November 28, 2016

The Trump Transition: The US Foreign Policy Transformation

REUTERS/Chris Tilley/File Photo
People show their support as Donald Trump speaks in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S. May 5, 2016.
People show their support as Donald Trump speaks in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S. May 5, 2016.

It is difficult to predict what policies Donald Trump will pursue when he becomes the US president in January based on his campaign statements. If one goes by his speeches, Trump will focus on restructuring US alliances, abandoning trade deals, and rebalancing the US strategic orientation toward Russia and away from China. If he implements these policies, there is a real possibility that the next few years could see the most substantial change in US foreign policy in decades.

Like other politicians, Trump may have disguised or camouflaged his genuine beliefs to enhance his appeal to voters and interest groups. Despite having Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, we can expect opposition to some presidential policies from the US Congress, though the US president has more freedom regarding foreign policy than domestic issues and can circumvent some congressional barriers through executive action, as Obama did with the Iran nuclear deal. Similarly, the US Constitution authorizes the US Supreme Court to block presidential actions seen as unconstitutional, which might impede Trump’s plans to tighten US immigration requirements for select groups or to permit the harsher interrogation of terrorist suspects. Foreign governments and US businesses might also pressure Trump to revise some of his plans. International conditions often force US presidents to deviate from their plans. One example is George W. Bush’s administration becoming the most interventionist administration in US history after the September 11 terrorist attacks despite campaigning against Bill Clinton’s international activism.
Compounding these uncertainties is Trump’s lack of traditional foreign-policy experience as a former political or military leader; his engagement has been primarily that of an entrepreneur and foreign investor. Another issue is Trump’s narrow range of well-known advisors, at least before his election. During his campaign, Trump castigated the alleged incompetence of the Washington-based US national security establishment for decades of out-dated thinking and poor execution and surrounded himself with experts who shared that view. In turn, many people who held senior positions in previous US administrations signed letters denouncing Trump and pledging never to serve in any future Trump administration—statements that are now being enforced by Trump’s executive recruiters.
Furthermore, Trump cultivates unpredictability to enhance his negotiating position and US diplomatic flexibility—which can help deter some opponents but makes reassuring partners harder. Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” is sufficiently opaque to encompass any specific policy decision. Finally, Trump is comfortable making decisions based on his intuition, personal judgement, business record, and confidence in his negotiating skills—variables that further complicate forecasting his future policies.
That said, Trump has left a strong paper trail of his likes and dislikes. His public statements have prioritized short-term calculations of net benefits while discounting the potential return from long-term investments in shared values and principles, such as collective security and free-trade agreements. He enjoys “winning,” upholding national sovereignty, making “beautiful things” through wise policies, and cultivating personal relations with foreign leaders based on mutual respect and trust.
In contrast, Trump hates perceived “bad deals” like the Iran nuclear agreement, sanctions and other restraints on US businesses, transnational terrorists, and most multinational free-trade agreements, specifically the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Unlike other recent US presidents, Trump is publicly indifferent to international institutions, such as NATO and other US defence alliances, as well as global initiatives to counter climate change and other worldwide threats, assessing their value only insofar as they bring concrete economic and security benefits to the United States.
During the campaign, Trump called for radically restructuring NATO and the mutual defence treaties with South Korea and Japan so that allies would pay their “fair share” and rely less on the United States and more on themselves for their self-defence. In Trump’s view, the allies are exploiting the United States to minimize their national military spending while they enhance their economic competitiveness. To force a change in this situation, Trump hinted during the campaign that he might withdraw US, military forces stationed on their territory and condition US pledges to defend them on these states paying more for their own defence.
Some label Trump a “neo-isolationist,” which may generally be true in the economic realm, but runs against the president-elect’s pledge to aggressively kill terrorists throughout the world. Trump approaches multilateral institutions and foreign policy principally from a state-centric and economic perspective, describing the United States as suffering security and economic losses due to poorly negotiated trade deals, ungrateful allies, and a globalization project that has led to the destruction of manufacturing jobs for middle-class Americans.
In the security domain, Trump has advocated increasing the number of active duty armed forces, purchasing new equipment, and making new investments in military technology. He has criticized the Obama administration for reacting too passively to international challenges and has boasted his decisiveness would restore US respect and influence, but has also criticized any US military commitments as excessively expensive and in some cases unnecessary. In principle, Trump can reconcile ending the US role as a world policeman with his plans to boost the US military by arguing that US strength will deter threats better without requiring the use of US military force. Even so, his plans for massive tax and spending cuts will challenge defence spending and Trump’s desire to reduce the national debt unless they unleash substantially more growth that increases aggregate revenue even with lower tax rates.
Finally, Trump has already begun stepping back some of his more controversial rhetoric, such as proposing nuclear proliferation as a substitute for traditional US alliances. Further changes in declared policies are likely as the administration balances competing priorities.

