Donald Trump faces five fateful foreign policy choices

His current approach attitude smacks more of chaotic improvisation than deep strategic thinking

by: Gideon Rachman



Donald Trump seems to have brought the techniques of Twitter to the construction of his government. “Trolling” on Twitter is defined as “making a deliberately offensive online posting with the aim of upsetting someone”. In this spirit, Mr Trump has placed a climate-change denier in charge of environmental protection, an opponent of the minimum wage as labour secretary, a conspiracy theorist in charge of the National Security Council and a protectionist at the commerce department. The pièce de résistance could be the appointment of Rex Tillerson, a recipient of the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship, as secretary of state.

The incredulity and alarm that Mr Trump’s appointments have caused in the Washington establishment are compounded by his disdain for the government’s own experts. Mr Trump took a controversial phone call from the president of Taiwan without consulting the state department. Now he has ridiculed the CIA for suggesting that Russia meddled in the US presidential election.

Mr Trump’s appointments, tweets and phone calls, however, cannot yet do more than hint at future changes in America’s approach to the world. The real shifts can only happen after the new president is actually sworn into office on January 20. For now, it is much easier to identify five big choices that face him, than to predict eventual outcomes.
Russia: Both Mr Trump’s rhetoric and his early appointments indicate a strong desire for a rapprochement with Russia. The Kremlin clearly hopes that the US will lift the economic sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea. Mr Trump could also make common cause with Vladimir Putin in Syria, by dropping America’s insistence on the removal of Bashar al-Assad.

But making these changes will be very controversial. Russia’s intervention on behalf of Mr Trump during the election, combined with the expected appointment of Mr Tillerson, have excited lurid speculation about the real nature of Mr Trump’s relationship with Russia. Even without conspiracy theories, there will be considerable resistance by influential members of congress — including prominent Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham — to a Trump-Putin love-in.

Europe: While Mr Trump has been extravagant in his praise of Mr Putin, he has been open in his contempt for Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, describing her refugee policies as “insane”. There is now fear in the French and German governments that Mr Trump may seek to help the European far-right by supporting Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections in May, or the Alternative for Germany in the country’s elections in September. In that case, both the Kremlin and the White House would be working towards the defeat of the German chancellor. Such a scenario sounds unthinkable. But Mr Trump has also described the Nato alliance as “obsolete”. Any genuine attempt to weaken Nato, or to undermine the governments of European allies would, however, encounter fierce resistance in Congress and the media, and could undermine his presidency.

Iran: Reversing US policy on Iran would be much easier for Mr Trump. Republicans in Congress share his disdain for Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Some of Mr Trump’s key appointees — including General Michael Flynn, his national security adviser — are particularly noted for their hostility towards Iran. Ripping up the nuclear deal could put the US on the road to a war with Iran. Some of Mr Trump’s advisers may want precisely that outcome. But it is less clear that the president-elect, who claims to have opposed the Iraq war, really has an appetite for another conflict in the Middle East.

The Middle East and terrorism: Beyond Iran, the new president will face a series of conflicts, from Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Trump has consistently advocated a much more ferocious approach to the war on “radical Islamic terrorism”. But his advisers disagree about what that might mean. Some advocate much deeper American military and political involvement in the Middle East. Others argue that such a policy would be counterproductive and are urging a much narrower concentration on counterterrorism.


China: Over the long run, the most important international issue facing the US is how to handle the rise of China. Mr Trump’s early moves have signalled the possibility of a radical change in America’s approach — and a sharp rise in tensions with Beijing. Mr Trump has talked of imposing punitive tariffs on Chinese exports. His phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan reversed decades of US foreign policy — and was a direct affront to Beijing.

Mr Trump has also endorsed significant expansion in the US Navy, which could signal a more aggressive American rejection of Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea. If there is a broader strategic thrust to Mr Trump’s thinking, it could be to split the informal alliance between Russia and China and instead form a Washington-Moscow axis.
But Mr Trump’s attitude to foreign policy smacks more of chaotic improvisation than strategic thinking. The biggest questions about his approach may have more to do with process than policy. In a normal US administration, foreign policy shifts are debated between key departments of government and implemented after talks with allies; in the Trump administration, they are as likely to emerge from a 3am tweet.

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