Triumphant Trump now needs a campaign to reassure nervous US allies in a world of risks
Andrew Hammond says that, with Donald Trump pulling off an upset victory, all eyes will be on how the US president-elect navigates geopolitical fault lines in terms of foreign and trade policies
Donald Trump is now US president-elect in the most sensational political upset since at least 1948, when Harry Truman scored an unexpected victory. With many US allies nervous about what Trump’s win will mean for US foreign policy, he now has to begin a major campaign of reassurance and prepare for a host of major foreign policy challenges in a world full of potential danger.
Trump will start to receive enhanced intelligence briefings and his “in-tray” is vast. This will range from the Middle East – where big offensives are under way against so-called Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, plus Raqqa, Syria – to the political tensions in South Korea, where the president faces pressure to resign at the same time that the nuclear stand-off on the peninsula has intensified with North Korea, and in Europe, where the migration crisis is adding to uncertainty over the future of the European Union, post-Brexit.
One key area of uncertainty for allies is Trump’s trade policy and he must decide how hard to rhetorically “push back” if Barack Obama decides, before his presidency ends in January, to have a final push at getting congressional passage of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP, which Trump strongly opposes and may now be “dead-on-arrival” in Congress, is a massive trade deal with 11 other countries in the Americas and Asia-Pacific (including Australia, Canada, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Mexico), that account for about 40 per cent of world GDP.
This will be a big early call for Trump, given that many Republicans want the deal to embed US influence in the Asia-Pacific in the face of a “rising China”. If the TPP collapses, it will intensify doubts about US leadership in the region, potentially undermining Trump’s leverage with some local allies on other key issues.
The conundrums now confronting Trump aren’t limited to these issues. Indeed, there are some indicators that international political risks are now at their highest level since the end of the cold war.
Other geopolitical fault lines include tensions with China over the latter’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, continuing instability in Afghanistan and Libya, and the bleak prospects facing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Meanwhile, continuing hostilities in Ukraine mean that Washington’s relations with Moscow are perhaps more strained than any point since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The bilateral relationship with Moscow under Trump will be a special source of scrutiny for many internationally. His relationship with Putin has been warm, rhetorically, and Trump has been criticised for calling Nato “obsolete”.
This world of dangers now facing Trump underlines how much the optimistic hopes of how the post-cold-war world might look have been dashed. The vision of a universal order of liberal, capitalist, democratic states living in peace and contentment – as painted by political scientist Francis Fukuyama and others – has been replaced by a reality in which authoritarian states such as Russia appear to many to be a growing force on the world stage; international terrorism remains a significant international concern a decade and a half after 9/11; and unstable countries (including North Korea) have acquired nuclear weapons.
Some critics of Hillary Clinton and Obama, including Trump, see this international picture as a result of weak leadership in Washington over almost eight years. However, this is too simplified.
To be sure, the US remains the most powerful country in the world – certainly in a military sense. It can still project and deploy overwhelming force. However, despite some of his rhetoric during the campaign, Trump hopefully recognises Washington is not, to use a piece of jargon from international relations, an all-powerful hegemonic power. This core fact has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout the post-cold-war period, from Somalia in 1993, Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, and also most recently in Ukraine and Syria.
Trump and other unalloyed critics of Clinton and Obama also often fail to acknowledge that, while 2016 may be a year of high political risk, the current international landscape also contains opportunities for greater stability with careful international leadership by Trump in 2017 and beyond.
One example is last year’s nuclear deal with Iran and six world powers – the US, China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany. The agreement, which Trump criticised during his campaign, opens up the possibility of warmer ties between Tehran and the West, and could also enhance global nuclear security.
A lasting nuclear settlement with Iran, which remains possible under Trump who has said he would be able to secure a better deal, will constitute an important win for long-standing efforts to combat nuclear non-proliferation – and this at a crucial time when, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, over 40 countries have expressed interest in joining the “club” of 30 states with nuclear energy.
Meanwhile, the rise of China, which has now surpassed the US as the world’s largest economy on purchasing parity terms, is one of the biggest game changers in global affairs in recent years. This development has potential to be either a growing source of tension with Washington under the new Trump presidency, or develop into a fruitful partnership.
Growing bilateral cooperation is possible if, under Trump, the two powers can increasingly find ways to resolve harder power disagreements, including South China Sea territorial claims, while cooperating on soft issues like climate change. By contrast, bilateral rivalry is possible if Beijing’s military power continues to grow rapidly and the country embraces a more assertive foreign policy towards its neighbours in Asia.
Going forward, the success of Washington in helping to manage the complexity of global affairs will increasingly depend on the cooperation of others, both competitors and allies. A key uncertainty here for the forthcoming Trump presidency is the direction of bilateral relations with China in the next four years which could be a force for greater global tension, or deeper strategic partnership.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economic