How Trump might actually build on Obama’s US foreign policy legacy
Niv Horesh says despite anxiety about Donald Trump’s judgment and the degree to which his decisions will depart from Obama’s, the new president’s policies will also be shaped by global forces
Donald Trump’s stunning upset victory in the 2016 US presidential election is historic in several ways, and his tenure in the White House will no doubt spring on his country and the rest of the world many more surprises over the next four years. To say that the man is unpredictable and polarising is already a cliché. Rarely has an outgoing president mobilised against one of his potential successors to the degree Barack Obama has. For that reason, it is easy to portray Trump as Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s anti-establishment nemesis.
The personality factor here has been compelling because, as the saying goes, when the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.
However, amid the anxiety that many share about the future and the judgment of the flamboyant individual who will soon be holding the highest office on earth, it is important to recall where Trump simply fed off geopolitical currents that had long preceded his tilt at the White House.
For all the rabbits Trump may yet pull out of his hat, these are a few of the same currents that Obama defined his presidency around. Upon assuming office, Obama was involuntarily tasked with sorting out the mess president George W. Bush had left behind in the Middle East. His counter to Bush’s pre-emptive strike was to “lead from behind”. That can be perceived as the precise opposite of what a Trump presidency would aim to do.
But, in fact, Obama’s foreign policy was a response to the isolationist mood gripping both sides of Congress and the US public at large following the Iraq war.
Notwithstanding his muscular tenor, Trump is embracing that very same isolationist mood. No return to Bush’s neocon adventures in the name of spreading democracy seems in the offing.
Obama was criticised for not risking another intervention in Syria, but that is Trump’s message too, more or less: stay away from unnecessary and costly conflict in far-flung corners of the earth unless immediate economic interests are at stake. After all, neither Syria nor Ukraine is a major trading nation.
However, it matters to the Russians for other reasons, and this leaves the door open for bargaining. Obama chose to confront the Russians, yet despite his immense popularity in Europe for this and other reasons, he actually cast himself as America’s first Pacific president.
Where Trump might differ from Obama, therefore, is in turning the US remote-control fray against Russia in the Middle East and Eastern Europe into accommodation by way of scoring Russian concessions on other fronts.
Trump knows that when it comes to trade and business, China is a much weightier rival than Russia. In years past, the US could afford to take on both of these Eurasian giants at the same time, but not any longer. Not since the 1950s have Beijing and Moscow been so coordinated, and Trump might wish to try driving a wedge between the two.
There is great apprehension in Scandinavia and Germany about Putin’s intentions but Trump indicates he will be more focused on East Asia’s trade surplus with the US.
Obama’s mistake was perhaps in trying to couch American disengagement in political correctness, for example, during the failed Arab spring.
If one were able to reliably infer from rhetoric, then Trump would have tried instead to strike a deal with Russia against Islamic State. Such a deal would have required de facto acceptance of Iran as a major power in the region, in much the same way that Obama compromised with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme.
Either way, the global human rights discourse is likely to take the back seat, and the Guantanamo Bay facility might remain open, as was the case right through Obama’s tenure.
Niv Horesh is visiting professor at the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University (UK)