Russia and NATO

In his speeches, Trump has said that he wanted to deescalate tensions with Moscow, restore mutual trust, and cooperate more against common threats. In particular, Trump described Russia as a potential partner in several areas of great importance to US foreign policy—most urgently, the fight against international terrorism, and over the long term, the management of China’s growing power. Trump expressed considerable optimism about resolving Russian-US differences due to his superior negotiating skills and his belief that Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who Trump has praised for his leadership skills and ability to achieve better results than recent US leaders, will respect him more than the Kremlin has previous US presidents, whom Trump believes Russians saw as hostile or weak.
In many respects, Trump’s worldview, as expressed during his election campaign, resembles that of the current Russian government. Trump has blamed previous US administrations for ruining relations with Moscow by failing to show or earn Russian respect (such as by dismissing Russia as a failing and resentful former superpower) and for excessively interfering in issues of vital concern to Russians, such as their domestic political development and Moscow’s relations with some of the other former Soviet republics. Like Putin (and Chinese leader Xi Jinping), who describe their national missions as reclaiming their countries lost greatness, Trump wants to restore American pride and reverse years of perceived humiliation and exploitation by foreign rivals.
Trump has stated that he can improve mutual respect and trust between the countries through avoiding gratuitously anti-Russian rhetoric and through his strong leadership style. Trump has endorsed the Russian military campaign in Syria for fighting mutual terrorist enemies and has said that he would reconsider, if not necessarily change, US policies regarding the non-recognition of Moscow’s March 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the subsequent sanctions on Russia adopted by the United States (and its allies). Trump has depicted the Ukraine conflict as a primarily European concern, implying that Washington should let Europe incur the costs of any confrontation and providing justification for a possible relaxation of tensions or at least opposition to congressional pressure to supply more weapons to Ukraine and other former Soviet republics fearing Russian military threats.
During his recent visit to Europe, President Obama tried to reassure NATO allies and partners that Trump’s victory would not fundamentally challenge US security guarantees to Europe. European leaders have expressed alarm at some of Trump’s statements during the campaign describing NATO as an obsolete structure that needs to be restructured to force Europeans to pay more for their own defence and to contribute more to US anti-terrorism goals. For example, Trump stated in media interviews that he would not unconditionally fulfil NATO’s mutual defence guarantees and would consider the allies’ past defence spending and other contributions to US security. While Trump may have made such statements to bolster US negotiating leverage, Europeans have worried that these attitudes will encourage Moscow to press them harder due to reduced fear about Washington’s reaction. Since Trump’s election, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, while pledging continued increases in European defence spending, has strived to highlight the already substantial contributions from Europe to fighting international terrorism in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and at home.
However, it is possible that Trump’s unpredictability and Russian interest in not foregoing a possible partnership with a friendly US government that might repeal costly sanctions on Russia and achieve long-term Russian goals regarding Europe, will lead to Moscow to strive to avoid antagonizing Trump, at least for a while. A more serious concern is that Trump will follow the patterns of previous presidents—what Trump referred as a “cycle of hostility”––who strived to improve relations with Moscow but then became disillusioned by setbacks; this could prove especially true if Trump holds Putin personally responsible for the failure.
Trump’s advisers have deemphasized the traditional issues that divide Washington and Moscow—such as arms control and regional security—and instead seem more interested in promoting collaboration on non-security issues such as energy and economics. If successful, this would help the bilateral relationship move beyond the Cold War questions that have long divided Washington and Moscow and provide a foundation for building more balanced and deeper ties. But the barriers to such cooperation are considerable—such as the unattractive investment climate in Russia, which the US government can do little to improve on its own.
Putin and other members of the Russian government generally preferred Trump over Clinton, whom Russian leaders saw as more hostile toward their interests. Before the election, Putin said that Moscow welcomes Trump’s “words, thoughts and intentions about the normalization of relations between the United States and Russia.” Trump fits the mould of the strong and independent-minded Western leader that Putin has preferred to deal with over the years. There has been substantial speculation that pro-Kremlin activists sought to facilitate Trump’s victory through the targeted use of “Kompromat”—the acquisition and release of compromising material on Clinton and her key Democratic supporters to Kremlin-friendly media outlets. Still, some Russian leaders have commented that they are uncertain how Trump’s unorthodox approach will affect concrete US initiatives, whether Trump can achieve enduring changes in traditional US policies in the face of what they see as a hostile US national security establishment, and about the second-order effects of some of Trump’s policies, which are inherently unpredictable since they depend on the response of key foreign actors.
US relations with Europe will be challenged beyond differences over Russia. Most Europeans are concerned about Trump’s lack of political experience; Clinton was seen in line with the European tradition of choosing long-serving politicians as their national leaders. Clinton’s views were also closer to the traditional European mainstream, whereas Trump received backing mostly from right-wing opposition parties (which could now receive a boost in their popularity following Trump’s election). While Trump has not explicitly denounced the proposed trans- Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), he broke with Obama in offering to negotiate a separate trade deal with Britain if, as transpired, the British voted to leave the EU. German leader Angela Merkel responded to Trump’s election with a statement that reaffirmed the traditional European view that any partnership had to be grounded on traditional liberal democratic values.

