“Principled Realism”: A rebalanced vision under Trump

Article by

Stuart Wilkinson

“We will remain a beacon of liberty and opportunity around the world.”

US National Security Strategy 2017


Looking at the news on the television, computer, or in social media, one gets the impression that all is confusion in the world. Who knows what games are being played behind smoke and mirrors? One thing for certain, however, is that something is going on. It is certain that some analysts and planners from either political persuasion in the United States know exactly what the reality is, but those outside such deep secrets can only approximate. One possibility is that that the present U.S. Administration is a pivotal one where taking the right road, whether following tradition or not, will prove crucial. Here are some indications of how the land lies and of the visions involved.

According to the April 2018 Pacific Tech document “Geoeconomics and Strategy”, the United States is incorporating what is termed geoeconomics into its arsenal. This means that economic measures can be used to attempt to counter challenges from other countries, as for example in the cases of China, Iran and Russia – all of which are effective practitioners of the art. Such measures encompass trade, investment, monetary and financial policy, energy, commodities, aid and cyber-digital tools; and stress the potential strategic economic influence on global political, financial and military developments, emphasizing the economic impact on the state and society rather than on military, security, and territorial issues as is in the case of geopolitical policies.

It was President Clinton, the Pacific Tech document adds, that brought in the idea that geoeconomics could play an important strategic role in reshaping American foreign and economic policy, but it was with the election of Donald Trump that a new synthesis for geoeconomic strategy began to be found. (1)

Much of the geopolitical challenges confronting the U.S. come from outside the traditional political and military domains of geopolitical competition. Their sources are the areas of information, cyber, and economics, as Col. John F. Troxell noted in his 2018 article “Geoeconomics” which gave his observations on the book “War by Other Means” by Blackwill and Harris. Here he quoted the then Secretary of Defense James Mattis who on seeing a worsening global security situation said:

“Our challenge is characterized by a decline in the long-standing rules-based international order, bringing with it a more volatile security environment than any I have experienced during my four decades of military service.”

There is also a nexus between national security and economics, adds Troxell. In this context both President Obama and President Trump recognized the need to build a strong domestic economy. But here, sound financing and implementation of budget decisions on government activities are crucial, and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have commented on this: “our national debt is our biggest national security threat”, Admiral Mike Mullen; the emergence of economic issues as a major concern, General Martin Dempsey; and concern about the impact of future budget dynamics on resources for defense, General Joseph Dunford.

Other challenges for the U.S. comes from China and other major geoeconomic players who use bilateral economic development assistance with significant geopolitical strings attached. China has utilized such economic development assistance to draw countries in Africa and Latin America to subscribe to its one-China policy, whilst providing aid that is not conditional on good governance or on progress on human rights from the recipient. In the banking sector various state-owned development banks have also begun to compete with Western development banks.

Troxell turns to the question of energy resources, as covered by Blackwill and Harris, and notes the clear geopolitical implications of the energy business. Oil and natural gas are critical resources for the global economy; and energy security – in other words, availability of the energy resources at a reasonable price – is the key concern. States that are dependent on imports seek to mitigate their vulnerability through diversification of both source and transit route. Natural gas supplies have been cut off various times this century by Russia, the biggest geopolitical actor in this sector. Troxell adds, however, that despite the fact that many geopolitical disputes seem candidates for geoeconomic action, the globally integrated energy market “infused by increased supplies courtesy of the ongoing march of technology and innovation” seems to have given the market the upper hand. He notes that this does not mean that geopolitics is completely divorced from the energy sector, rather that it is in the major suppliers’ interests to demonstrate reliability to their customers and avoid any search for alternative supply sources. Troxell then refers to the geoeconomics of North America’s energy revolution, indicating that as a result of this development:

“United States will be in a strong position to support allies and friends in countering geoeconomic pressure from adversaries, to engage with China and Asia in an expanded energy infrastructure featuring the export of liquefied natural gas and oil, and to sustain the global economy through the twenty-first century.” (2)

