Principled Realism: Interests and Ideology

April 2, 2018
Principled Realism: Interests and Ideology
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

President Donald Trump’s first National Security Strategy opens with a description of its underlying philosophy, “Principled Realism:”

“An America First National Security Strategy is based on American principles, a clear-eyed assessment of U.S. interests, and a determination to tackle the challenges that we face.  It is a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology…it is grounded in the realization that American principles are a lasting force for good in the world.”

At first glance, one notices a potential contradiction: a strategy guided by “outcomes, not ideology,” would not also be grounded in a realization that any particular set of principles or belief system could be “a force for good” more than any other system.  So, this presents a puzzle, and as the basis for the new administration’s vision for its place in the world, it deserves a closer look.  What could be meant by, “principled realism,” and what could one expect from a foreign policy informed by such a philosophy?  By placing this form of qualified realism into context of international relations theory and pulling together the few ways the Trump administration has used the phrase, we can estimate what principled realism might look like in practice under President Trump.

First, national interest will be combined with a commitment to preserving select aspects of the cultivated U.S. self-image as defender of democracy and individual freedoms.  Second, where U.S. national interest runs contrary to international institutions, U.S. interests will likely win.  Finally, while the U.S. will leave the “nation building” business, and no longer attempt to spread democracy through the force of arms, aggressive pursuit of U.S. security interests by military action will likely intensify.

An Old Way of Thinking

As a way of understanding how the world works, realism has a fairly long history.  Realists trace their roots to the Greek general and historian Thucydides (460-395 BCE).  Thought of as the first natural scientist and historian, Thucydides observed, “identity of interests is the surest of bonds.”  In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recorded an exchange between the officers of militarily stronger Athens and the city leaders of the independent island of Melos.  The Athenians explained to the Melians what they understood to be the law of nature, “the strong do as they will; the weak suffer what they must.”  For the Athenians, the political currency of power was an immutable law of nature; this becomes a permanent assumption for realists to follow.  Renaissance Italian statesman and political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) argued in The Prince that the first and only goal for a prince is to gain and retain power over his domain.  Why?  Political stability and regional power translate into economic prosperity.  In pursuit of that objective, a Prince is obliged to do whatever is necessary.  “Virtue” for a Prince is necessarily different from everyone else.

Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980), trying to explain the failure of idealism during the years between the two world wars, argued that political acts should be measured by their political outcomes alone.  Politics is necessarily separate from law, philosophy, and morality; the latter are not unimportant, but are simply separate from politics.  Thus, the actions of a state can be neither “good” nor “evil” but can only be judged by how well a political action does or does not help the “national interest,” defined as survival.  By the height of the Cold War, Kenneth Waltz (1924-2013) distilled realism down to three principles: 1.) the system of states is anarchic, this anarchic structure is the sole constraint on state behavior; 2.) all states are functionally undifferentiated, the only difference that matters between states is relative power; 3.) states seek to balance power in order to create equilibrium; balance of power is the only means of keeping the peace.  So, if realism tells us that political outcomes can be neither good or evil, but just effective or not, and if being more powerful is all that matters in international politics, then where does “principle” comes in?

Principled Realism

The term “principled realism” has come up before in describing United States foreign policy.  U.S. Presidential historian Gregg Russell has used it to describe Presidential policy priorities from as far back as the fourth U.S. president James Madison (1751-1836) to Teddy Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president (1858-1919).  Madison held that there ought to be a “moral purpose” for power, and argued, “what a perversion of the natural order of things…to make power the primary and central object of the social system, and Liberty but its satellite.”  Roosevelt believed that through serving justice in the world, the United States’ moral strength could be maintained in order to command respect.   Though the expression of principled of realism has adapted to changing political realities, a definition emerges: realism dictates that states will (and should) act according to their own interests; how those interests are defined should account for strongly held national values.

Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead gave an address at the Hans Morgenthau Award Dinner of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in 1988 titled, “Principled Realism: A Foundation for U.S. Foreign Policy,” which was published in the Department of State Bulletin.  For Whitehead, principled realism included (primarily) the encouragement and expansion of democracy in the world because, “there is no doubt whatever that the spread of democracy throughout the world is a good thing for the United States.”  Democracies are, according to this belief, more reliable allies for the United States, more prone to negotiation, and generally more open to international commerce.

Twenty years later, the Cold War no longer dominating U.S. strategic interests, and with a public wearied by U.S. neo-conservative military interventions abroad, U.S. political leaders identified “principled realism” as emphasizing slightly different interests and priorities.  Then Senator Chuck Hagel described his notion of “principled realism” to The National Interest in a 2006 interview,

“Principle has to be the anchor, there’s no question about that.  This country has stood for and believed in certain things since the founding of our Republic.  At the same time, we must be realistic in appreciating that fact that that [sic] we cannot impose our values…simply because we think that our system is better or somehow we are more virtuous.”

Hagel finished by giving a model,

“We have to appreciate the realism demonstrated by Ronald Reagan.  It is not a choice between giving up your principles, or giving in to someone else’s agenda.  Foreign Policy must be grounded in our values, what we believe, what has formed and shaped us as a nation.”

