is similar to Russia in its morals are coming from the perspective of Liberalism/Idealism. They believe that the U.S. should pursue its international interests in the company of states with like-minded ideals.
The conflict among these perspectives, particularly Realism and Liberalism, has occurred throughout U.S. history as various presidential administrations tend towards one or the other. Presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama leaned towards Liberalism. Presidents such as Ronald Reagan, despite his rhetoric about the “Evil Empire,” tended towards Realism, engaging in proxy wars in Central America and Asia to weaken the Soviets and secretly arming Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (while also arming Iraq at the same time). Even the rhetoric about the “Evil Empire” served to galvanize opposition against the Soviet Union in Europe and therefore increase U.S. power.
With Trump, I think we’re seeing a return to Realism as the driving force in U.S. foreign policy. Keeping its tenets in mind (amorality, power politics, and rejection of international organizations) will help to better understand Trump’s actions as he maneuvers the U.S. in the international arena.