Using to the White Home on a wave of populist fervour and promising insurance policies that put “America First”, Donald Trump’s election introduced a large problem to the liberal internationalism that had outlined US international coverage since World Struggle Two (Ikenberry et al, 2018, p.1).  Excessive-profile marketing campaign guarantees reminiscent of being harder on NATO free-riders, avoiding costly endeavours within the Center East and restoring fairness almost about Sino-US commerce have been self-proclaimed as “rational” (NY Occasions, 2016) and ostensibly embodied the realist IR custom that locations self-help because the raison d’être of states working beneath situations of worldwide anarchy (Mearsheimer, 2014, pp.30-31). Nonetheless, to what extent President Trump’s international coverage has mirrored realism is a matter of debate amongst students within the discipline. Randall Schweller sees Trump’s insurance policies as primarily based on a worldview that’s “essentially realist in nature” (2018a, p.134), whereas others have criticised his haphazard insurance policies as anathema to a practical, realist method (McGurk, 2019; Walt, 2017). On this essay, I search so as to add to this debate by analysing Trump’s international financial coverage by means of the prism of offensive realism, probably the most in style theories of worldwide politics. I’ll particularly look at two key Trump insurance policies; his initiation of a commerce conflict with China and his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). By doing so, I’ll reveal that the Trump administration’s financial coverage in the direction of China can’t be thought-about realist. Earlier than starting my evaluation, I’ll briefly elaborate on the hyperlink between offensive realism and international coverage.

Offensive Realism and Overseas Coverage

Offensive realism is a current addition to the realist IR custom, distinguishing itself from classical realism and defensive realism (Telbami, 2002, p.158). Sadly, I can’t provide an in depth evaluation of the talk that rages between realist students, although you will need to be aware that offensive realism is one kind of realism, not the kind of realism (Kirshner, 2010, p.53). Subsequently, it’s totally believable that Trump’s insurance policies could possibly be thought-about realist when assessed utilizing a special variant of realism- certainly students have endeavoured to make this case (see Schweller, 2018). Nonetheless, the dimensions of this essay is restricted to analysing Trump’s insurance policies by means of the prism of offensive realism and concludes on these grounds that Trump can’t be thought-about a realist.

First conceptualised by John J. Mearsheimer, offensive realism (hereafter additionally known as realism) adopts a structural view of worldwide politics. In doing so, it eschews the evaluation of the interior dynamics of states; forms, construction of presidency, and management character don’t determine in a world of rational, utility-maximising states (Mearsheimer, 2014, p.31).  Mearsheimer builds on the rules of classical realism (an anarchic system, the significance of energy and the combat for survival between states) and articulates them right into a rigorous principle that asserts that states will at all times search to maximise energy, obtain regional hegemony and subsequently stop others from gaining such standing (ibid., pp.363-65). This makes offensive realism of relevance to present US-Sino relations- the US is undoubtedly a regional hegemon within the Western hemisphere and China’s sensational rise and assertive insurance policies recommend that it too wishes such standing (Mandelbaum, 2019, p.125). Subsequently, a realist US international coverage’s basic objective is to forestall China from turning into a regional hegemon in East Asia.

Regardless of asserting that navy energy is the last word forex within the worldwide system (Mearsheimer, 2014, p.55), offensive realism has a lot to say about economics. Primarily, navy energy can’t be acquired with out important reserves of wealth to fabricate weapons, put money into know-how and prepare troopers (Ibid.). Realism due to this fact approaches financial transactions from a zero-sum perspective, in brief ‘one nice energy’s beneficial properties are by definition, the opposite’s loss’ (Christensen, 2006, p.96). Thus, it locations a primacy on relative beneficial properties (Grieco, 1988, p.499), which means hegemonic states can’t tolerate a establishment that sees a rival’s energy develop faster than its personal.  A ultimate assumption that’s related to commerce is that of rationality, with Mearsheimer asserting that states will make a cost-benefit evaluation and select the coverage that’s simplest in enhancing its energy place relative to its rivals (2009, p.244). Such assumptions are essential in figuring out whether or not a coverage is realist or not.

A typical lightning-rod for realist criticism is the “theory-practice paradox”; if realism asserts itself to be reflective of the fact of worldwide politics, why do realists continuously prescribe insurance policies for states to observe (Oren, 2009, p.284)? Nonetheless, neorealist theories by no means aspire to elucidate particular person international coverage selections, as an alternative endeavouring to elucidate worldwide politics extra broadly- certainly Mearsheimer recognises his predictions aren’t at all times proper (2014, pp.10-11).  Realists due to this fact spot the inherent risks that happen when states don’t behave as predicted and contain themselves within the political course of to forestall this from occurring, making offensive realism each prescriptive and predictive (Rosato and Schuessler, 2011, p.813). From herein, I’ll reveal that Trump’s financial coverage in the direction of China doesn’t observe the prescriptions of offensive realist principle.