In defining his vision of foreign affairs as a candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008, Governor Bill Richardson called for, “an ethical, principled realism,” focused on respect for long-held values, in particular protecting human rights globally.  Richardson echoed Hagel’s warning about exporting U.S. values abroad by force of arms.  “We must reject both isolationist fantasies of retreat from global engagement and neoconservative fantasies of transforming other countries through the unilateral application of American military power.”

Taken together, a post cold-war interpretation of “principled realism” is that while the national interest is paramount, the means by which interests are pursued is as important a consideration as reaching a desired end state.  Long-held national values inform and constrain both means and ends.  This is a far cry from the law-of-nature, might-makes-right realism of Thucydides, and the whatever-is-necessary separate morality for princes of Machiavelli.  “Principled realism” wants to be constrained by the logic of national interest, but also activist in advancing an agenda underwritten by American exceptionalism.

Principled Realism Now

According to the American Presidency Database, Donald Trump is the first U.S. President to use the phrase “principled realism.”  Trump’s “principled realism” should be viewed as the continuation of a traditional, conservative approach to foreign affairs in the United States.  A realist approach (even a principled one) will likely downplay the importance of intergovernmental organizations except where alliances provide strategic balance against a perceived opponent.  One should expect that while shared interests will be the primary motivator for international cooperation, the United States will be constrained internationally only when it is in its interest, or power asymmetries make action untenable.

During his first address abroad at a counter-terrorism summit sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, President Trump first used the term “principled realism” to describe his foreign policy.  Sounding very much like Secretary Whitehead’s cold-war speech, President Trump described what principled realism might look like in his administration.  In 1988 Whitehead had offered as an example of President Ronald Reagan’s principled realism the reflagging of oil tankers and giving them U.S. Navy protection during the Iran-Iraq war:

“Many people counseled that we do nothing; a few suggested direct military intervention.  We chose a middle—and, I believe, realistic—course.  We initiated a policy that was limited, yet bold and firm…We affirmed to Arab governments that we are hearty and reliable allies, even as we discouraged Soviet adventurism.”

Trump’s promise in Saudi Arabia was a restatement of that in the future tense, “Our friends will never question our support, and our enemies will never doubt our determination.  Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not though radical disruption.”  Trump also seemed to carry forward the idea that the United States cannot impose its form of government or ideals on others through force of arms.  Explaining his purpose at the Summit, the President noted,

“We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.  Instead, we are here to offer partnership—based on shared interests and values—to pursue a better future for us all.”

This was reaffirmed in his address on the future U.S. strategy in Afghanistan,

“we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image.  Those days are now over.  Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests… This principled realism will guide our decisions moving forward.”

This indicates that in practice “principled realism” means relying on shared interests (as in Thucydides) and expressly not engaging in former Neoconservative military adventures to spread democracy—unless, as Whitehead explained, increasing the number of democratic states is viewed as being in the interest of the United States.

“Principled realism” has sufficient malleability that it appears the term can mean a great many things.  In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017, Trump again asserted that, “We want harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife.  We are guided by outcomes, not ideology.  We have a policy of principled realism, rooted in shared goals, interests, and values.”   The application was somewhat vague, however, when he said,

“that realism forces us to confront a question facing every leader and nation in this room.  It is a question we cannot escape or avoid.  We will slide down the path of complacency, numb to the challenges, threats, and even wars that we face.  Or do we have enough strength and pride to confront those dangers today so that our citizens can enjoy peace and prosperity tomorrow?”

This would seem to give license to aggressively confront challenges, yet remain rhetorically committed to an outcome of “friendship, not conflict and strife.”

Lastly, if Trump’s principled realism is “guided by outcomes, not ideology,” while also, “rooted in shared goals, interests and values,” what happens when U.S. policy interests are isolated, or are shared by just a few, or when there is no practical outcome to behold?  That potential was highlighted by President Trump’s decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel to the city of Jerusalem.  From his official statement on that policy decision:

“The foreign policy of the United States is grounded in principled realism, which begins with an honest acknowledgment of plain facts.  With respect to the State of Israel, that requires officially recognizing Jerusalem as its capital and relocating the United States Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem as soon as practicable.”

It would be hard to find an example of something less practical, and more founded upon an ideological commitment, than the U.S. decision to move its embassy to the contested city of Jerusalem.  The move was widely criticized by regional allies and it is difficult to calculate which foreign policy interest was served by it.


While it is clear that the new administration has adopted “principled realism” as a label for its foreign policy, less clear is precisely what that will mean in practice.  We know a lot about what realism means, can put together what “principled” realism could mean, and in the year he has spent in office, we have heard what President Trump has used the phrase to explain.  In short, it appears to explain “America First” anti-internationalism while remaining available to justify military intervention when desired.  Secondly, what President Trump says impromptu should be given less importance than what is written in his name, which should be given less importance than what is done on behalf of the American people.  The U.S. political system is complex and little can be done without considerable coordination and cooperation amongst its many segments of power.  The words of an office holder (even a president) at best convey a wish, the official policy statements of an administration are guideposts, while policy outcomes are the product of varied interests, each with their own preferences, constrained by complex, old institutions.  Thus, though “principled realism” may prove a helpful guide at future U.S. foreign policy moves, still much more will serve to constrain and compel this administration.