American foreign policy has historically fluctuated between two competing approaches that transcend our left-right political spectrum. Political scientists label these schools of thought Idealism and Realism.
Idealism holds that the purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to advance American values by fomenting freedom and democracy throughout the world. The ultimate goal of Idealism is to bring about a just and peaceful world by ending tyrannies. In the idealist view, the United States should engage in humanitarian missions, military interventions, and nation building, to advance this goal. Idealists believe that U.S. foreign policy should not be determined by what is best for the United States, but by what is, morally, the right thing to do.
In contrast, Realism holds that the purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to secure America’s national interest. Realists believe that moral principles are incompatible with the protection of our national interest. Interests come before values, and U.S. foreign policy should set aside moral considerations, and focus on whatever works.
Because interests are placed before values, foreign policy Realism enables policymakers to immorally embrace tyrannical regimes as President Obama did with Iran and Cuba in the name of the national interest.
President Trump has been very critical of Obama’s realist-inspired foreign policy as well as of the idealistic interventions favored by President Bush. President Trump’s foreign policy will not follow the Idealist approach of military interventions or nation building designed to foment freedom and democracy throughout the world. Nor will his foreign policy pursue national interests devoid of moral principles as in the Realist tradition.
President Trump’s foreign policy breaks from Idealism and Realism into a new foreign policy doctrine the President has labeled “Principled Realism.” Two recent overt military actions are illustrative of what the President means by principled realism.
First, the attack with Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Al Shayrat airbase, home of the Syrian warplanes that had carried out chemical attacks against civilians; the attack was timely, focused and proportional.
Second, the first use ever, in eastern Afghanistan, of the Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB) that targeted an ISIS tunnel and cave complex; according to military analysts, the MOAB was precisely the right weapon for that target.
Independently of their military efficacy, both of these actions signaled an approach that, while in-line with our values, does not commit U.S. resources beyond what is necessary to protect our national interest and to make a point.
And, on June 16, the President, outlining his new U.S.-Cuba policy, explicitly referred to his Cuba foreign policy approach as: “the United States is adopting a principled realism, rooted in our values, shared interests, and common sense. We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer…America will expose the crimes of the Castro regime and stand with the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom.”
Given Cuba’s intransigence, the new policy is an intelligent, measured, and practical approach that, while not prohibiting travel to, or doing business in Cuba, forbids Americans from doing business in partnership with the Cuban military. The policy focuses directly on the adversary: The Cuban military.
In practice, American travelers will not be able to stay in the hotels of the Cuban Armed Forces but can stay in individually owned facilities. Doing business with the Cuban people is encouraged, but doing business with the military dictatorship is prohibited. The policy seeks to limit cash flows to the military enterprises while increasing cash flows to the people.Symbolically and practically, it embraces the oppressed and not the oppressors.
Principled realism opens up diplomatic possibilities anchored on the intersection of our values and our interests. President Trump’s foreign policy will not be one that puts fear in the minds of oppressive regimes as some had hoped. Dictatorships offend our values, but not necessarily our national interests.
The new U.S.-Cuba policy emphasizes our democratic values, but allows for negotiations responsive to the requirements of U.S. national interests. It is a policy of principled realism.
The symbolism of a change to a policy that now embraces our values was richly expressed by U.S. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart: “We will no longer have to witness the embarrassing spectacle of an American president doing the wave at a baseball game with a ruthless dictator.”
Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.