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Trump’s world: foreign policy under the next president


Trump’s world: foreign policy under the next president

Donald Trump’s victory has shocked many. Anti-Trump demonstrators gathered outside the White House and in various other locations across the country on Wednesday, stopping traffic, causing scuffles and burning flags. Meanwhile, stock markets plunged as traders came to terms with the unexpected outcome and subsequently recovered, buoyed by Trump’s conciliatory tone in his acceptance speech.

Tuesday’s results mean the Republican Party will retain its majority in both the House and the Senate. With Mr Trump’s presidential victory, the GOP has secured a clean sweep of the legislative and executive arms of the federal government, suggesting President Trump may face fewer constraints on domestic policy than his predecessor. Regardless, the US constitution presents few constraints on the power of the US president to determine foreign policy. Amidst this uncertainty, questions are being asked about how Donald Trump will shape American foreign policy over the next four years.

Mr Trump has bemoaned American weakness abroad and pledged to pursue more assertive policies, including renegotiating trade deals, increasing defence spending, and insisting NATO allies increase their contribution to the alliance. At the same time, many of his proposals – from trade protectionism to tougher immigration controls – signal an America that is more inward-looking than it has been in living memory.

Overshadowing all of this are questions about whether the president-elect will translate his grandiose rhetoric into concrete action, or indeed whether he even intends to. Over the past year, Trump has pioneered ‘post-truth politics’ – the art of appealing to emotion while side-lining facts ­– leading pundits to suspect that most of his foreign policy proposals are hot air designed to win hearts, not minds.

When he enters the White House on January 20, President Trump will be confronted by realities that will force him to adopt a more pragmatic stance on many issues. Pragmatism may, in fact, turn out to be one of Mr Trump’s strengths; for all of his faults – and there are many – he does appear to have the ability to get things done, even when the odds are against him.

In this assessment, we strip away the rhetoric to outline how the next president may implement a new era of foreign policy and analyse its impact on a volatile global landscape.

Iran: questions over the nuclear deal

Iraq and Syria: ISIS on the ropes, but what to do about Assad?

Israel: more cooperation

Russia: the great unknown

China: support for regional allies and trade tensions

North Korea: dealing with a nuclear peninsula

India: the quiet ally?


Photo: IIPA/Getty Images
Photo: IIPA/Getty Images

On the campaign trail, Mr Trump has railed against the Iran nuclear accord, labelling it a “horrible deal”, pledging to “renegotiate” the agreement and “triple up” on sanctions.

The announcement of the agreement in June 2015 caused anxiety in Saudi Arabia – Iran’s regional foe – which felt betrayed by US dealmaking with Tehran. Indeed, Riyadh’s primary concern was that the accords opened the door to the gradual warming of relations between the US and Iran. In this sense, Donald Trump’s plan to “rip up” the deal will reassure Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies and, if enacted, may even lead to concessions in the complicated Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.

Trump certainly appears to have support on this issue; a majority of Republican lawmakers voted against the agreement in 2015. While President Obama’s pledge to veto any Congressional opposition ultimately secured the deal’s passage, the GOP’s dominance of Congress and the White House over the next two years threatens to undo Obama’s legacy.

On the other hand, if the new US administration does scrap the nuclear agreement, it is likely to achieve little and risk becoming internationally isolated. For one, the White House will find itself at odds with its European allies, many of which have significant commercial interests in Iran. French oil giant Total recently signed a $2 billion contract to develop Iranian natural gas fields, while car manufacturer PSA relies on Iran for some 15 per cent of sales. In April, Italy signed exploratory agreements on the potential investment of some $20 billion in Iran’s energy and transportation sectors. Were the next administration to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement, the rest of the world is likely to continue to trade with Iran, undermining President Trump’s ability to “triple up” on sanctions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani alluded to this on Wednesday, asserting the deal “cannot be overturned by one government’s decision”.

Ultimately, the next administration is unlikely to roll back the nuclear deal but may instead seek to increase pressure on Iran in the region’s complicated proxy conflicts, particularly in Syria.


Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Trump has promised to “hit very, very hard” and “knock out ISIS” and is prepared to “listen to the generals” but, in true Trump fashion, has given little in the way of details. It is expected that the next administration will continue to lead a coalition air campaign targeting extremist Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria, as well as contributing special forces to the region.

Over the past month major offensives have been launched to retake the extremist group’s two most significant prizes – Mosul and Raqqa. The establishment and mobilisation of militias and coalitions to combat the group has already taken place.

While it is unlikely ISIS’ ability to hold and govern territory will be completely degraded by the time Donald Trump assumes office, the group will be a shadow of its former self. As such it is very unlikely that the Trump administration will commit ground troops to combat ISIS, a measure he once suggested. The exasperation with conflict in the Middle East and the damage an intractable, unwinnable conflict will do to the ‘Make America Great Again’ brand is also likely to restrain any thoughts of troops commitments.

In all likelihood Trump will have to contend with ISIS (and other extremist groups) adopting insurgency tactics in the region, which could significantly complicate any potential ceasefire in Syria. Of significant importance is how President Trump approaches these ceasefire talks and, as a result, the future of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

In the past, Trump has presented a relatively softer stance towards the Assad regime, referring to it as “bad” but key to defeating ISIS. As policy makers shift their attention towards the underlying conflict in Syria this stance is likely to harden, although too little is known at this stage to make an accurate assessment.


Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO
Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO

The president-elect has pledged to boost relations with Israel, which have grown notably icy under the current administration. This will be an area where Donald Trump’s campaign pledges are likely to closely reflect his actions.

Relations between the US and Israel are currently at one of their lowest points in history, primarily due to the bitter personal relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Netanyahu reportedly dismissed any possibility of working with the Obama administration years ago, a move evident in his controversial March 2015 address to Congress, which was never cleared with the White House.

However, Israel and the United States share substantial strategic interests in the Middle East – from countering Islamic extremism to containing Iran and its proxies – and the alliance itself has never been under serious threat.

Donald Trump’s presidency will serve to reset leader-to-leader ties, likely resulting in increased cooperation between the two allies. He has already met with Netanyahu and pledged to recognise Jerusalem – the religiously symbolic city claimed by both Palestinians and Israelis – as Israel’s capital. This flies in the face of decades of US policy on the matter, which has sought to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a divided but shared capital.

Indeed, the prospects of a Palestinian state now look extremely bleak. While this has more-or-less been the case for the past eight years, Republican administrations have a history of close cooperation with Israel, often at the expense of Palestinian self-determination.


Photo: Reuters/Mikhail Metzel/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
Photo: Reuters/Mikhail Metzel/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

As a skilled tactician, President Putin will be pleased by Tuesday’s results.

For starters, Moscow will not be subjected to Hillary Clinton’s brand of hawkish and experienced foreign policy. Instead it will face a relatively inexperienced, globally unpopular president who has a record of saying and doing inappropriate things.

Belying this inexperience is Donald Trump’s suggestion that NATO partners must pay their “fair share”. This has caused consternation among many US allies in Europe. This is a welcome sign for Moscow, which has grown concerned about NATO’s increased military footprint in eastern Europe. Over the past year, the alliance has deployed some 4000 troops – a quarter of which are American – to Poland and the Baltics, as well as the activation of a missile defence system in Romania.

While it is unlikely that President Trump will actually reduce America’s commitment to the defence of its NATO allies, the fact that the next US president has publicly questioned the alliance’s relevance will raise doubts in the minds of European leaders.

The bitter, divisive, and drawn out presidential campaign will also provide ample fodder for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to discredit US policy and influence.

Trump has alluded to a seemingly mystical ability to improve ties with Russia “from a position of strength”. Exactly how the next president intends to do this is unclear. Relations between the two are at their lowest level since the end of the Cold War, with opposing positions on the Syrian conflict, Ukraine, and recent cyber attacks that prompted the Obama administration to accuse the Kremlin of trying to interfere with the very elections that brought Trump to office.