In other words the Shale Revolution is having a transcendental effect, and now leads one to consider U.S. energy dominance, and effectively U.S. power. The 2017 National Security Strategy set out clearly that “For the first time in generations, the United States will be an energy-dominant nation.” For this, energy resources will be exported; coastal terminals will expand export capacity; global energy structure will be protected from cyber and physical threats by working with allies and partners; the U.S. will support the diversification of energy sources, supplies, and routes at home and abroad; U.S. will modernize its strategic petroleum stocks and encourage other countries to develop their own; U.S. will seek to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable energy, including highly efficient fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables; and U.S. will improve America’s technological edge in energy, including nuclear technology, next-generation nuclear reactors, better batteries, advanced computing, carbon-capture technologies, and opportunities at the energy-water nexus.

But there are challengers for the U.S. and its allies and partners. The national security strategy document categorizes these into three groups: China and Russia; Iran and North Korea; and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups, where the relationship between the U.S. and these groups is defined as “fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies”.

Briefly looking at the challenges from these countries and groups, the document outlines that the U.S. had expected that its support for China’s rise and integration into the post-war international order would liberalize that country. However, China is now extending its power; gathering and exploiting data on an unrivaled scale; spreading features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance; building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after that of the U.S; and growing and diversifying its nuclear arsenal. There is also the following problem: part of China’s military modernization and economic expansion is due to its access to the U.S. innovation economy, including America’s world-class universities. For its part as a challenger, Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide America from its allies and partners, states the national security strategy document. Russia views the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union as threats. Russia is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United States, and in destabilizing cyber capabilities. Through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world. The combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing.

In the case of Iran, the regime sponsors terrorism around the world. It is developing more capable ballistic missiles and has the potential to resume its work on nuclear weapons that could threaten the United States and its partners. And North Korea is ruled as a ruthless dictatorship without regard for human dignity. It has nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that threaten the United States and its allies. The National Security Strategy makes it clear that:

“The longer we ignore threats from countries determined to proliferate and develop weapons of mass destruction, the worse such threats become, and the fewer defensive options we have.”

With regard to the last group of challengers: the jihadist terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qa’ida are linked by a common radical Islamist ideology that encourages violence against the United States and its partners. These organizations maintain global reach with established branches in strategic locations. The national security strategy document is clear in that the threat from jihadist terrorists will persist, even as intensified efforts are made to prevent attacks.

It should be emphasized at this point that the National Security Strategy makes it clear that the U.S. is prepared to cooperate across areas of mutual interest with both Russia and China. Additionally, the U.S. will cooperate with competitors from a position of strength; will not impose its values on others; will continue to champion American values; and will remain a positive alternative to political and religious despotism. (3)

The document also explains the principles on which its policies are based:

“This strategy is guided by Principled Realism. It is realist because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics, affirms that sovereign states are the best hope for a peaceful world, and clearly defines our national interests. It is principled because it is grounded in the knowledge that advancing American principles spreads peace and prosperity around the globe. We are guided by our values and disciplined by our interests.” (4)

It is not simply of historical interest to mention briefly here two American presidents of the First World War period. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson provided the U.S. with a way of looking at the country’s role in the world and the way that the world should be organized, morally and legally, until the present day. The Republican Theodore Roosevelt held to balance of power and geopolitical ideas that did not seem as attractive as they could be to policymakers in Washington. Both coincided that the United States had a special character. It was Wilsonianism that became the base of American policy, not Roosevelt’s principles. However, taking account of the points brought up by Pacific Tech, Colonel Troxell, and the National Security Strategy 2017, it does appear to be that the Trump Administration has shifted the balance between the principles of each of these two presidents: leaning much less on the moral vision of Woodrow Wilson and much more on Roosevelt’s balance of power.


1. “Geoeconomics and Strategy”. Pacific Tech, 30th April, 2018
2. “Geoeconomics”. Col. John F. Troxell, Military Review, Jan-Feb. 2018
3. and 4. “National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2017”

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