Donald Trump’s election was a massive challenge to the liberal internationalism that had defined US foreign policy since World War II (Ikenberry et al., 2018, p. 1). High profile election promises like tightening NATO free riders, avoiding costly efforts in the Middle East, and restoring justice in Sino-US trade have themselves been labeled “rational” (NY Times, 2016) and allegedly embodied the realistic IR tradition that Self-help is seen as a raison d’etre for states that operate under conditions of international anarchy (Mearsheimer, 2014, pp. 30-31) The extent to which President Trump’s foreign policy reflects realism is controversial among scholars in the field. Randall Schweller sees Trump’s politics as a worldview that is “fundamentally realistic” (2018a, p.134), while others have criticized his arbitrary politics as an abomination for a pragmatic, realistic approach (McGurk, 2019; Walt, 2017). . In this essay, I would like to complement this debate by analyzing Trump’s foreign trade policy using the prism of offensive realism, one of the most popular theories in international politics. I will specifically examine two important Trump directives. his initiation of a trade war with China and his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In this way, I will show that the Trump administration’s economic policy towards China cannot be considered realistic. Before I begin my analysis, I will briefly examine the relationship between offensive realism and foreign policy.
Offensive realism and foreign policy
Offensive realism is a new addition to the realistic IR tradition and differs from classic realism and defensive realism (Telbami, 2002, p.158). Unfortunately, I cannot offer a detailed analysis of the debate that is raging among realistic scholars, although it is important to note that offensive realism is a type of realism, not the Kind of realism (Kirshner, 2010, p.53). It is therefore entirely plausible that Trump’s policies could be viewed as realistic if valued with a different variant of realism – in fact, scientists have tried to defend this case (see Schweller, 2018). However, the scope of this essay is limited to analyzing Trump’s policies through the prism of offensive realism and concludes that Trump cannot be viewed as a realist.
Offensive realism (hereinafter also referred to as realism), which was first conceived by John J. Mearsheimer, takes a structural view of international politics. The analysis of the internal dynamics of states is avoided; Bureaucracy, government structure and leadership personality play no role in a world of rational, utility-maximizing states (Mearsheimer, 2014, p. 31). Mearsheimer builds on the principles of classical realism (an anarchic system, the importance of power and the struggle for survival between states) and formulates them in a rigorous theory that states that states will always try to maximize power, regional hegemony and then to prevent others from attaining such a status (ibid., pp. 363-65). This makes offensive realism relevant to current US-China relations. The USA is undoubtedly a regional hegemon in the western hemisphere, and China’s sensational rise and its assertive politics suggest that it too wants such a status (Mandelbaum, 2019, p.125). Therefore, the fundamental goal of realistic US foreign policy is to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon in East Asia.
Despite the claim that military power is the ultimate currency in the international system (Mearsheimer, 2014, p. 55), offensive realism has a lot to say about the economy. In essence, military power cannot be acquired without significant reserves of wealth to manufacture weapons, invest in technology, and train soldiers (ibid). Realism therefore approaches economic transactions from a zero-sum perspective, in short “the gains of one great power are by definition the loss of the other” (Christensen, 2006, p. 96). So it has a priority relative profits (Grieco, 1988, p.499), which means that hegemonic states cannot tolerate a status quo in which the power of a rival grows faster than its own. One final assumption relevant to trade is that of rationality, with Mearsheimer claiming that states will make a cost-benefit assessment and choose the policy that is most effective in enhancing their position of power over their competitors ( 2009, p.244). Such assumptions are crucial in deciding whether a policy is realistic or not.
A common lightning rod for realistic criticism is the “theory-practice paradox”; If realism turns out to be reflective of the reality of international politics, why are realists constantly writing guidelines that states should follow (Oren, 2009, p.284)? Neorealist theories, however, never strive to clarify individual foreign policy decisions, but rather try to explain international politics more broadly – in fact, Mearsheimer recognizes that his predictions are not always correct (2014, pp. 10-11). Realists therefore recognize the inherent dangers that arise when states do not behave as predicted and participate in the political process to prevent this, making offensive realism both prescriptive and predictive (Rosato and Schuessler, 2011, p. 813 ). From here I will show that Trump’s economic policy towards China does not follow the prescriptions of offensive realistic theory.
