The election of Donald Trump to succeed Barack Obama as U.S. president came as a shock to many. With a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, Trump’s victory could mean a shift away from many of the policies of the Obama Administration and brings into question the future role of the United States in the international arena. Sixty million voters have elected a new commander-in-chief for the nation with the most military power and diplomatic influence in the world. Now their decision will play out on the world stage.
Over these past two weeks, I have had the chance to speak with several international analysts. This is what I’ve learned.
As is prudent, global leaders have not hidden their concerns. Many believe Donald Trump could be a significant destabilizer to an international order in which globalization and technological change are restructuring political spheres at an unimaginable rate.
Obama’s Legacy at Stake
One of the most pressing questions in the aftermath of the election is what will become of Obama’s international legacy. “Although it’s hard to answer this question at an abstract level, some Obama policies will be easy to overturn because they were effectuated by Obama acting alone,” says Michael Glennon, author of National Security and Double Government and Professor at the Fletcher School. “These include the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords. Others policies will be harder to change because they’re embodied in statutes.” Many hope that the institutions and the bureaucracy in Washington will curb some of Trump’s more extreme propositions.
Among them is Xenia Wickett, Head of the US and the Americas Programme at Chatham House, who claims that these institutions can act as a firewall against Trump. “The American system will constrain Trump in a lot of the things that he might otherwise want to do. I’ve had people disagree with me and say the checks and balances won’t hold, but I don’t see the Republican Party staying together for more than a month or two. The fact that the Republican Party holds the House and the Senate to me presumes that the Republican Party is one party, and I just don’t think it is at the moment.” Somewhat departing from Glennon’s point of view, Wickett thinks that pessimistic views “presume that Donald Trump can walk all over American bureaucracy. As someone who has worked in the White House trying to align the American bureaucracy behind the president’s policies, I can tell you that it’s extraordinarily hard. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard, because if the bureaucracy really wants to dig in its feet, it will. I believe that some of [Trump’s] more outrageous statements are going to be restricted by the systems and processes of the U.S. government.”
But Glennon remains skeptical: “I suggested that Obama had difficulty scaling back Bush’s national security programs because of resistance by the leaders of the national security bureaucracy. But those officials are not likely to be equally averse to beefing up security programs. Overestimating security risks is a lot less costly to the bureaucracy than underestimating security risks. If they overestimate they end up with a bigger payroll and budget; if they underestimate they get blamed for a national tragedy. Also, Trump has a disdain for experts, and is less likely to defer to the national security glitterati than was Obama. I don’t expect the bureaucracy to be much of a check.”
NATO’s Unpredictable Future
One of the most controversial claims of Trump’s campaign has been his repeated intent to restructure NATO, an alliance he views with skepticism unprecedented for any U.S. president. Days after Trump’s victory, James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander to NATO and Dean of the Fletcher School, predicted a grim future for NATO. “In particular toward NATO, Trump will have a skeptical approach, demanding more defense spending by European allies. He is very critical of NATO members that do not meet the 2% of GDP spending on their defense budgets.” Although the impression of many, mainly from Eastern Europe, is that this is not an illegitimate request, it is likely to see a growing sense of disunion among the members. “This will not go over well in NATO,” says Stavridis. “This will result in tension between the US and the rest of the Alliance.”
Is Europe Next?
An outcome of Trump’s victory that could have immediate consequences, largely due to the victory´s symbolic significance, is the rise of protectionist policies of nationalist, anti-pluralist, and xenophobic agendas in Europe. The leaders of Front National, UKIP, Fidesz or AfD, see Trump’s victory as encouraging their respective populist movements. Viktor Orbán has defined Trump’s victory as the defeat of the “liberal not democratic” platform, while Florian Philippot wrote, upon learning the result: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.” Trump, for his part, has made no effort to conceal his alignment with several of these leaders (particularly symbolic was his affirming meeting with Nigel Farage, leader of the UKIP, just two days after Election Day).
Samuel Moyn, Professor of Law and History at Harvard and author of The Last Utopia, sees many parallels between the U.S. and Europe. “Globalization has come in a form that has not provided equity across the globe, or even within nations, where it has exacerbated as many hierarchies as it has softened. Moreover, even gains from trade have occurred in the United States without cushioning the blow on industrial workers, whose former communities are now Trump’s chief supporters.” In a critique that echoes Vaclav Havel’s historical 2000 speech in Strasbourg, Moyn stresses that “we have lost, both in Europe and the U.S., much idea of progress, except wealth and health, and people turn against others when they have no ideology of solidarity with them.”
