This afternoon I was reading one of Newt Gingrich’s mass emails (I know), in which he argues the case for Donald Trump’s recent foreign policy speech. Trump is neither a “dove” nor a “hawk”, Gingrich explains, but an “owl” who wants vast American military superiority but with a hard-nosed emphasis on diplomacy rather than intervention, which – wait for it! – is what Newt has been arguing for all along. Whatever, that’s standard Gingrich. But in arguing that Trumpist foreign policy is actually a species of Realism and a new emphasis on ‘putting America first’, Gingrich is part of a line of argument which a number non-ridiculous people are now pushing.
The argument can, I think, best be summarized as this. Don’t be distracted by Trump’s malapropisms and ignorance of particulars. The foreign policy he’s advocating is a coherent foreign policy vision. It’s basically foreign policy Realism and it’s a debate we should be having since so much recent US foreign policy has been dominated by left and right variants of interventionist internationalism which has embroiled us in numerous foreign adventures with great loss of life and money.
I’m generally sympathetic to the idea that we need more of a Realist orientation if not a total embrace of it and certainly that we should genuinely see military force as a last resort which of course is what everyone always says but isn’t remotely our post-Cold War national policy. But in response to the pretty prevalent ‘we need to take Trump’s Realism seriously’ chorus, let me jump ahead to ‘Let’s not be so naive or oblivious as to think that what Trump is proposing is foreign policy Realism.’
While there are some superficial similarities, Trump’s foreign policy sees a United States that has been abused and cheated by enemies and allies alike. The goal is to set matters right and reclaim what is rightfully ours – in terms of the global economy and trade, our unmatched military power and the costs of the protection we extend to allies with that unmatched military power. By any reasonable historical or foreign policy big-think standard, this isn’t Realism but Revanchism – a policy of revenge and reclaiming rightful ownership. Such a vision is almost always destabilizing and dangerous. Revanchism may be understandable and perhaps even salutary when the revanchist power has actually lost something. But when the revanchist power already has all the stuff and is the strongest military power in the world, it’s almost certainly a recipe for disaster.
We might add to this that someone who talks casually about using nuclear weapons in what amounts to urban warfare situations or shaking down longtime allies for protection money probably isn’t a good bet for bringing about a more peaceful or orderly world. It is also worth noting that Trump’s foreign policy maps almost perfectly to his domestic policy – the same mix of grievance and promises of aggression with bad actors transposed from domestic outsiders and rising groups to abusive foreign states.
The whole rhetoric of “America First” is frankly stupid and dangerous. There’s no foreign policy that has ever gotten a real airing in the US, lat alone application, that doesn’t put ‘America first’. Perhaps not ‘America only’ but certainly ‘America first.’ It is no accident that “America First’s” actual historical progenitor is a 30s-era Nativist, anti-Semitic quasi-isolationism which was effectively allied with Nazi Germany. The real meaning of ‘America First’ has always been that America is being taken advantage of, being exploited and exposed. If Bolivia says ‘Bolivia First’ that’s one thing. They have been exploited and abused, at least arguably. In any case, they lack the power to make much trouble for anyone else. Neither applies to the United States.
Realists think Realism deserves a closer look. They’re right. But pretending that Trump’s mix of grievance and belligerence is anything other than what it is hardly advances that goal.