The unrealism of Trump’s trade wars
Offensive realism is not protectionist by nature, as free markets often benefit the world’s leading powers (Popescu, 2019, p. 394). However, if the economic order is more favorable to one great power than the other, realists would expect the latter state to attempt to change the system to ensure relative benefit (ibid). Before Trump was elected, China benefited fundamentally from the global economy over the US. For years the USA has been pursuing a policy of “engagement”, which aims to integrate China into the world economy and to manage its peaceful rise (Zhao, 2019, p.489). Such a political approach runs counter to realism. Even if China masks its rise as “peaceful”, its real intentions can never be revealed and must therefore be treated with suspicion (Mearsheimer, 2014, p.381). China’s economy is growing every year compared to the US (World Bank, 2020), not least due to unfair trade practices such as forced technology transfer and theft of intellectual property (Meltzer and Sehnai, 2019, p. 2). Such economic growth enables China to accelerate the funding of its military (Atesoglu, 2013, p.88) and thus improve its ability to project power in the region. The Trump administration’s attempt to change this scenario by imposing massive tariffs on the Chinese (who were reciprocated) (BBC, 2019) has linked this to offensive realism (Popescu, 2019, p. 394). While these tariffs have slowed US economic growth (Tankersley, 2019), it could be argued that such measures remain in line with offensive realism as they cause more damage to the Chinese economy and thus increase US relative profits (Mearsheimer, 2014, P. 386). . Protectionism, however, is the wrong remedy for China’s relative growth problem.
Trump’s trade policy with China shows that there is no rational analysis of the structure of the international economy. A state can only expect relative profits through economic coercion if the target state cannot otherwise obtain the tariffed goods and services (ibid.). In this case, there are many economic actors in the international system who are “functionally equivalent” to the US (as they can deliver similar goods and services) and would be willing to fill the void America has left in Chinese trade (Kim, 2018) , P.1278). Indeed, China’s decision to cut tariffs with the European Union shows that they can and will look elsewhere to ease the pressure Trump’s tariffs have put on its economy (Drezner, 2019, p. 15). The fact that Trump has also imposed tariffs on EU goods (Helmore, 2019) is evidence of the unreality of his trade policy, as this has given the EU a further incentive to engage in trade with China and thus as a “functional equivalent” of USA to act. The reality is that economic containment can only bring relative gains if it is carried out jointly with other states (Art. 2003, p.120), which makes Trump’s unilateral trade war against China a pointless exercise. The Chinese economy is expected to adjust to the initial shock, while U.S. firms are likely to become less competitive due to increased costs, meaning that Trump’s trade policies will increase China’s relative economic advantage (Kim, 2018b). At best, the USA will also find “functionally equivalent” trading partners, which makes the political approach in vain due to the “minimal impact” on both sides (Kim, 2019, p.1432). Given the existence of “functionally equivalent” competitors in the international system, a rational state in the US position would have come to the conclusion that the costs of introducing economic protectionist policies against China were higher than the benefits, or at best the status quo.
However, it could be argued that Trump’s policy is not part of a long-term strategy to damage the Chinese economy, but a form of “economic statecraft” that is supposed to force them to make concessions in the short term (ibid, p.1440). . Such a political approach seems to be compatible with offensive realism, which suggests that states should strive for a gradual increase in national power when opportunities arise (Snyder, 2002, p.158). With that in mind, the US-China deal earlier this year (which covered many areas from which China derives its unfair advantages (Politi, 2020)) could be seen as a victory for Trumpian economic state art. However, there is reason to believe that Trump’s deal will not improve US power compared to China. Realism would hardly make us expect China to capitulate so quickly to US economic pressures; If the ongoing trade war does not diminish Chinese gains against the US, why should China make the concessions Trump wants? As Grieco claims, states are likely to cheat or leave an international agreement if it turns out that others are making a profit in comparison (1988, p.499). Offensive realism would therefore expect the US-China cooperation agreement to be short-lived. China will want to depart from the deal as soon as it realizes that restricting its unfair business practices will reduce its competitiveness in the global economy and thus its relative advantage over the US. In fact, it has an earlier form in this regard and repeatedly violates WTO rules to curb its unfair practices (U.S. Commercial Agents, 2019, p. 2). While it may appear that Trump’s economic state craft has forced the Chinese to the negotiating table, realism would lead one to be skeptical of such a narrative and would predict China’s exodus or withdrawal from business and the resumption of harmful trade wars .
