Trump's national emergency: The writing was on the wall

Trump's national emergency: The writing was on the wall
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Don’t be surprised at President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls for Republicans to be 'united' on abortion Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution Facebook temporarily suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens MORE’s national emergency declaration to secure funding for his border wall. He has put his cards on the table his entire presidency with slogans such as “America First” as policy guideposts. Those who dismiss “America First” as egoist and self-serving are not listening to the administration’s supporting rhetoric — namely, the continued use of the phrase “principled realism.”

“America First” is still present in administration messaging but in a political sleight of hand, the Trump administration developed “principled realism” as a more politically palatable refrain. In short, principled realism is to America First as wall is to barrier; it is nothing more than semantics. It is nebulous academic-speak for advancing American interests first — as Trump sees them. Principled realism means Trump will leverage the authority of the presidency to ensure American sovereignty, security and power.


In other words, to those paying attention, Trump has been primed and ready to depart from norms of the office; the writing has been on the wall this whole time — a border wall, that is.  

What is principled realism? The term “realism” is foundational in international relations theory. Though debated, academics generally accept realism’s emphasis on three pillars of anarchy, sovereignty and power. To realists, the international system is anarchic by lacking a central governing authority. Lacking central authority, state survival is paramount — and in order to survive, states must maintain sovereignty via defined and defensible borders.

Defensible borders implies military and economic capability, and such capability translates to power. Power is central to the realist’s agenda. Adding the “principled” qualifier to realism implies grounding in American principles best suited to “spread peace and prosperity around the globe.

What does principled realism mean for national security? Principled realism is, arguably, the defining phrase of the Trump administration’s national security agenda. The phrase appears in the beginning of the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). The first pillar of the NSS is to “Protect the Homeland” through tasks such as “strengthen control of our borders” and “restore our sovereignty.” Trump’s principled realism has been used in public speeches a half-dozen times or more during his presidency, including his recent State of the Union Address.

Realism, frankly, is not unique to Donald Trump. Realism and restricting communist expansion influenced our military involvement in Korea and Vietnam. Repelling the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait — and the maintenance of our economic, diplomatic and military interests in the Middle East — catalyzed Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Realist ideology influenced America’s decision to go to war in defense of the homeland against terrorist threats and aggression abroad following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Military involvement in each of these conflicts — consistent with realism — promoted U.S. interests abroad.

Beyond military conflict, the United States provided thousands of troops and billions of dollars in international humanitarian aid, disaster relief and peacekeeping efforts in places such as Somalia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Haiti in recent decades. But we didn’t lift a finger in the 1994 genocide of 800,000 people in Rwanda. Why? Because realism, rather than altruism, has been the guiding influence on the application of military power for decades.

For example, the 2010 Haiti earthquake killed an estimated 230,000 people and displaced nearly 3 million Haitians. The U.S military humanitarian response was motivated not by altruism but by a U.S. government intent on avoiding millions of Haitian refugees flooding the southern shores of Florida because of unlivable conditions in and around Port Au Prince.

The United States has adopted realist ideology for decades. It is only now, in the 21st century, that actually labeling our approach as “realist” has become taboo.

So what does principled realism mean for the border security saga? Those critical of the president’s actions on the border as rash and ill-tempered are not paying attention to the consistent messaging. Trump’s principled realism emphasizes sovereignty and defense of the homeland. With an understanding of what principled realism really means, it should come as no surprise that Trump declared a national emergency to justify funding the border wall project.

His message is consistent. For months, Trump has tweeted, spoken and written that the influx of migrants is a “border security and humanitarian crisis that threatens core national security interests.” After years of partisan gridlock in Congress and failed negotiations to address the perceived porosity of the southern border, Trump leveraged the authorities of his office — legally — to fund the project and deliver on his campaign promise.

This is textbook realism, and it is predictable — to those paying attention.

Ryan Burke, Ph.D., is an associate professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy and a former Marine Corps officer. The views expressed here are his and do not reflect the official position of the United States Air Force Academy, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense.