In three weeks, Donald Trump will enter the White House with less experience and more foreign policy uncertainties and contradictions than any incoming commander-in-chief in modern history. U.S. national security policy will be a conundrum, characterized by stark discontinuity and some surprising continuity. Any prognostication must come with a healthy dose of humility.
Yet the contours of future Trump policy are coming into focus, looking across the three strategic arenas that matter the most to U.S. national security interests – the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. And as dramatic as the world promises to be, far more important for foreign policy will be what happens here at home, where the protracted political crisis has not reached its climax.
The Middle East has been the crucible for American foreign policy during the past 15 years: it is U.S. policy in the Middle East – specifically, Syria and Iraq, or “Syriaq” – that has been the defining foreign policy issue for the past two presidents. Although Trump (and most foreign policy experts) describes Obama’s Middle East policy as a failure, expect to see mostly more of the same.
For example, when it comes to the fight against ISIS, the U.S. will continue airstrikes — over 17,000 since September 2014 — and American forces will still train, equip, and coordinate with Iraqi troops and Syrian opposition. Although there could be some ratcheting up of U.S. military pressure on Assad, there’s a little indication that Trump is interested in getting the U.S. mired in war in Syria; so he, like Obama, will worry about escalation. Expect battlefield successes against ISIS strongholds to continue in the next few months: Iraqi forces, with significant American help, will liberate Mosul with the Syrian city of Raqqa soon to follow. While both efforts are well in train, they will be victories Trump certainly will tweet as his own.
Despite all his huffing and puffing, don’t expect Trump to blow down the Iran nuclear deal, especially given that the Europeans, Gulf Arab partners, and even the Israelis concede that it is largely working and see no viable alternative. However, look to Trump to accept some of likely Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s creative ideas for how to increase the military pressure on Iran in air, sea, and cyberspace — which will actually look quite similar to the “vigorous implementation” of the deal that Hillary Clinton promised. One example of pressure Mattis might propose is to “predelegate” more authority to U.S. commanders to respond to Iranian actions – something he pushed for while heading CENTCOM and the Obama White House resisted, wanting to maintain tight control to reduce the risk of unintended escalation.
With Israel – or more accurately, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – clearly there will be a perception of better relations, especially after the sour end to the Obama era. While the Trump administration will accept the Israeli government’s hard-line views on settlements, Trump will continue the significant military and security support the Obama administration has provided Israel. One issue to watch is Trump’s fight with Lockheed Martin over the F-35 aircraft, which Israel has invested in as its aircraft of the future.
Another unknown is whether Trump will seek to continue Obama’s efforts to strengthen Persian Gulf security by improving U.S. diplomatic and military ties to the Gulf Cooperation Council states, and whether he will attend a summit with Gulf Arab leaders in the first half of 2017, continuing Obama’s “Camp David” summitry that began two years ago. (In fact, this raises the question of whether Trump will attend summits anywhere, or instead delegate those to his vice president or secretary of state. If summit meetings left Obama bored, imagine what Trump will think of them!)
In Asia, U.S.-China relations will certainly get rockier, especially over issues like Taiwan and trade, and he’ll bluster about confronting Beijing in the South China Sea. But expect the fundamentals of the Obama administration’s rebalance strategy to endure. Don’t expect a reduction of the U.S. military presence or less diplomatic engagement. One question will be how the Trump administration will strengthen the economic aspects of the rebalance, especially since Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is dead — to be fair, Clinton would have faced the same issue.
U.S. relations with NATO and its core Transatlantic partners will grow more turbulent. While the new administration is unlikely to alter significantly the U.S. military presence in Europe and should maintain the new NATO commitments in the Baltics in Poland, U.S.-European relations will become deeply strained over issues like climate change and the Guantánamo Bay prison, especially if a Trump administration adds detainees to it.
More concerning, Trump appears ready to break with decades of bipartisan commitment to a strong European Union — he championed Brexit, after all. The most critical moment for Europe this year will come in September with the German election. Watch closely whether the Trump team tries to tilt the scale in favor of those opposing Angela Merkel — in Berlin, there is already a lot of attention being paid to the fact that Brietbart News is opening for business there — which could lead to accusations of American “meddling” in the European elections.
What Trump actually does with Russia hangs over all of this. He has suggested a stark shift away from confrontation with Moscow to embracing Vladimir Putin – which is something the Russians are counting on. While it would be unprecedented for Trump to reverse Obama’s last-minute punishment of Russia for interfering in the U.S. election, he may still do so, sparking fierce resistance from many influential Republicans who believe we have not punished Russia enough.
However, there is a structural flaw in Trump’s idea of a stronger US-Russian relationship: in the ways they define “winning,” Trump and Putin are too similar. Neither believes in “win-win” outcomes; in any deal, there must be a winner and a loser; this kind of macho, zero-sum thinking is core to their conceptions of “strength” So both leaders would characterize any supposed bargain as a decisive win for themselves, in which they proved their superiority and took advantage of the weaker other. This dynamic seems a recipe not for getting along better (as Trump seems determined to do), but for schoolyard disputes and declining relations.
But perhaps most significant factor for the U.S. in the world in 2017 will be not what happens abroad, but the state of America here at home. Think of it as the twin challenges of temperament and turmoil.
Based on everything we have seen so far, Trump will be a very different American leader: prickly, impulsive, unpredictable, and at times openly vindictive. The only comparison I can think of is if Richard Nixon’s musings been expressed not in secret White House tapes, but blasted out through social media. This means that even in areas where there will be significant continuity in foreign policy, Washington will be seen as more erratic and less reliable. Moreover, the first year of any new administration is characterized by internal struggles and dramatic missteps as the new team gets their sea-legs, but the Trump team seems especially prone to delve into factionalism, which will make policymaking even more confused and disjointed.
At a broader level, the United States appears to be entering a period of sustained domestic crisis. Setting aside the issue of scandals, which seem intrinsic to Trump and at best will be distracting and at worst politically crippling (especially if the rampant rumors about other “Access Hollywood” style tapes of Trump prove true), there is a deeper turmoil looming.
The coming years promise to be challenging to the core institutions of American democracy — the press, Congress, law enforcement agencies, and the national security bureaucracy. Each has already been tweet-targeted by Trump. Thinking of this moment in historical terms, if the Obama years were like a mix of the Eisenhower/Kennedy era — caution abroad mixed with a projection of youthful idealism – then the Trump years could be akin to the Johnson/Nixon era, in which the United States became unhinged, with many questioning the viability of the political system itself.
In trying to get my head around what is to come, I’ve been thinking back to the late 1960s and early 70s – another time of a world in turmoil; a society riddled with deep cultural, racial, and economic divisions; civic distrust; and a country that seemed to be ripping apart. In the words of Jonathan Schell – whose 1975 book The Time of Illusion is an indispensable guide to that past and our present – this was a moment of “protracted internal political crisis that diverted the nation’s energies and attention from virtually all other business, embittered every aspect of public life, and finally brought the American constitutional system to the edge of a breakdown.” Sound familiar?
How today’s domestic crisis manifests in American national security policy remains to be seen. It could be that Washington becomes so distracted and divided that there is little bandwidth for ambition in the world, and the U.S. finds itself becoming less relevant as new powers continue to rise and geopolitics becomes truly “post-American.” But on the other hand, history has shown that when faced with domestic turmoil, many leaders — especially those with an authoritarian bent — create crises abroad to distract from problems at home.
Either way, we lose.