President Trump, when he was candidate Trump, was a darling of the realists. And for good reason—his motto was “America First”; no longer would the United States sacrifice its own interests to benefit those of other states. To that end, he promised to renegotiate trade agreements. He would declare China a currency manipulator. He questioned the value of military alliances, especially if allies did not pay more to defend themselves. He seemed comfortable letting Japan and Korea go nuclear if they sought to rely less on the American strategic nuclear umbrella. He opposed increasingly open immigration policies, such as those promoted by President Obama and implemented by several European states, notably Germany. He was not enthralled with the notion of nation building. He had little time for major nongovernmental institutions such as the UN. Most notably, he advocated a more harmonious relationship with Russia, which he saw as a key to resolving the Syrian Civil War.
Realists are beginning to have second thoughts. It is one thing to put American interests first. It is quite another not to recognize that those interests include alliances and trade agreements, and even, in some cases, multinational organizations. In terms of his rhetoric, especially his tweets, it appears that the president does not recognize the subtlety of that difference.
The president seemingly believes—or has been led by his closest advisors, notably Steve Bannon, to believe—that trade issues are purely a domestic matter and do not impinge on national security. Thus he was quick to announce that the United States was no longer interested in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. What he has failed to recognize is that by doing so, he has opened the door to a Chinese-led trade partnership in the Pacific that would freeze out the United States. Moreover, whereas the TPP, indeed other trade agreements, include provisions that would limit other states’ unfair trading practices, such as the exploitation of child labor (which permits underpricing of products competing with those of the United States, which bans such labor), a new China-led trade pact would have no such provisions.