In the coming months, the citizens of France, Germany and Holland will elect new governments. In Italy, they have already voted down a constitutional referendum and spelled the end of Matteo Renzi’s government. While it is risky to establish links of causality between such different phenomena, it’s possible Trump’s victory will be used as a flag by Beppe Grillo (Movimento Cinque Stelle) in Italy, Marine le Pen (FN) in France, Frauke Petry (AfD) in Germany and Geert Wilders (PVV) in Holland. “The problems that Le Pen has had is that some people would feel voting for them would be a waste of a vote,” says Wickett. “What is apparent, both in the Brexit vote, and especially in the Trump vote, is that it isn’t a waste of a vote. These candidates can win. And so I think it very much empowers and makes those people who would otherwise maybe not vote for those candidates actually say, ‘You know what? I can change things.’”
The Middle East Conundrum
Trump inherits an extremely complicated situation in the Middle East. If we heed the statements Trump made during campaign, the principle objective of the U.S. in Syria moving forward will be to wage war on ISIS. Included in this is ending support for the opposition forces in Syria (both open and covert) which could potentially trigger the consolidation of the Assad regime and the strengthening of Russia’s presence in the region. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states possibly joined by Turkey might respond to this growing power vacuum with increased support for the Syrian opposition. Trump’s selection of the anti-Islamist General Michael Flynn as his national security advisor might bring a more aggressive U.S. strategy in the Middle East. When asked about this, Stavridis, who has written extensively on ISIS, said he does not see the Trump administration retreating from the area: “President-elect Trump has said that he has a secret plan to defeat the so-called Islamic State and has repeatedly pledged to destroy them rapidly after assuming office, and most observers believe he will do so aggressively.” However, as the trials of Iraq and Afghanistan remain fresh in American public memory, Stavridis says “it appears unlikely that Trump will seek to make a large troop deployment.”
One of Trump’s fundamental problems is that he has too many number one priorities, and vacillates between them depending on his particular audience. “My number one priority is to dismantle the Iran deal,” Trump told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last March. An important question for the incoming administration is whether they will have not only the will but also the capacity to break the deal. The nuclear deal with Iran is not a treaty, but an agreement. It was not formally signed and was thus never ratified by the U.S. Congress. Although many of the deal’s conditions have been fulfilled — Iran has eliminated key portions of its arsenals or uranium, and has dismantled thousands of centrifuge machines — Trump could use his executive powers to abandon the deal. Doing so would force its end as the integrity of the agreement depends on the compliance of all its signatories. Alternatively, Trump could push enforcement of the supervision mechanisms in the agreement to the point of forcing Iran’s exit. A renegotiation is improbable, as it seems unlikely that the rest of the signing countries (Iran, Russia, China, France, the UK, and Germany) would concede to renegotiate the terms. The foreseeable impact of such a rupture on U.S.-Iran relations could go beyond the controversy surrounding the deal and induce a political radicalization of the regime. Moderate figures like President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif might be sidelined in favor of hard-liner radicals.
Several Israeli officials have commented positively on the election of Trump. The future administration of the New York real-estate mogul could decisively influence matters critical to Israel, including the future of the Palestinian state, the Iran nuclear deal, and the war in Syria. Others, however, have shown concern for the anti-Semitism of Steve Bannon, whom Trump has named as his chief strategist.
With respect to the question of the Palestinian state, the reaction within Netanyahu’s government has been positive. Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett declared the morning after the elections that Trump’s victory signifies that “the era of the Palestinian state” as a viable political reality “is over.” A decision on this front would place the United States at odds with an array of actors across the international community. If Trump decides to suspend the nuclear deal with Iran — a choice the Israeli government would applaud — he might seriously imperil the collaboration of Iran in the fight against ISIS in Syria. If, as it seems, Trump’s priority in the Middle East is to destroy ISIS, and he is disposed to do whatever is necessary to achieve this objective, Trump would be forced to align himself with several of Israel’s enemies. As he stated during the campaign: “Assad is fighting ISIS. Russia is fighting ISIS and Iran is fighting ISIS.” Should Trump’s support for the Assad regime become policy, it would mark a significant shift in American policy in the region and could have important consequences for Israel, especially if the Iran nuclear accords were not suspended.
A Russian-American Cold Romance
The 2016 presidential race was unprecedented in many ways, and not since the fall of the Berlin Wall has Russia had such a presence in U.S. politics. Like many other statements of his renegade campaign, one cannot assume the amicable comments Trump made towards Putin will transform into policy. Konstantin Kosachev, member of the Russian Federal Assembly, subscribes to this skepticism. “What we have heard from Trump up until now has been electoral rhetoric,” Kosachev declared after Trump’s election.
Stavridis was also skeptical: “Although Trump has been very admiring in his comments about President Putin, and conversely President Putin has been quite warm in his comments on President-elect Trump, Russia’s behavior in Syria (supporting the dictator Assad), Ukraine (invading and annexing Crimea) and cyber-attacks (probably affecting the U.S. election) will create some level of friction.”