The Unrealism of Trump’s Commerce Wars

Offensive realism is just not protectionist by nature as free markets usually profit the world’s main powers (Popescu, 2019, p.394). Nonetheless, when the financial order is extra helpful to at least one nice energy than the opposite, realists would anticipate the latter state to aim to change the system in order to make sure a relative profit (Ibid). Previous to Trump’s election, the worldwide financial order essentially benefitted China vis-à-vis the US. For years, the US has pursued a coverage of “engagement” which had sought to combine China into the world economic system and handle its peaceable rise (Zhao, 2019, p.489). Such a coverage method runs counter to realism; even when China masks its rise as “peaceable”, its true intentions can by no means be recognized and due to this fact it should be handled with suspicion (Mearsheimer, 2014, p.381). Yearly, China’s economic system grows relative to that of the USA (World Financial institution, 2020), in no small half attributable to unfair buying and selling practices reminiscent of pressured technological switch and mental property theft (Meltzer and Sehnai, 2019, p.2). Such financial development permits China to speed up funding into its navy (Atesoglu, 2013, p.88) and thus will increase its capacity to venture energy within the area. That the Trump administration is bidding to change this situation by imposing large tariffs on the Chinese language (which have been reciprocated) (BBC, 2019) has seen it related to offensive realism (Popescu, 2019, p.394). While these tariffs have diminished US financial development (Tankersley, 2019), an argument could possibly be made that such insurance policies stay according to offensive realism as they injury the Chinese language economic system extra, due to this fact rising US relative beneficial properties (Mearsheimer, 2014, p.386). Nonetheless, protectionism is the improper treatment to the issue of Chinese language relative development.

 Trump’s commerce coverage in the direction of China demonstrates an absence of rational evaluation of the construction of the worldwide economic system. A state can solely anticipate to make relative beneficial properties by way of financial coercion if the focused state can’t acquire the tariffed items and providers elsewhere (Ibid). On this case, there are numerous financial actors within the worldwide system who’re “functionally equal” to the US (in that they’ll provide comparable items and providers) who could be prepared to fill void left by America in China’s commerce (Kim, 2018, p.1278). Certainly, China’s resolution to decrease tariffs with the European Union demonstrates that they’ll and can look elsewhere to alleviate the stress Trump’s tariffs have positioned on its economic system (Drezner, 2019, p.15). That Trump has additionally positioned tariffs on EU items (Helmore, 2019) is proof of the unrealismof his commerce coverage, as this has given the EU additional incentive to interact with China in commerce and thus act because the US’ “purposeful equal”. The fact is that financial containment can solely produce relative beneficial properties if performed in live performance with different states (Artwork, 2003, p.120), which renders Trump’s unilateral commerce conflict towards China an train in futility. The Chinese language economic system is predicted to adapt to the preliminary shock, while US corporations will doubtless turn out to be much less aggressive attributable to elevated prices, thus which means that Trump’s commerce coverage will enhance China’s relative financial benefit (Kim, 2018b). At finest, the US may even discover “functionally equal” buying and selling companions, rendering the coverage method futile attributable to “minimal influence” on both aspect (Kim, 2019, p.1432). Subsequently, due to the existence of “functionally equal” rivals within the worldwide system, a rational state within the place of the US would have concluded that the prices of adopting financial protectionist insurance policies towards China have been better than the advantages or at finest would protect the status-quo.

Nonetheless, it could possibly be argued that Trump’s insurance policies are usually not a part of a long-term technique to wreck China’s economic system however are a type of “financial statecraft” designed to pressure it to make concessions within the quick time period (Ibid., p.1440).  Such a coverage method would look like appropriate with offensive realism, which means that states ought to pursue incremental will increase in nationwide energy when the chance arises (Snyder, 2002, p.158). On this sense, the settlement of a commerce deal between the US and China earlier this yr (that coated lots of the areas China derives its unfair benefits from (Politi, 2020)) could possibly be seen as a victory of Trumpian financial statecraft. Nonetheless, there may be motive to imagine that Trump’s deal is not going to truly enhance US energy relative to China. Realism would hardly have us anticipate that China would capitulate to US financial stress so readily; if the continued commerce conflict gained’t cut back Chinese language beneficial properties relative to the US, why would China make the concessions Trump wishes? As Grieco asserts, states are more likely to cheat on or depart a world settlement ought to it turn out to be obvious that others are making beneficial properties relative to it (1988, p.499). Subsequently, offensive realism would anticipate the cooperative settlement reached between the US and China to be short-lived. China will want to defect from the settlement as soon as it realises that curbing its unfair enterprise practices will cut back its competitiveness within the world economic system and thus cut back its relative benefit over the US.  Certainly, it has previous kind on this regard, repeatedly breaking WTO guidelines designed to curtail its unfair practices (US Commerce Consultant, 2019, p.2). Thus, while it might appear that Trump’s financial statecraft has pressured the Chinese language to the bargaining desk, realism would urge one to be sceptical of such a story and would predict Chinese language defection or withdrawal from the deal and a resumption of the damaging commerce wars.

