TOPICS > World

What will foreign policy look like under President Trump?

BY   November 9, 2016 at 4:43 PM EST
Iraqis wait to receive food aid at a processing center for those displaced by the retaking of Mosul from Islamic State militants. Photo by Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Iraqis wait to receive food aid at a processing center for those displaced by the retaking of Mosul from Islamic State militants. Photo by Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Now that Donald Trump is becoming the 45th president of the United States, people are wondering if the U.S. will pull back on global trade. Will Trump roll back the nuclear agreement with Iran? How will he confront the Islamic State group? Will Russia become the U.S.’s new best friend?

We asked a number of analysts for their thoughts on the future of U.S. foreign policy under a Donald Trump presidency.


Cliff Kupchan
Chairman of the Eurasia Group

President-elect Donald Trump has a history of praising Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the fondness is mutual — Putin has regularly had kind words for Trump and today sent him a fulsome congratulatory note. At least for a number of months after inauguration day — and probably longer — we’re headed for an easing of U.S.-Russian tensions.

Cliff Kupchan

Trump will defang most of the hot-button issues, for better or worse. He’s very unlikely to retaliate for Russian cyber-intrusions — even after a classified briefing he refused to finger Russia. The cyber risk is now concentrated in the lame duck session, when President Barack Obama may well still inflict a modest cyber response on Russia. But the prospect of an escalating cyber war during the next administration is off.

On Russia’s role in Syria, Trump’s views have been ambiguous. He’s called Russian strikes “a positive thing.” But Trump’s also said Russia will get bogged down, and his general take is that the U.S. should allow the Syrian bad guys to fight each other. Trump has called for a U.S. participation in an enforced no-fly zone — clearly a flashpoint given Russian anti-air assets in the region. But broadly speaking, Trump is likely to try to work with Moscow on Syria and seek joint airstrikes against Al-Nusra and ISIS.

Trump will defang most of the hot-button issues, for better or worse.

Regarding Ukraine, the president-elect has shown no strong interest in the country. He stated that Crimean residents would rather be part of Russia, and that he’d consider recognizing Crimea’s new status. No lethal arms to Ukraine; that disappeared from the Republican platform. So a sea change is under way on Ukraine, as Trump will be inclined to ease sanctions on Russia. He’s likely to try to cut a deal with Russia based either on the Minsk accord or a new paradigm. But Trump could just ease sanctions outright.

And then there are a set of great unknowns. The U.S. and Russia have a strong common interest in working together on arms control, terrorism and cyber norms. It’s too soon to tell whether Trump will tackle these tough issues with any gusto.

Finally, the looming cloud over U.S.-Russian relations under Trump. The president-elect has a volatile personality, one that’s been on display throughout the campaign. Putin’s been playing “nice-nice” with him, but if and when that changes, Trump will punch back hard. Then we’ve got a problem.


Vanda Felbab-Brown
Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

Like half of the United States, much of the free democratic world stands in consternation that the Republican candidate was elected president of the United States. The 2016 presidential campaign polarized U.S. society. Mr. Trump promoted politics of racism and hate and poured vitriol on imagined enemies.

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Immigrants to the United States from Mexico and the Middle East as well as Muslims in general were among the targets of his allegations of disloyalty, subversion and incipient terrorism. On a range of issues, from public safety and policing to border security, immigration and counterterrorism, to dealing with allies and rivals, he embraced counterproductive and sometimes outright fanciful measures. His America-first approach promised to withdraw the United States into Fortress America, build walls around it and put the country in a defensive crouch against others.

During his campaign, he denigrated allies and questioned the usefulnsess of NATO, sought to make friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite Putin’s blatantly anti-American policy, rejoiced in humiliating neighbors like Mexico, repeatedly lashed out against China, suggested policies for the Middle East that ranged from uninformed (such as his promise to abort the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal), erratic, un-implementable (taking oil away from the Islamic State) to utterly unspecified (such as how to fight the Islamic State or what to do with Syria or Egypt).

While rejecting open global trade, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and promising to tear up NAFTA, he remained silent on a host of important foreign policy issues, such as Afghanistan where the United States is stuck in the midst of a tough fight against a powerful Taliban and whether a continuing U.S. presence makes crucial difference for the survival of the Afghan government and the prevention of a full-blown civil war. Already, the Taliban has asked President-elect Trump to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan; with his neo-isolationist tendencies, he may be tempted to do.

Some foreign politicians did celebrate his election: Russian media were joyful. Far right parties in Germany and France also received a fillip, feeling that the wave of populism sweeping the world may lift them to power next year as well. Although President Trump will soon find out that many of Putin’s policies are deeply hostile to the United States whoever is in power in the White House, President Trump may find kindred spirits in the president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte and Colombia’s former President Alvaro Uribe. But not all populist leaders will simply bond with him and fall in line with his preferences simply on grounds of their shared hostility to a liberal international order and divisive and exclusionary domestic orientation.