A priority for Russia is to obtain U.S. and European recognition of the annexation of Crimea and for the withdrawal of the current sanctions. Trump will need to clarify his position on the issue, considering the Baltic States and Visegrád fear the incoming American administration could be more lenient on Russian expansionism in the area in exchange for increased Russian cooperation in Syria. A U.S. abandonment of the sanctions would mean the end of the Minsk II accords and a major setback for an already fragile European consensus on the issue. It’s necessary, nevertheless, to keep in mind the distaste many in the Republican Party hold towards Russia, a sentiment that impedes an easy relationship with Putin. In the opinion of Stavridis, we should expect a “a pragmatic, transactional relationship.”
The end of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”
A rethinking of the US strategy in the Asia-Pacific region is foreseeable. In a meeting on November 17th between Trump and the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both seemed cordial, but neither offered any substantial hint about American future involvement in the region.
Gideon Rachman is the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, and also the author of Easternization: War and Peace in the Asian Century. He believes “the Obama pivot is over, since the Trans Pacific Partnership was crucial to it. But any future U.S. government is going to have to focus more on Asia because of its crucial economic and strategic importance.” With the TPP effectively buried, a redefinition of the commercial relations between the U.S. and the countries of the Asia-Pacific region is urgent, especially if the U.S. hopes to maintain the competitive edge of American companies in a region with the largest potential for economic growth.
Trump, after insinuating that Japan and South Korea should assume more responsibility for their own defense, threatened during his campaign to withdraw 50,000 American troops currently stationed in Japan. When asked about American strategy towards China’s expansionism, Rachman paints two scenarios: “It’s too soon to tell… Trump has flirted with two policy options during the campaign. On the one hand, we have the idea of a Chinese sphere of influence in which the U.S. takes less interest in remaining the predominant power in the Pacific and so is less aggressive in pushing back against China. On the other hand, we have increased pushback: much bigger navy, more aggressive patrols. How China reacts depends on which option he chooses.” Whatever Trump’s ultimate path, Rachman maintains that U.S. protectionism against China would severely impact relations and lead to new antagonisms.
In his campaign, Trump made the construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico sort of a refrain. Diego Sánchez-Ancochea, Director of the Latin American Centre at Oxford University is skeptical about the feasibility of the project. As with other campaign promises, their impossibility will not change the damages already caused by their mere formulation. Trump’s words were indeed already a wall. “Relations with Mexico,” thinks Sánchez-Ancochea,“will be quite difficult.” At the end, much of the Trump agenda will affect the Mexican model and place its government in a very difficult position.” Few in Latin America celebrate Trump’s victory. America’s foreseeable commercial isolation and tougher immigration laws are not good news for a continent that already struggling to deal with low productivity, high levels of corruption, and low commodity prices. Sánchez-Ancochea foresees a grim future for the region: “It is still hard to tell, but it will likely mean lack of advances in some key areas like Cuba and domestic political problems of various kinds in the region.”
Counterterrorism in the Age of Fear
President-elect Trump has openly spoken in favor of some forms of torture. Some expect his election to signal to other countries that the West will be more open to tougher forms of counterterrorism in the future. Glennon fears “tighter domestic surveillance, more intrusive FBI investigations, more drone strikes, more restrictive immigration controls, and generally more emphasis on security and less on personal freedom.”
Many other nations will undoubtedly fall in line with U.S. counterterrorism policies, since the international community has long regarded the U.S. as the safekeeper of civil and political liberties. If American leaders now believe a given practice is permissible, other world leaders will be less likely to question their own infringements on citizens’ rights. Repressive regimes in particular are likely to take heart from Washington’s new tolerance of their methods, especially in a world where frequent and significant terrorist attacks might occur.
Between engagement and retreat: what should we expect from the future?
Seen from this perspective, the international agenda Trump laid out during his campaign has established too many opposing priorities to be accomplished within a singular, coherent strategy. “Trump’s is a controversial and non-traditional agenda to be sure,” said Stavridis. When asked whether the U.S. will take a more active role on the world stage, Wickett situates the discussion beyond Trump: Inevitably, America’s role in the world has changed over the last seven or eight years and I think it is far more than President Obama. It is the circumstances requiring a change in America’s role.” I think that is just as true under President Trump, so I think America is in a state not so much of withdrawal but of a more calculated assessment of where its national interests are involved and only acting under those circumstances”.
Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy would have been fairly predictable based upon her past track record as secretary of state, and the liberal ideology of edge interventionism that hid only when public opinion polls demanded it and that only Obama’s less aggressive international position softened. The stance of President-elect Trump is much vaguer and turns unhinged around such broad, sweeping slogans as “America First.” Nor is it possible neither to imagine from Trump a traditional conservative foreign policy, as Trump has long acted outside or against the conventions of conservatism.
He himself declared during the campaign: “This is the Republican party, not the conservative party.” While withholding some expectations, the world can thus expect from Trump ad hoc policies based on a pragmatism which borders on opportunism, with no coherent ideology.
This article was originally published in the Aspen Journal of Ideas.