Principled realism: National Security Strategy ‘prudently’ advances democratic values


THE HALLMARK of the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS), which was released in December, is the idea of “principled realism.” This marks a decided shift from the policies of Trump’s two immediate predecessors, according to Zalmay Khalizad.

In his valuable book Realpolitik: A History, the British historian John Bew explains that realpolitik, or realism, was not, as often characterized today, an amoral approach to foreign policy. As Bew puts it, realists focused on the question of “how to achieve liberal enlightened goals—which included balance and equilibrium—in a world that did not follow liberal enlightened rules.” How has the Trump administration sought to resolve this dilemma? Khalilzad writes for The National Interest:

  • First, it has avoided the trap of equating strategy with a wish list of goals, disconnected from the realities and limits of power….In fact, the new NSS is the first serious top-down, government-wide strategy produced since the well-known Defense Policy Guidance (DPG) produced by the Pentagon in 1992, after the end of the Cold War. While the DPG—which I played a key role in formulating—was not embraced as a national-security strategy by the George H. W. Bush administration, many of its concepts shaped subsequent strategy documents and policies.
  • Second, the Trump administration took a clear-eyed look at world politics and at how we are currently positioned. In 1992, we had arrived at a unipolar moment at the end of the Cold War. The United States was preeminent, and the issue was how to consolidate that preeminence, preclude the rise of a global rival and prevent the domination of critical regions by hostile powers. That brief unipolar era is over…..
  • Third, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, the new NSS identifies strategic errors by which the United States has contributed to today’s challenges. At times the United States has recklessly disengaged, while at other times it has rushed forward with inadequately thought-through plans, or failed to take advantage of the golden hour presented by its actions. In still other instances, the United States has failed to preclude emerging threats in a timely manner. Often, it naively believed that the political systems of adversaries would converge with American values, or that generous arms-control or trade deals would induce other countries to follow the U.S.-led international order. These mistakes crossed party lines and involved both the executive and legislative branches. As a result, the balance of power in key regions shifted toward adversarial powers.
  • Fourth, the Trump administration has struck a new, cogent position in the perpetual debate about whether the United States’ foreign policy should be guided by the national interest or the country’s values and ideals. The Trump doctrine, reflective of a nation that is questioning the wisdom of some recent international ventures, suggests that the balance has shifted in favor of interests.

As a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, I was forcibly struck by the document’s demotion of democracy promotion, Khalilzad adds:

However, the document does tout the need to provide the world with an inspirational example and collaborate with like-minded aspiring states. Trump’s approach is to enhance America’s success—and hence its example—while respecting other states’ sovereignty to chart their own political destinies. He will speak to the aspirations of others to achieve freedom—thereby standing for American principles—but acknowledge that the United States cannot right all the world’s wrongs. This is the heart of “principled realism.” It means a policy of advancing values, but with greater prudence.


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