Not all populist leaders will simply bond with him and fall in line with his preferences simply on grounds of their shared hostility to a liberal international order and divisive and exclusionary domestic orientation.

This is heavy baggage that Trump brings to the Oval Office. The credibility of the United States as a country committed to pluralism, multiculturalism, inclusiveness, opportunities for all and human rights — in other words, U.S. soft power — has already suffered a serious blow. Recovering that reputation for enlightened leadership will be hard for President Trump, given the xenophobia of his rhetoric on the way to the White House.

In a bleak scenario, President Trump will attempt to implement the policies he proclaimed as a candidate Trump. Although he is unlikely to withdraw the United States from NATO, his divisive posturing could damage the alliance badly. Indeed, he appears to have little use for most multinational international organizations, including the United Nations, and their international dispute resolution processes.

If he persists in his proclaimed attempts to simply order others to adopt policies contrary to their interests, making them pay for walls and wars, and oscillates between withdrawal and erratic angry lashing out, he could damage many a bilateral relationship in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. He could dangerously escalate reactions to North Korea’s belligerence and intensify tensions with China.

There is also little to give us confidence that he would be willing to promote healthy, democratic and prosperous societies in Africa; instead, he may lean toward U.S. policies to counterterrorism strikes of questionable effectiveness and giving wannabe dictators carte blanche for all kinds of problematic behavior.

This scenario, however dark, is unfortunately highly plausible, given Donald Trump’s boorish strutting. But it is possible that President Trump will discover what all his predecessors have discovered. That being the president of the United States comes with weighty multidimensional responsibilities, grounding commitments, sunk costs and institutions of restraint against unaccountable international as well as domestic actions. He is likely to learn quickly that the world from the Oval Office looks different from the world seen from the Trump Towers or the campaign trail.

Moreover, candidate Trump did not feel bound by an ideology or the need for consistency. On issue after issue, he flip-flopped and adopted blatantly contradictory positions. Such erratic and inconsistent behavior will prove damaging if he practices it in the office. But it gives him a lot of room to pivot away from the most detrimental statements of the campaign and embrace sounder policies. He thus has an initial chance to make policy choices on the basis of carefully considering experienced and multiple voices rather than the campaign’s fury.

Hopefully, President Trump will appoint at least some seasoned Republican, even nonpartisan, advisers committed to the preservation of U.S. national interests, not just inexperienced outsider acolytes. But even if he doesn’t, there are still layers of professional foreign service, intelligence and civil service officers and a web of constitutionally-institutionalized checks and balances that can work to moderate policies that could jeopardize the national interest.

Even though such professional pushback and institutional restraints are hardly foolproof — namely, the neocon era of the first George W. Bush administration, with its disastrous war in Iraq and rejection of core U.S. values at home and abroad — the system eventually snapped back. Yes, candidate Trump denigrated the country’s foreign, intelligence and civil service professionals. But President Trump would be wise to listen to them carefully and may well find he has to.

And beyond the professional class and other institutions such as U.S. laws and courts, there is a robust civil society in the United States. It is imperative for all of us to speak truth to power, push back against proposals that jeopardize U.S. interests and creed, and steer policy toward a better direction.


Shadi Hamid
Author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World”

There will be a lot of hand-wringing (including from people like me) about what Donald Trump’s presidency will mean for America’s image as well as for the health of an already flailing international order. But it would be a mistake if we held Trump to a standard that many foreign policy analysts were never willing to hold President Obama to.

Shadi Hamid

Trump voters were motivated by a lot of things, but polling data and exit polls suggest that they cared more about terrorism, refugees and immigration more than Clinton voters. These are the sorts of things that fall under the general category of perceived “insecurity.” And insecurity drives sensible, good people — who by virtue of being American understand the dangers of strongman politics — to vote for someone who epitomizes strongman politics. In this sense, Obama’s foreign policy missteps — particularly the mishandling of the Syrian humanitarian catastrophe and the failure to intervene against Assad in 2012 or 2013 — contributed, both directly and indirectly, to the sense of chaos and insecurity that drove Americans to back Trump (as well as Britons to back Brexit). In this sense, foreign policy and domestic politics are intimately linked, even if the links aren’t always obvious.

Obama’s foreign policy missteps — particularly the mishandling of the Syrian humanitarian catastrophe and the failure to intervene against Assad in 2012 or 2013 — contributed, both directly and indirectly, to the sense of chaos and insecurity that drove Americans to back Trump (as well as Britons to back Brexit).

