Welcome to Trump World

22nd Nov.
BTP Advisers

The Trump administration’s foreign policy could usher in a new era for international affairs not seen for generations. How will Trump’s ‘America First’ vision be implemented?

7 Mins (1837 Words)

Donald Trump’s election is a political earthquake whose aftershocks will be felt for years to come. The President-elect sets his priorities based on the views and fears of his political constituency, the angry middle class voters who feel left behind by modern America – not opinions and supposed expertise of the Washington insiders. The election campaign showed that Trump has better political antennae than almost an entire class of American political pundits and pollsters.

Having used those antennae to take himself to the White House, he is unlikely to stop relying on them once he steps through the doors of the White House. That suggests a radical departure from many of the political orthodoxies that have shaped not only US domestic policy, but foreign policy as well, over much of the last 70 years.

The campaign showed that Trump has better political antennae than an entire class of American political pundits and pollsters

Trump has been accused of being vague and incoherent when it comes to foreign policy. However, that characterisation is unfair. Although he has been short on details, Trump has in fact been quite clear about the core ideas that guide his view of foreign affairs. He wants US foreign policy to focus on a much more narrowly defined concept of strategic interests, placing far greater emphasis on economic diplomacy and a reduction in America’s obligations abroad – whether military, political or financial.

Although his crude use of language may have shocked some in the staid corridors of foreign ministries around the world, his “America First” views are actually the re-emergence of the old populist tradition in US politics. This is a tradition that is wary of unnecessary and costly foreign entanglements that divert attention from more pressing domestic concerns. This idea was actually the dominant school of thought in the history of US politics before the Second World War.

His “America First” views are actually the re-emergence of the old populist tradition in US politics

America First: New Isolationism or just more honest realpolitik?

Of course the world is a very different place than it was in the 1930’s and America’s interdependency with the outside world is far clearer to see. For all the talk of walls and tariffs, we are unlikely to see a return to the policies of Herbert Hoover.

Trump’s America First approach is not truly isolationist, though it is far less interventionist. He is highly likely to view foreign engagements through a different prism of American ‘self-interest’ than his predecessors. For instance, his focus on trade deals has not been on scrapping them altogether but rather negotiating them more effectively to preserve American jobs. In his own words, he wants to ‘replace ideology with strategy’. When it comes to existing alliances Trump is equally unsentimental, assessing relationships in terms of what they can offer the US in the future.

When it comes to existing alliances, Trump is unsentimental

He has described NATO as obsolete and questioned why America needs to honour its military guarantee to countries that fail to spend more than 2% of their budgets on defence.

The Trump Administration: The Establishment Strikes Back?

Whatever his personal instincts, in practice Trump’s room for manoeuvre is constrained by the political realities of office, including the weight of opinion within his own party. Despite having a comfortable Republican majority in Congress, Trump now finds himself at the head of a divided party, where his own world view is in a minority of the leadership. Many of the party’s established leaders have deep reservations over Trump’s policy priorities, especially his approach to Russia and China and his attitude to existing military alliances such as NATO.

A US President is not an absolute monarch. Under the American system of checks and balances he will need to carry key allies with him. For instance, any substantive effort to act on two of his major priorities, namely renegotiating existing trade treaties and rebalancing America’s security obligations, would likely require Congressional approval. Rather than the dramatic unilateral action to abandon foreign commitments as many have feared, perhaps the greater danger is that the Trump Administration will see an increase in confusion and delay around foreign policy decision-making as competing centres of power within the Administration jostle for influence.

In effect the new Trump Administration will be a form of coalition government between the Republican’s traditional wings and his own America First supporters. Trump appears to be showing that he understands this political reality. He has already demonstrated a willingness to leave behind some of the hyperbole of the campaign and compromise with the other leaders in his party on some issues. His first major appointments indicate a careful attempt to balance competing views and interests.

He has already demonstrated a willingness to leave behind some of the hyperbole of the campaign

He has announced Reince Priebus, the current Chairman of the Republican Party, and a close ally of Paul Ryan, as his new White House Chief of Staff. However, in the same statement he also appointed Steve Bannon, the anti-establishment hard-right firebrand, who ran the conservative website Breitbart News, as his new Chief Strategist & Special Counsel. While his choices for National Security Adviser (General Michael Flynn) and CIA Director (Rep Mike Pompeo) are conservative figures who largely share his world view, he has reached out to the party’s establishment wing with the appointment of Gov Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador. A string of more moderate names, such as Mitt Romney, have also been floated for Secretary of State.

