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Trump’s “Principled Realism”

Back in February, soon after President Trump took office, I posted that I thought he would pursue a foreign policy aligned with the international relations theory or perspective of “realism” (original article here).

By Aaron Simms

To summarize, the realist perspective believes the following:

  • 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

President Trump’s speech last night about Afghanistan and South Asia served as a further movement towards realism.  In the speech, he expressed a pivot from the liberalism and idealism of past administrations to what he called “principled realism.”  The most telling statement of the speech in this regard was:

But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.

As part of this “principled realism,” President Trump articulated the following “pillars:”

  1. Basing decisions on “conditions on the ground” rather than “arbitrary timetables.”
  2. Integrating American diplomatic, economic, and military power to achieve America’s goals.  In Afghanistan, this means enabling the Afghan military and government to be able to chart their own course once the fight against terrorism is won.
  3. Putting pressure on Pakistan to fight terrorists within its borders and to stop sheltering them.
  4. Strengthening America’s partnership with India and increasing India’s role in the region and in Afghanistan.  India can help with economic development in the area.
  5. Loosening the rules of engagement (ROE) that American military forces are bound by, in order to enable them to better fight terrorists and hostile forces.

In the short term, Trump’s speech means an increased American, and potentially NATO, military presence in Afghanistan.

Longer term, it seems to indicate that the outcome for Afghanistan may well be a negotiated peace with all parties involved in the government of the country, including the Taliban (as Trump stated in his speech).

Trump’s speech also means that India may arise as a power to rival China in the region and serve as a check on its ambitions.  The message to China is that America will find other partners willing to work with it, if China is unable or unwilling.


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