President Obama, as much as he seemed to dislike Putin, effectively ceded Syria policy to Russia and Iran. The regime of Bashar al-Assad gained significant territory and began rehabilitating its international image over the past year, something that is now only likely to intensify now that a Hillary Clinton presidency is out of the picture. Clinton had expressed support for stronger action against the Assad regime, including establishing no-fly zones and safe zones. Trump, considering his desire for rapprochement with Russia, is likely to support no such thing.

In fact, the very notion of “America first” suggests a much more narrow conception of what constitutes “vital” American interests. It will include protecting the homeland from terrorism and targeting ISIS, but little in the way of promoting human rights and democracy abroad. In this respect, some of the biggest losers of the American election will be those in the Middle East and elsewhere, who will now find themselves with fewer protections and less international support in the face of newly emboldened autocrats.


Danielle Pletka
Senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute

There are those who have mendaciously suggested they know what’s next for foreign policy in a Trump administration. They don’t. Candidate Donald Trump took a variety of positions, and we cannot know whether he will translate those positions into policy or whether they were merely the opening salvo in a negotiation with the world.

Danielle Pletka

Two factors will be key as the nation transitions to a Donald Trump presidency: Who will be in the leadership of national security in his administration? Who will be Secretary of State? National Security Adviser? Secretary of Defense? Much depends on the answers to those questions, because these will be the new president’s most trusted counselors. If these cabinet positions are filled by responsible, serious individuals who care about American leadership and American values, there will be a rush to reconsider among many in the national security establishment who have repudiated Trump.

China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and others will be keen to push the envelope with a new president, see what he’s made of, how he reacts.

The second factor is how the world will test Trump in his early days. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and others will be keen to push the envelope with a new president, see what he’s made of, how he reacts. Their calculus may well be a serious shaping influence on the direction of Trump foreign policy.

Washington, along with many foreign capitals, is in shock this morning. But American interests are constant: the safety and security of the American people and the freedom of the global commons. When Barack Obama entered office, he believed he would lead the world, yet it has been the world that has led him: Troops are still in Afghanistan; they have returned to Iraq; we are embroiled in war in the Middle East and troubled by the threat of conflict from the Pacific to Eastern Europe. Donald Trump will not be immune to those forces; if he chooses to lead, it will be good for America. And the world.


Nancy Lindborg
President of the U.S. Institute of Peace

As the election dust settles, the new president-elect will have a full agenda of pressing domestic and international issues. One issue we can’t lose sight of is the state fragility at the heart of a rising number of global crises, from a new wave of civil wars, historic numbers of people displaced by violent conflict, increased fears of pandemics and new, more virulent forms of global terror.

Nancy Lindborg

Fragile states are characterized by strained, inequitable relationships between governments and their people. In fragile environments, exclusionary politics, sluggish economic growth, predatory corruption, violence and weak rule of law combine in unique and toxic ways. In an increasingly interconnected world, fragility poses a greater threat to our national and international security than ever before. However, we have yet to organize effectively either the collective resources of the U.S. government or international institutions to apply these learnings.

Doing so will require a significant shift in the way U.S. defense, diplomatic and development capabilities operate, moving from deeply stove-piped bureaucracies that work without a shared framework, to a shared framework that prioritizes fragility for our national and global security.

In September 2016, the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for a New American Security launched the non-partisan Fragility Study Group report to identify recommendations for a strategic and effective U.S. foreign policy response to the challenges posed by fragile states.

In an increasingly interconnected world, fragility poses a greater threat to our national and international security than ever before.

This report makes three primary contributions to assist the next administration: It summarizes key lessons learned from 15 years of policy and scholarship in the form of “collective wisdom.” We know success will require sustained efforts in fragile environments that prioritize citizen security, inclusive politics and economic growth, reconciliation and locally led efforts.

The study puts forth a policy framework to discipline where, when and how the United States engages with fragile states, calling for strategic, systemic, selective and sustained efforts. Finally, it offers a series of priority recommendations — in the form of compacts — for the next administration to realize a new approach.

Success will require ultimately a shared agreement among the U.S. interagency, and importantly, with Congress. This may seem more elusive than ever, but we have a history of working across the aisle on pressing global challenges. Colombia has moved from 50 years of civil conflict to the brink of peace deal aided by sustained support across three U.S. administrations and collective defense, diplomatic and development work.

We can’t afford to continue a reactive response to these growing crises, with an ever greater reliance on our military and humanitarian tools that address symptoms but not causes. The next president must focus on generating the political will and organizational effectiveness to enable us to get ahead of these constant crises with faster, more effective action focused on state fragility.

SHARE VIA TEXT