Speaking in Saudi Arabia, US President Donald Trump laid out his vision for US foreign policy: ‘We are adopting a “principled realism”, rooted in common values and shared interests’, he said.
Realism is the school of international relations which holds that states will always put their national interests first. In this case, Trump declared that ‘our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens’.
As such, two national interests emerged in Trump’s speech. First, the threat from ISIS which seeks ‘control of territory and populations’ and access to funds, and second, the threat from Iran which ‘funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region’.
Most realists do not shy away from the moral issues around putting their national interest first. In Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue—a foundational work for realists—the Athenian envoy puts it straightforwardly: ‘When one side is stronger, it gets as much as it can, and the weak must accept that’. For realists, this is simply an inevitable result of human nature.
Enter Trump’s ‘principled realism’.
The realism part seems clear: putting US interests first—or at least the interests that Trump deems important. But Trump offered Saudi Arabia a ‘partnership based on shared interests and values’. What exactly are these shared values?
In a powerful New York Times piece, Mona Eltahawy writes: Saudi Arabia ‘is the only country in the world that upholds a ban on women’s driving. And the country’s male guardianship system renders women perpetual minors, who need permission from a father, brother or even a son to travel, study, marry or gain access to government services’.
Only weeks before Trump’s visit, ‘Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi Arabian, was dragged onto a plane from Manila to Riyadh with her mouth taped shut and her arms and legs bound… where she’d escaped a forced marriage’.
In fact, it was only in April that the United States itself forced a vote at the United Nations on whether Saudi Arabia could join the Commission on the Status of Women, instead of the usual closed door arrangements.
Moreover, this is without even getting into the score of other rights that are violated by the Saudi regime. According to the Washington-based think tank Freedom House, in 2016, Saudi Arabia scored an astonishingly low ranking of 3/40 for its political rights and civil liberties.
As Berman writes, ‘we’d be hard pressed to express the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia without putting them into a context of Shia versus Sunni’.
This is not to downplay the unique threat from Iran’s nuclear program. Undoubtedly, Iran’s creeping nuclear ambitions pose a unique threat to American interests in the region. But in terms of terrorism and global security, a Wikileaks cable clearly quotes then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that ‘donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide’ and that ‘Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa'ida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba], and other terrorist groups, including Hamas’.
The other difference between Iran and Saudi Arabia seems to be that Saudi Arabia buys US weapons and sells it oil, while Iran does not. As Trump made clear, the ‘landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion Saudi-funded defence purchase’.
This is not to suggest that a relationship with Iran could be based upon common values. Rather, it is simply to say that for Trump enemies are not opposed ‘because of their principles, but because of their transactional opposition to American interests’. So much for principled realism.
There is one other issue to be addressed here.
Another key tenet of realism is that security is primarily defined in terms of the state. However, even the United Nations Security Council, which is notorious for its susceptibility to the hard realist power of its permanent members, has passed seven resolutions acknowledging the links between women, peace, and security.
As critical theorists argue, a mature conception of security cannot stop at the state-level without also considering individual emancipation and individual rights. Otherwise, ‘for whom’ is such security intended?
Putting it simply, this means that gender apartheid is itself a security issue.
In his speech, Trump spoke about ‘common values’ and ‘common security’. But the bottom line is that neither of these exist.
Shmuel Levin is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.