One policy Mr Trump may seek to ratchet up (or down) could be Ukraine-related economic sanctions, which target individuals close to the Kremlin, as well as limiting trade with state-owned energy companies and their accessibility to capital markets. These measures are designed to punish Putin for pursuing policies contrary to US interests by making it harder for him to maintain the all-important compliance of the country’s oligarchs. However, the deep financial and economic ties between many European countries and Russia – as well as Europe’s reliance on hydrocarbons from the east – will limit the scope of President Trump to enact more comprehensive sanctions.


Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The presence of ‘unchallenged’ leaders in both the highest levels of Chinese and American government raise important questions with regards to the stability of Asia-Pacific – in particular, the South China Sea, and fiscal policy as espoused by Trump during his campaign.

Xi Jinping’s recent recognition as the ‘core’ of the Chinese Communist Party at the recent Sixth Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party elevates him to levels of unchallenged power and influence not seen since Deng Xiaoping’s reign ended in 1992. Given that increased Chinese assertiveness over claims in the South China Sea – resulting in increased regional tensions – have come at the behest of a Xi-led administration, this increased influence over the formulation of foreign policy is likely to see greater sanction of outward aggressiveness.

Similarly, Trump has campaigned on a platform of increased military spending, despite the sequestering of American defense budgets through to 2021, approved by the Obama administration. This is likely to placate regional anxieties over the seeming lack of American commitment brought forth by budget cuts and therefore the inability to spend more on power projection platforms. More importantly, however, is that given Trump’s previously mentioned dim view of the Chinese polity as a whole, an increased Chinese and American military footprint in the South China Sea (and possibly the East China Sea) does not bode well.

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While not suggesting imminent global conflict, increased military presence begets increased contact, which in turn raises the likelihood of misunderstanding – possibly leading to escalating levels of conflict. Given the central role that the Asia-Pacific region plays in global wealth output, any major conflict – and cessation of trade between some of the largest markets in the world – will severely harm global economies. Indeed, the South China Sea alone accounts for about 30 per cent of global maritime commercial traffic.

Again, this outlook does not account for the contestation over prospecting and exploitation rights to regional resource caches. Factoring in the vast amounts of crude oil, natural gas and fisheries – estimated at 217 billion barrels, 190 trillion cubic feet, and an annual haul of ten million tonnes, respectively – multinational contestation by regional states comes into play. With Washington playing a major role in the security architecture of numerous regional states, Trump and Xi are likely to be pulled onto a collision course.

Trump has painted Chinese economic behaviour in an extremely negative light. He has accused Beijing of ‘raping’ the American economy by stealing millions of jobs and being currency manipulator par excellence. Subsequently, Trump vowed to impose a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese imports. He has also promised to limit American access to Chinese markets by coming down harshly on businesses seeking to operate in China. Yet this would only undermine his legitimacy as retaliatory Chinese measures could harm US global interests.

Potential retaliatory measures are twofold. First, China could impose tariffs of its own on American imports. Not only will this serve to discourage the purchase of American imports, it will also mean that other stakeholders up the American manufacturing stream will see a drop in demand for their services. This means increased cost of business – due to the increase in per unit cost of products – for the entire supply chain and for American companies at home and abroad. Second, a further devaluation of the renminbi vis-a-vis the dollar, wrought by said economic contestations, is equally possible.

As a result, American tariffs on Chinese products is likely to have the reverse effect on the American economy than what Trump has promised to achieve.  

Further compounding this relative wane in American influence is the fact that Trump has promised to do away with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – Washington’s answer to Beijing’s increasingly robust ‘One Belt, One Road’ policies that have seen success in parts of Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The scrapping of the TPP and race to reformulate some sort of rival, economically-influential initiative only serves to give Beijing more time to assert and strengthen its regional and global economic influence.

In sum, Washington’s strategic rebalance to Asia remains in doubt given the disconnect between campaign rhetoric and actual fiscal limitations. Further, the economic side of the ‘pivot’ – in the form of the TPP – is entirely dead if Trump holds to his promises. Conversely, China has shown no such inertia in bringing both economic policies and strategic resources to bear in spreading its competing influence across the region, and perhaps the world.