Changing Pacific Priorities

In contrast to his positive tone regarding Russia, Trump used some of his harshest language when referring to China. During the campaign, he insisted that, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country” through “the greatest theft in the history of the world” which encompasses stolen jobs, ending currency manipulation, violation of intellectual property laws, and China’s “illegal” export subsidies. The heightened US pressure comes at a bad time for Beijing given China’s slowing economic growth, and its record trade surpluses with Washington. American businesses are also concerned about the growing foreign investment challenges in China and the Chinese cyber theft of US intellectual property. Trump in particular has personally fought hard to secure access and trade market protection in China.
Unlike Clinton, Trump has not tempered his criticism of China’s economic policies with statements calling for cooperation on other issues, such as regional security and global climate change. For example, Trump has suggested that he would more vigorously challenge China’s island-building and territorial claims in East Asia. Some of his advisers have endorsed a large-scale naval rebuilding programme and other defence initiatives aimed against China and want to organize a more explicit containment strategy against Beijing, involving traditional US allies like Japan and Australia and new Pacific partners like India and Russia.
Nonetheless, some Chinese have seen potential long-term benefits in a Trump presidency. For example, they hope that he will weaken the US defence alliance with Japan, pursue a protectionist trade policy that will harm the US economy and allow China to enhance support for its preferred Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and cancel the planned deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea on economic grounds––Seoul has insisted that the United States must partly pay for deploying, operating, and maintaining the system.
During the campaign, Trump used the same kind of negative language regarding Japan that he employed about China, depicting Japan as an economic competitor of the United States and a security free loader. He insisted that the United States must not “go around subsidizing Japan.” Such remarks were common in the 1980s and 1990s, but have faded from US political discourse due to the stagnating Japanese economy. Reflecting Japanese unease, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to fly to New York to become the first foreign leader to meet with Trump following his election.
Trump has employed mixed language regarding North Korea. He said that he would be willing to meet that country’s leader, Kim Jong-Un, to resolve differences, but also that he was prepared to aggressively pressure China to exploit PRC-DPRK ties to coerce North Korean concessions and, if necessary, consider direct US military action against Pyongyang. At the same time, Trump has called on South Korea to enhance its defence efforts and at times has backed the view, which is also popular with some South Koreans, that the Republic of Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would strengthen its deterrence of the North.

