Nobody knows what Donald Trump’s foreign policy will look like – not even Donald Trump. The prediction we can make is that he will be unpredictable.
However, what can also be predicted is that the world is too complicated a place for him to carry out all of his campaign promises even if he wants to.
The President Elect gives the impression of having very little knowledge of history. Few American Presidents have been intellectuals. Given that there are few stupid ideas intellectuals do not fall for this is a good thing, however, most Presidents have been well read, and well versed in how the complex world outside the USA’s borders works.
So President Trump may try and implement some of his ill thought out foreign policy ideas, but the complexity of the world, his own advisors, Congress, and the vast institutions which carry out American foreign policy will get in the way.
Some broad policy ideas will survive. There is likely to be an end to even the idea that America will go in for democracy building, a noble concept, but one which has not gone too well this century. He may well ‘bomb the shit out of ISIS’, he may take a firm line on any Iranian transgressions of the nuclear deal, and he may take a soft line on Israel. Agreements on climate change may be thrown out, or watered down, and a renegotiation of NAFTA is feasible.
His temperament when facing a crisis is unknown, and as President he will have the powers to make quick military decisions about how to react to unexpected security events such as when the Iranian regime arrested U.S Navy personnel. His persona suggests he would act decisively and with overwhelming force.
An early attempt at another ‘reset’ of relations with Russia is likely and we cannot rule out a Trump presidency recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This would undermine the efforts made by the Europeans to support Ukraine and signal an end to sanctions against Russia for its aggression. An even bigger danger though would be if he continues to call NATO ‘obsolete’. This is not something he has repeated recently, and weeks of briefings about collective security, and America’s geopolitical world view, may mean he never does again. Nevertheless, the danger is that if he does, President Putin will see this as Trump recognizing ‘spheres of influence’ and move against the Baltic States.
There are other areas in which he may be talked down from the campaign flourishes, or stymied by either U.S. and international law, or, worse, by some disastrous consequences of implementing a policy in the teeth of domestic and international opposition.
Take trade: A hike in tariffs on Chinese goods would almost certainly result in tit for tat measures which would trigger a recession in America and costs massive job losses. The Fed, Congress, big business and others will all tell him so. For example, the head of General Motors might mention that most years the company sells more cars in China than it does in the USA. In the short term a massive hike can be ruled out anyway as Congressional approval is required if a President wants to impose a trade tariff of above 15%.
China’s ownership of $1.2 trillion of U.S. Treasury bonds will also concentrate his mind. If Beijing began to offload the bonds U.S. interest rates would rise rapidly.
The State Department and the Pentagon will be busy telling him that if wants another Iraq, he can send his threatened 30,000 troops to Syria to kill ISIS, but when he hears of the projected body count among the Marines he might think again, especially as the Kurds and others are on the front foot against ISIS although not against the Assad loyalist forces. The danger in Syria is that if he withdraws all U.S. support for the anti-Assad forces, perhaps as part of a deal with Putin, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar will fill the gap and a wider war might ensue.
We must wait until next year to find out, and as we wait clues will emerge. His appointments to the key positions such as Secretary of State, and Defence Secretary, will give us an idea of both his thinking and what he will be told to think. If his family is involved it will be a negative sign to the world. If former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani is Secretary of State it means he is going for ideology over experience. What he says in the next 8 weeks will also give us clues. Expect less ‘Bomb the shit’ and ‘Beautiful big wall’, but expect the unexpected.