The World as Seen by Donald Trump
Making sense of Donald Trump’s foreign policy has not been easy. Unlike other presidents-to-be, he has not issued elaborate position papers on his favoured policies or delivered lengthy speeches. All we have to go by are some interviews and campaign appearances, and now his choices for top government positions. For some observers, this suggests an untutored or incoherent approach to foreign policy, derived largely from news headlines and his experiences as a globetrotting businessman. But look closely and distinct patterns begin to appear. Donald Trump has a clear-eyed view of the world and America’s place within in it — and in some respects his perceptions are far more attuned to world realities than those of well-regarded pundits and policymakers in Washington.
Spend any length of time in the nation’s capital and you come to view the world in a certain way. This is a universe of concentric circles stretching outward from the White House, with Canada, Britain and other English-speaking allies in the first ring; the remaining NATO powers plus Japan, South Korea and Israel in the second; long-term economic and military partners such as Taiwan, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia in the third, and so on. Outside this system of dependent relationships lie America’s rivals and adversaries: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. For decades, US foreign policy has been aimed at bolstering links with and among the Washington-friendly countries, and trying to weaken and isolate the outsiders. At times this has meant going to war to protect those in the outer network of alliances lest those in the inner circles become exposed to danger.
Trump has not spent much time inside the Beltway and does not share the Washington-centric view of most US policymakers. He is a New York City businessman with interests around the world, wholly divorced from any structural conception of allies, friends and foes. In this, he is very much like Rex W Tillerson, chief executive officer of ExxonMobil and Trump’s choice as secretary of state. For both men, the world is a vast competitive jungle, with opportunities and perils everywhere, irrespective of any government’s presumed loyalty or hostility to Washington.
In the world as seen by Donald Trump, the United States is not the core of an extended family of dependent states to which it owes protection, but one of many power centres vying for wealth and advantage on an intensely competitive global chessboard. The aim of US foreign policy in this environment is to advance America’s interests above all else, and frustrate the designs of all those who seek advantage at its expense. In this competitive environment, where every government will be judged solely by what it can do to further America’s interests or impede its progress, Trump will use every tool at his disposal to reward partners and punish opponents. Willing collaborators can expect state visits to the White House, favourable trade deals and exemption from human rights considerations; adversaries will face high import tariffs, diplomatic isolation and, in case of extreme provocation, military action. What form such action might take cannot be foreseen, as Trump has said little on the subject, but it is likely to be of a muscular nature (presumably air and missile strikes against high-value targets).
To ensure that Washington is able to deliver on both sides of this equation, Trump has assembled a senior leadership team composed of people who know how to reward collaborators with lucrative deals (Tillerson as secretary of state), along with those who are experienced at wielding force against the nation’s enemies (General Michael T Flynn as national security adviser and General James N Mattis as secretary of defence). And to make sure his generals will be in a preponderant position if and when required to employ the military option, he has called for a massive expansion of the armed forces — and especially of the navy, the most suitable service for muscle-flexing and quick-strike operations.
The war against ISIS How will all this play out in US relations with particular regions and countries? Let us look first at the Middle East and the war against ISIS (so-called Islamic State). From the very beginning, Trump made it clear that his top overseas objective would be to ‘destroy ISIS’ and crush other manifestations of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. ‘Immediately after taking office,’ he declared in Philadelphia on 7 September 2016, ‘I will ask my generals to present to me a plan within 30 days to defeat and destroy ISIS’.
To a considerable degree, the US war against ISIS is more a domestic than foreign policy issue: Trump’s stated determination to destroy the group derives largely from his supporters’ fear of its international reach and their loathing of militant Islam. In fighting back against ISIS, he promised, there will be no half-measures: Every tool at the military’s disposal will be unleashed in a relentless campaign of annihilation; if family members and civilian associates of ISIS get trapped in the maelstrom, so be it.
But while the campaign against ISIS will be largely delegated to the military, it does raise significant foreign policy considerations. There is, to begin with, the question of who might be asked to assist in the final struggle against ISIS. Most noteworthy is Trump’s discussion of Vladimir Putin as a possible ally. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?’ he said at a July 2016 rally in North Carolina. Trump has also hinted at a possible working relationship with Bashar al-Assad of Syria. ‘I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS,’ he said during the second debate with Hillary Clinton on 9 October. These countries’ leaders will, of course, expect some concessions in return — for Russia, the recognition of its annexation of Crimea and the lifting of sanctions; for Assad, the cessation of all aid to anti-government rebels.
Trump will also seek arrangements with other major players in the region. We should expect an early agreement with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan under which the Turks will increase their pressure on ISIS in return for diminished US support for the Kurdish militias in northern Syria — even though these groups have proved the most effective fighting force in the ground campaign against ISIS. Erdoğan was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Trump after his election victory, and the two reportedly spoke of improved cooperation in anti-terror activities. It is also possible that Trump will agree to extradite the self-exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Ankara of the abortive coup of July 2016.
Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia could suffer as a result of an intensified US drive against ISIS. Its leadership, like that of Saudi Arabia, is largely composed of Sunnis — and many of those who are likely to suffer from any increase in US air strikes on ISIS positions are Sunni civilians. Yet many of the forces fighting ISIS on the ground are composed of Shias — whether Iranian-backed militias in Iraq or the Alawites and their allies in Syria. Inevitably, a victory by the militias and the survival of Assad will be viewed in Riyadh as a triumph for Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival in the struggle for domination of the greater Gulf region. It may prove difficult to repair the strained US relationship with Riyadh, especially with Trump’s insistence that Saudi Arabia should pay dearly for the protection he claims it receives from the US.