Although these senior appointments are hotly debated by the media and pundits, Trump also needs to fill more than 4,000 political positions across his administration. There are hundreds of senior and middle ranking jobs in foreign and security policy alone across the State and Defence Departments, as well as the National Security Council. The truth is that there simply aren’t enough qualified Republicans who share Trump’s world view to fill them all.

That means Trump will have no choice but to draw heavily from the very same pool of the party establishment and Washington insiders that he railed against so heavily while campaigning. These will no doubt act as a restraint on the new President’s policy impulses.

There simply aren’t enough qualified Republicans who share Trump’s world view

Delivering on Trump’s key priorities: When Donald met Vladimir

Other than making clear that he wants to shift to a much more openly transactional approach to foreign and security relations, Trump’s campaign was one of the least policy specific Presidential campaigns of modern times. His most high profile policy pledges – such as the Mexican Border Wall and the Muslim Entry Ban – are in fact the ones least likely to be implemented. They reveal little about his fundamental approach to foreign policy.

However, a look beyond the campaign headlines reveal that Trump has indeed made a move. He wants to put international relationships on a ‘something for something’ basis, allowing the United States to reduce its overseas commitments and costs. This also shifts more of the financial burden of meeting any ongoing obligation on to its allies.

It is this recurring theme that will be key to the two sets of foreign policy issues that are likely to dominate a Trump Presidency.

Trade Reform – Trump wants to renegotiate what he believes are ‘unfair trade deals’ that undermine US jobs and give competitors one sided access to American markets. While he is often described as a protectionist or even anti-trade, he has not opposed trade deals in general. Rather, he has criticised existing agreements such as NAFTA and has already confirmed that he will withdraw from TPP & TTIP, seeing them bad deals for America. However Trump has also pledged to pursue a new series of bilateral trade deals with key partners, where America will be able to more effectively leverage the size of its economy to push for more favourable terms.

It is his approach to China that has the most potential to spiral out of control. The Chinese have consistently used an undervalued currency. This bolsters overseas sales and provides domestic state owned companies with an array of preferential benefits to game their market against imports. It is impossible to say with certainty whether or not Trump’s threat to impose unilateral tariffs of up to 45% on China is genuine. It could be just a public positioning ahead of the start of new trade talks. Regardless, if a deal is not reached there is now a real threat of a trade war between these two giants that would seriously damage the global economy.

A New Détente – with his lack of attachment to traditional alliances and his personal admiration for Vladimir Putin, Trump wants to bury the hatchet with Russia. Trump appears willing to accept Putin’s expansionist approach, ceding new Russian spheres of influence from Eastern Europe to the Middle East in return for new strategic cooperation to combat what he sees as the overriding threat from “Radical Islamic Terrorism”. This would see the US no-longer contesting Russian actions in Ukraine, as well as abandoning support for the moderate Syrian opposition, in exchange for increased action against ISIS. Russia and its proxies would take the lead. However, little thought appears to have been given to the likely wider implications that would flow such a move.

In the Middle East this would bolster Putin’s de-facto allies in the mainly Shiite axis of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. These powers are of course the most belligerently anti-Israel and indeed it is hard to see how this sits with the new Administration’s antagonism towards Iran. Equally, such an approach would also likely alienate the Sunni Muslim states of the Gulf that have also supported the Syrian regime’s opponents.

On the other hand, the prospect of a weakening of the US commitment to defend Europe, with implications for the future of EU-member Baltic states, has already panicked key American allies. As such this may be one of the policy areas that will be most contested by the Republican establishment and key allies such as the UK and Israel. It therefore remains unclear exactly what Trump’s policy will look like after it has been exposed to the hard realities of intense internal lobbying. It is likely to undergo further significant evolution from the campaign trail.

Trump has been clear about his foreign policy priorities – that he is an economic nationalist who wants a ‘better deal’ for America – in both its trading and military partnerships. However, the further policy gets from its key economic principles the likelier it is to change and develop once the Administration takes office.

Under Trump, foreign policy will be an area of continuing negotiation and evolution within the administration itself. Seeing how far Trump will be able to pursue his desire to reshape America’s existing relationships – with both friends and foes – will open up the greatest tension both internally and externally. Above all, it will be the choice of what approach to take to Russia – containment or partnership – that will define his Presidency and shape the course of US foreign policy for decades to come.

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