The Realism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Not solely has the Trump administration pursued a Chinese language commerce coverage that’s incompatible with offensive realism, it has rejected a commerce settlement that had all of the hallmarks of a sound, realist coverage. On his first day in workplace, Trump signed an govt order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral commerce settlement with 11 different pacific rim nations, crucially excluding China (Traub, 2014). His causes for doing so will be seen as appropriate with offensive realism; he thought-about the TPP a nasty deal attributable to the truth that the opposite buying and selling companions profit greater than the US, thus which means the US would make relative losses (Magcamit, 2017, p.20). Nonetheless, “when contemplating the issue of relative beneficial properties, decision-makers often solely care about essentially the most highly effective nation or a rustic with the strongest upward mobility” (Bin, 2003, p.315). On this sense Trump ought to have seen the TPP not by means of the prism of relative beneficial properties vis-à-vis different member states however assess how the commerce settlement impacts US energy relative to China. When seen on this regard, TPP ratification was a essentially realist coverage, with the deal projected to end in important losses for China (Sidkar and Mukhopadhyay, 2017, p.20) while concurrently boosting US financial development (Petri and Plummer, 2016, pp.10-11). Given the dependence of China on its regional neighbours, it’s unlikely that it might have been capable of finding appropriate different buying and selling companions, due to this fact providing them a selection between financial marginalization or “constructive engagement” with TPP members (Poletti, 2018, p.58). Ought to China have chosen this latter possibility, they’d have been locked-in a US-led commerce regime designed particularly to restrict the comparative benefits they derive from unfair buying and selling practices (Chow, 2016, p.376). On this sense, ratification of the TPP would have afforded the US far better leverage over China versus a unilateral commerce conflict and due to this fact would have been a way more appropriate treatment to the failed coverage of engagement. The US’ withdrawal from the TPP has subsequently left the door open for Chinese language involvement, with the remaining members way more more likely to be laxer concerning China’s buying and selling practices, attributable to their want for entry to its massive market (Foster and Doffey, 2018). Such a transfer would enhance China’s financial dominance over its neighbours and thus additional its capacity to venture energy within the area, an consequence anathema to the realist scholar. A realist administration would have prevented this consequence in any respect prices and ratified the TPP.

Moreover, it might be deceptive to restrict the advantages of TPP ratification merely to the relative beneficial properties it might have accrued to the US – there have been additionally robust strategic incentives for this coverage. As Mearsheimer elucidates, China’s neighbours all have a standard curiosity in containing its rise in order to keep away from domination however are usually not highly effective sufficient to take action alone and due to this fact require US management (2014, p.385). On this mild, the TPP might have been step one within the ‘coming balancing coalition’ that Mearsheimer predicted would emerge to comprise China’s rise (Ibid., p.383). As Hasegawa elucidates, financial integration between states affords them a way of mutual safety towards threats and infrequently foreshadows navy partnership (2017, p.164). Subsequently, many TPP member states noticed the initiative as important from a safety perspective, because it demonstrated that the US had a dedication to interact in a balancing coverage towards China (Miller, 2015, p.8). Earlier than Trump’s untimely dismissal of the commerce settlement, even an anxious India was contemplating participating with the venture (Tellis, 2014, p.112). Ought to this have occurred, the US would have succeeded in uniting China’s regional neighbours in an in depth commerce regime, with the potential for better navy cooperation additional down the road. With out such a coalition,  China’s neighbours know that they can’t mood its ambitions within the South China Sea and are due to this fact reliant on US management to discourage its irredentist insurance policies there and stop it from asserting management over the strategically essential sea lane and the pure assets that lie beneath it (Emmerson, 2017, p.12). The TPP would have demonstrated such a dedication and thus acted as a agency bulwark towards Chinese language expansionism within the area (Hasegawa, 2017, p.164). That the Trump administration would ignore the geostrategic advantages of the TPP is due to this fact demonstrative that its coverage method doesn’t align with offensive realism.


Through the use of offensive realism as an analytical instrument, I conclude that Donald Trump’s financial coverage in the direction of China can’t be thought-about realist. If the US’ basic objective is to comprise China’s rise and stop it from attaining regional hegemony in East Asia, then Trump’s selections to withdraw from the TPP and provoke a commerce conflict with China have been resounding failures. While the status-quo coverage of engagement is undesirable, the commerce wars have accentuated Chinese language relative beneficial properties versus diminishing them and have due to this fact been unable to safe tangible concessions concerning China’s unfair commerce practices. The TPP withdrawal was equally anti-realist, rejecting an agreed commerce deal that may have allowed the US to set the commerce agenda in East Asia, elevated US beneficial properties relative to China and signalled to regional allies an enduring US dedication to comprise China’s rise. The web results of these insurance policies is a China that is still on track to dominate East Asia economically, with a continuation of such a coverage method certainly ushering in Chinese language regional hegemony sooner or later.


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Written at: College of St Andrews
Written for: Dr. Adam Bower
Date written: March 2020

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