At first glance, the Iranians have much to fear from Trump’s ascension to the White House. Throughout his campaign, he called the Iran nuclear deal — officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — ‘the worst deal in history’ and promised to ‘dismantle it’ once in office. Flynn, at national security, is a particularly outspoken opponent of Iran and can be expected to maintain pressure on Trump to follow through on this promise. But the priority of defeating ISIS may take precedence over the drive to isolate Iran; Trump may see some advantage in a tacit understanding with Tehran about the urgency of fighting ISIS now and postponing other issues till later.
US-Russia honeymoon If anything is likely to change during the early days of a Trump administration, it is the US’s relations with Russia. Trump spoke on several occasions of his admiration for Vladimir Putin, offering to meet him in an effort to improve bilateral relations. After Putin conferred with the president-elect by telephone, the Kremlin issued a statement indicating that the two leaders had agreed ‘to normalise relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the widest possible range of issues’. Many observers also believe that he selected Tillerson as secretary of state in part because of his long-term ties with the Kremlin over energy, forged through elaborate joint ventures between Exxon and Russian firms in the Arctic and Sakhalin Island.
But it would be a mistake for Putin to assume that any honeymoon in Russian-American relations will prove lasting. As Trump has made very clear, his primary interest is to promote US interests above all else, and this will not allow for any arrangement that could be interpreted as surrendering America’s dominant position on the global chessboard. We cannot foresee at what point assertive Russian action in eastern Europe might test that stance, but Trump will not allow the US to be branded as indecisive or weak-willed in any such confrontation. Covert Russian meddling in the Baltic or Balkan states might not arouse his ire, but an overt assault on a US ally would no doubt provoke a harsh response.
The Putin regime must also worry about Trump’s intent to reinvigorate the US military. While many of his proposals, such as a major expansion of the navy, appear aimed primarily at China, some will prove discomfiting to Russia. These include Trump’s call for the modernisation of the US strategic bomber fleet and the acquisition of a ’state-of-the art missile defence system’. While threatening to China, these initiatives would prove especially worrisome for Russia given its heavy reliance on nuclear weapons to deter military action by the West. Putin himself expressed concern over these proposals in his annual state-of-the-nation address on 1 December: ‘I would like to emphasise that attempts to break strategic parity are extremely dangerous and can lead to a global catastrophe,’ he declared.
Throughout his campaign, Trump berated the Chinese for employing unfair trade practices against the US and for disrespecting President Obama through their brazen base-building activities in the South China Sea. ‘China’s toying with us ... when they’re building in the South China Sea,’ he told the New York Times on 26 March. ‘They have no respect for our country and they have no respect for our president.’
The China quandary Trump foresees a more contentious relationship with Beijing and seeks to push back against what he views as China’s exploitative and disrespectful stance towards the US. Will this lead to a wholly antagonistic relationship, or even military conflict? Asked if he would use force to dislodge the Chinese from their bases in the South China Sea, Trump answered: ‘Perhaps ... but we have great economic power over China ... the power of trade.’ Without elaborating, he indicated that he prefers to use tariffs and other trade mechanisms to alter China’s behaviour. Trump’s telephone call with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan on 1 December — the first known conversation between a US president or president-elect with a Taiwanese leader since before the US broke diplomatic relations with the island in 1979 — can be viewed in the same way, as a warning of tougher measures to come if China does not acquiesce to US preferences. Left unsaid, but clearly understood by Chinese leaders, is the prospect of further shocks: the recognition of Taiwan, say, or military strikes against Chinese installations in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, Trump understands that on certain key issues he must secure Chinese assistance. This is especially true of the threat posed by North Korea — one of the most pressing national security issues he will face on assuming office. Though cut off from most of the world, the North Koreans have apparently succeeded in expanding their nuclear arsenal and developing ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan and US territories in the Pacific. The Chinese appear fearful of regime collapse — possibly leading to a flood of desperate refugees into northern China and the creation of a united Korea under US tutelage — and have provided the country with essential material support.
Trump recognises that if he is to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programme, he will need a Chinese promise to substantially reduce trade with North Korea. ‘China should solve that problem for us,’ he declared in the first debate with Clinton. But this, of course, will entail complex negotiations with Beijing, and there will have to be a trade-off. While expecting a retreat by China in some areas that matter to him, such as trade, he fully understands that he will need Beijing’s cooperation in other areas of concern, and will have to be prepared to make concessions of his own.
Europe and NATO But it is in Trump’s likely approach to Europe and the NATO alliance that the disjunction between his beliefs and those of his predecessors is especially evident. Whereas all previous American presidents viewed NATO as the cornerstone of US security policy and saw Europe as a bulwark of the liberal world order, Trump holds no such convictions. As far as he is concerned, the Atlantic Alliance has been missing in action in the most important struggle of this time — the war against radical Islamic terrorism. And Europe, as a collective entity, lacks the executive capacity to advance vital US interests, and so deserves less attention than other more assertive powers, such as Russia and China.
In a telephone conversation with NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg on 18 November, Trump confirmed his belief in the ‘enduring importance’ of the alliance; since then, however, he has offered no other assurances of his commitment, and none of his senior military appointments suggest an emphasis on the European theatre of operations. Indeed, his interest in NATO appears to boil down to just two basic propositions: Alliance members must pay more for the common defence and NATO must participate more vigorously in the war against ISIS. On all other major issues, such as the defence of the ‘eastern flank’ against potential Russian assault, he has displayed very little concern — although, as noted, he is bound to respond forcefully to any move by Moscow that appears to impugn US honour and resolve.
Europe at this moment is a secondary site of contention on the global chessboard. Unless it intersects with key US interests, it is likely to be ignored. And this, of course, fits with the larger pattern of Trump’s foreign policy: America comes first, everyone else matters only to the extent that they are an asset or hindrance to accomplishing fundamental US objectives. Michael Klare is professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left (Picador, 2012).