The Middle East and Beyond

Trump has called for strong measures to counter Islamist terrorist threats to the United States––including sending more troops to the region, cutting off terrorist financing, relaxing restrictions on interrogating terrorists, expanding intelligence sharing with regional partners including Russia, and applying cyber techniques and other strategic messaging to disrupt the terrorist propaganda and recruiting. Trump has indicated that he wants to create “safe zones” for Syrian refugees to reduce immigration to Western countries. He has denounced the Iran nuclear deal but has at various times said he would insist on renegotiating its terms or simply to enforce its terms more effectively, implying that he will not throw it out entirely. Some of his advisers hope that, by demanding the latter, they can induce Tehran to incur the onus of formally withdrawing from it and allow the administration to approach the issue of a nuclear Iran anew, through a new diplomatic approach, crippling the Iranian economy through sanctions, and if necessary kinetic operations.
However, Trump will find it hard to overcome the contradictions that pervade the Middle East. For example, while he supports the Russian military intervention in Syria for helping relieve the US burden of fighting terrorism and seems open to accepting Assad’s rule in Damascus as superior to the likely alternatives, he can hardly welcome the growing Iranian and Hezbollah influence in the country and would need to manage continuing opposition to Assad in the Gulf Cooperation Council. There is also tension between Trump’s desire to enhance regional partnerships against terrorism with Sunni Arab governments and his support for further Israeli settlements in occupied territories and moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, which could alienate some partner governments. US strategic messaging needs to address how terrorists have been portraying Trump’s statements on Islam, immigration and terrorism as anti-Muslim. Reducing US efforts to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East would presumably be welcome in Egypt, Bahrain, and other authoritarian Arab governments but perhaps make these regimes more susceptible to extremist movements, regime change, and emigration.
Trump has thus far limited most of his discourse regarding South America to neighbouring Mexico, whom he has accused of exploiting US laws to export criminals and poor people to the United States. During his election campaign, he called for building a “wall” along the US border with Mexico and making Mexico pay for its construction or face economic sanctions. He also advocated deporting all undocumented immigrants from the United States, imposing a temporary ban on Mexican immigration, and for legal immigration to be made considerably more difficult and expensive. Trump’s views regarding Africa are even less clear, beyond support for regional counterterrorism efforts.

Looking Ahead

Once Trump appoints more senior national security officials, administration policies towards some issues should become clearer. However, the transition process has already made it evident that his advisers and possible appointees are divided on critical issues, such as how closely they want to collaborate with Russia. Some have served in previous Republican administrations, worked at Republican-leaning think tanks, or are otherwise long-time members of the US national security establishment. They typically favour an assertive US foreign policy regarding Russia and China, strong support for NATO and other traditional alliances, and a robust US military posture and expenditure. But other prominent campaign aides and Trump associates are Washington outsiders that have expressed support for collaborating with Russia, reducing US military spending, and focusing on restoring US international economic competitiveness even at the cost of antagonizing traditional allies.
For now, the latter appears to have Trump’s ear. General Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, has been proposed as Trump’s national security advisor. General Flynn has become known for advocating stronger measures against “radical Islamic terrorism” and partnering with Russia on this and other issues. Meanwhile, Senator Jeff Sessions has been selected as the new attorney general and Republican Mike Pompeo as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Sessions has been one of Trump’s staunchest supporters, was the first senator to endorse Trump during the campaign, and has taken a hard-line stance on immigration. Pompeo has strong views on the Iran nuclear deal, having been against the idea from the beginning. Yet, the White House still needs to fill thousands of political appointee positions open for each new administration. In the case of senior posts, they will need to find other candidates the Senate will likely confirm.
Policy divisions are common in US presidential administrations. The Carter administration was torn between hawks and doves, George W. Bush’s administration between republicans seeking to limit government spending and neoconservatives eager to promote global democracy, and the departing Obama administration between progressives who joined the Obama primary campaign and centrist Democrats who entered along with Hillary Clinton. The traditional pattern is for people appointed due to their campaign work to give way over time to people with more government experience. In Trump’s case, the Republican majority in Congress and foreign governments will also push Trump towards more traditional foreign-policy appointments and positions. But Trump stands out among recent US presidents for his willingness to consider unorthodox policies and approaches—so this process could take much longer than usual.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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