Photo: KCNA
Photo: KCNA

The next president’s policy on North Korea remains unclear. He has declared that Kim Jong Un, the country’s despot, is “a total nut job,” yet in the same interview he also gave the dictator “credit” for consolidating his power after his father’s death. Trump has stated that he would be willing to directly meet with Kim Jong Un, which could open a path for renewed dialogue. However, he has also stated that he would pressure Beijing to “straighten out the situation,” given that “China has… absolute control over North Korea.” China has repeatedly proven itself unable to constrain its wayward ally. Therefore, if Trump means to stand by his position, he has a mistaken view of the geopolitical reality.

President Trump’s approach to North Korea will be shaped by how he deals with Washington’s regional allies, Japan and South Korea. While much has been made of Trump’s blithe attitude towards nuclear proliferation, his statements were in the context of the two allies’ fall-back plans if they refused to bear the full cost of their alliances and instead chose to go it alone. The new president will not necessarily support regional nuclearisation, but it is a distressingly real possibility.

A nuclearising South Korea could prompt a preemptive strike from the North, and Japan’s nuclearisation might bring the country very close to war with China. Any swift withdrawal of American commitment in the region would leave a power vacuum and deep uncertainty. Given the high tensions between North and South Korea, and between China and Japan, this heightens the possibility of conflict.

The most accurate statement that can be said about Trump’s future North Korea policy is that it is an unknown. His collection of remarks related to the Korean Peninsula hardly constitute a coherent policy and it is by no means certain that he will actually implement what he has suggested.


Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The president elect’s future stance towards India remains sketchy at best, and initial indications are contradictory. His positive personal opinion of the country may conflict with his commitment to bring back outsourced American jobs. However, Trump’s opinions of Pakistan and China – India’s biggest rivals – would indicate a preference for India by default.

The president-elect’s statements on India have thus far been contradictory. Trump has gone back and forth on the issue of temporary high-skilled worker visas, the majority of which are awarded to Indians. These visas are vital for the Indian IT sector, which uses them to bring Indian talent to their subsidiaries in the US. Indian software services provide $82 billion of export revenues per year, 60 per cent of which comes from North America. It remains to be seen whether Trump will restrict skill-specific visas, but it remains a troubling possibility for India.

Another worry is that the new president will levy punishing taxes on US firms doing business in India if he decides that those firms are outsourcing American jobs. He has specifically threatened the technology firm IBM with a 35 per cent tax if it moved jobs to India. Trump also plans to lure American firms back to the homeland by reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 per cent to 15 per cent, which would disincentivise expanding operations in India.

The president-elect seems set to take a harder line on Pakistan, India’s archrival. He has stated that Pakistan is “probably the most dangerous [country]” and has said that “you have to get India involved; India is the check to Pakistan…I would start talking at that level very very quickly”. This would likely involve threatening to cut the $1 billion in aid that Pakistan receives unless the country decisively cuts its links to terrorist groups. This will worsen bilateral relations and would strengthen the increasing American tilt towards Delhi.

Likewise, Trump’s promised trade dispute with China would make India a far more attractive partner by comparison. Trump will find much to like in India’s marked anti-terrorism bent, which resonates with his own strong stance on the issue.

It is important to keep in mind that Trump himself might not know what his India policy will be. He has displayed limited knowledge of world affairs and US-India relations usually take a back seat to more headline-grabbing relationships like those with Russia or China. On a surface level the president-elect appears to have a positive view of India and Indians. Last month Trump said that, “I’ll be honest, I have great respect for India. I actually have jobs going up in India, tremendously successful. It is an amazing country.” This opinion could however simply be the result of his ownership of two luxury properties in the country and the vocal support of a few Hindu groups in the US.

In light of this analysis, it is crucial to remember that foreign policy expectations for the Trump presidency are mostly based on the remarks of a man who, by many accounts, does not appear to be particularly knowledgeable about foreign affairs. Some policy directions are clear: Trump opposes free trade, and he generally favours putting narrowly defined national interests first in any given situation. But only the broad strokes of Trumpian foreign policy are visible yet, and these do not always extend to individual countries or regions. It also remains to be seen how much he will be influenced by his advisors, whoever they might turn out to be. It is quite plausible that Trump himself has not yet decided how he will approach certain issues, so forecasts of his impact on the wider world can only represent educated guesses at this stage.

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