The Realism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Not only has the Trump administration pursued Chinese trade policies that are incompatible with offensive realism, but it has also rejected a trade deal that has all the hallmarks of solid, realistic policies. On his first day in office, Trump signed an executive order to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral trade agreement with eleven other Pacific Rim states that crucially excludes China (Traub, 2014). His reasons for this can be seen as compatible with offensive realism; He viewed the TPP as bad business as the other trading partners benefit more than the US, which means the US would make relative losses (Magcamit, 2017, p. 20). “When considering the problem of relative profits, decision-makers usually only care about the most powerful country or a country with the greatest upward mobility” (Bin, 2003, p. 315). In this sense, Trump should not have viewed the TPP through the prism of relative gains vis-à-vis other member states, but should have assessed how the trade deal would affect US power over China. In this regard, the TPP ratification was a fundamentally realistic policy, whereby the agreement is likely to lead to significant losses for China (Sidkar and Mukhopadhyay, 2017, p. 20) and at the same time stimulate US economic growth (Petri and Plummer, 2016 , P. 20) .10-11). Given China’s dependence on its regional neighbors, it is unlikely that it would have been able to find suitable alternative trading partners and therefore offer them the choice between economic marginalization or “constructive engagement” with TPP members (Poletti, 2018, P. 58)). Had China chosen this latter option, it would be bound by a US-led trade regime specifically designed to limit the comparative advantages stemming from unfair trade practices (Chow, 2016, p. 376). In this sense, the ratification of the TPP would have given the US far greater influence over China than a unilateral trade war would have, and would therefore have been a much more appropriate means of countering the failed policy of engagement. The US withdrawal from the TPP has subsequently left the door open for China to participate, with the remaining members being far more careless about China’s trade practices due to their desire to gain access to its large market (Foster and Doffey, 2018). Such a move would increase China’s economic dominance over its neighbors, thereby enhancing its ability to project power in the region, which is anathema to the realistic scholar. A realistic government would have avoided this result at all costs and ratified the TPP.
Furthermore, it would be misleading to limit the benefits of TPP ratification to only the relative gains it would have made for the US – there were also strong strategic incentives for this policy. As Mearsheimer explains, all of China’s neighbors have a common interest in curbing its rise in order to avoid domination, but are not powerful enough to do it alone and therefore require US leadership (2014, p.385). Against this background the TPP could have been the first step in the “coming compensation coalition”, which Mearsheimer had predicted that it would curb China’s rise (ibid, p.383). As Hasegawa explains, the economic integration between states offers a feeling of mutual security against threats and often suggests a military partnership (2017, p.164). For this reason, many TPP member states saw the initiative as important from a security point of view, as it showed that the USA had committed itself to a compensation policy against China (Miller, 2015, p. 8). Before Trump’s early termination of the trade agreement, a concerned India even considered dealing with the project (Tellis, 2014, p.112). Had that happened, the US would have succeeded in uniting China’s regional neighbors in a comprehensive trade regime, with the potential for greater military cooperation in the future. Without such a coalition, China’s neighbors know that they cannot temper their ambitions in the South China Sea and are therefore dependent on US leadership to deter their irredentist policies there and prevent them from gaining control of the strategically crucial sea lane and the to obtain natural resources that are lower than that (Emmerson, 2017, p.12). The TPP would have shown such a commitment and would have been a solid bulwark against Chinese expansionism in the region (Hasegawa, 2017, p.164). The fact that the Trump administration would ignore the geostrategic advantages of the TPP therefore shows that its political approach is inconsistent with offensive realism.
Using offensive realism as an analytical tool, I come to the conclusion that Donald Trump’s economic policy towards China cannot be viewed as realistic. If the US’s fundamental goal is to contain China’s rise and prevent it from achieving regional hegemony in East Asia, then Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the TPP and start a trade war with China have been a failure. While the status quo policy of engagement is undesirable, the trade wars have enhanced, rather than diminished, China’s relative profits and have therefore been unable to make concrete concessions on China’s unfair trade practices. The TPP withdrawal was also anti-realistic, rejecting an agreed trade deal that would have allowed the US to set the trade agenda in East Asia, increase US profits over China, and give regional allies an ongoing US commitment to curb the rise To signal China. The net result of this policy is a China that continues to dominate East Asia economically, and the continuation of such a political approach will certainly usher in China’s regional hegemony in the future.
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Written To: University of St Andrews
Written for: Dr. Adam Bower
Date written: March 2020
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