At first glance, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNo Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way Biden should pivot to a pro-growth strategy on immigration reform One year on, a critical role needs to be filled by the administration MORE seem to have nothing in common regarding foreign policy. Trump’s vivid and harsh rhetoric seems the polar opposite of Obama’s cool and cerebral approach to international affairs.
But in fact, these two dissimilar presidents have the same broad approach to America’s foreign policy. Both are foreign policy “realists.” Both believe that the world is a collection of nation states each primarily concerned with their own interests and often in competition with each other.
Realism is best understood in its contrast with the rival approach of liberalism, which argues that ever more complex ties between nations have made it increasingly difficult to define national interest and have decreased the usefulness of military power.
Foreign policy liberals seek to build strong multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations and European Union, in order to lessen the primacy of the nation state in international affairs and, correspondingly, to reduce the use of military force. International human rights and international law are much more important goals to liberals than to realists.
Trump is an exuberant realist who thinks of the world in terms of America’s national interest. “America first” means employing the nation’s economic and military power to improve the life of its citizens. Other nations are useful to the extent that they contribute to Trump’s primarily national goals. Trump’s tools include employing negotiation and unpredictability in pursuing national ends.
Trump believes Obama failed at protecting the nation’s interests, tweeting that his predecessor’s foreign policy has been a “total failure” earlier this year. Given this denunciation, how can Obama have a similar foreign policy approach to that of Trump?
Obama professed an admiration for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush and his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, who was in office from 1989 to 1993. Their foreign policy was realist, but with a greater emphasis on predictability, diplomacy and multilateral cooperation than Trump has thus far pursued.
Obama’s realist approach was reflected in many of his strategies. Analyst Paul Pillar summarized them as “deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it were…adapt to differences in different situations…pay heed to geopolitics…states have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.”
These are approaches evident in Trump’s policies as well. Trump’s decision to increase troops in Afghanistan reflects conditions there on the ground and the geopolitical importance of the country, not his previous campaign skepticism. Beyond his hot rhetoric, Trump’s actions toward North Korea seek to bind the common interests of nations in the region and on the UN Security Council in a united response.
After eight months in office, Trump’s actual shifts from the previous administration’s foreign policies are pretty limited in scope. Trump has substantially altered Obama’s foreign policies in only four areas: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Syrian war, the travel ban, and the Paris climate accord. A possible fifth major divergence in the future may be the Iran nuclear deal.
Aside from Trump’s fiery rhetoric, limited or no change has occurred in 11 foreign policy areas: Russia, North Korea, China, Afghanistan, Cuba, ISIS, NATO, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mexican border wall, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What really distinguishes Trump from Obama is his differing empirical assessment of America’s status in the world. Obama saw climate change, Russian aggression, and a growing Asia as immediate national concerns. For Trump, the United States faces trade disasters, nations that need to pay more for their own defense, and the strong threat of international terrorism.
Obama believed in a cautious pursuit of national interest through diplomacy and multilateral agreements, whenever possible. Trump is more prone to rely on military and commercial power in pursuit of those interests. That is what distinguishes Trump’s foreign policy from that of Obama. The two vary in their choices of strategy and tactics toward the globe.
The variation stems from Trump’s dissimilar view of the threats facing America and contrasting choice of strategies and tactics to address those threats. The presidents are two realists with divergent conceptions of America’s national interests and how to pursue them.
Steven Schier is the Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Minnesota. He is co-author with Todd Eberly of the forthcoming book “The Trump Presidency: Outsider in the Oval Office.”