By the time most American candidates running for president win the election and go from nominee to President-elect, the American public has a well-defined understanding of their central positions and general worldview. This traditional wisdom does not hold as much weight for President-elect Trump. Due to his lack of political experience, Trump has no congressional voting history that can be scrutinised before he enters office. Furthermore, Trump has already flip-flopped on several promises that were central to his campaign such as his promise to not appoint any Washington insiders. So predictions about the general governing philosophy of a Trump administration are hard to make compared to previous presidential cabinets. Specifically, there is great uncertainty surrounding Donald Trump’s plan for US foreign policy.
Is it possible to prescribe to Trump a coherent policy identity? He is not a traditional conservative and he cannot truly be classified as a neoconservative. He is not necessarily a reliable isolationist, but many of his core beliefs are about reshaping American’s commitments to international alliances. Trump expresses the need for a powerful military, but is also highly critical of former US interventions such as the war in Iraq (despite how he appeared to support it in 2003). Trump is also pro-Israel, fully supportive of the UK’s decision to go through with Brexit, and is oddly cordial with Russia’s head of state, Vladimir Putin. Even if we can confidently state that these are stable positions held by the future president, altogether these beliefs fail to formulate a clear worldview.
But perhaps the advisers and cabinet members Trump appoints can provide some evidence for what to expect. For example, Steve Bannon is the head of the Briebart News Network, a platform for the alternative-right (who reject mainstream conservative policy). Bannon has expressed very anti-globalist and anti-immigration rhetoric, and has been accused of providing white supremacists with a greater voice in American politics. Trump appointed him as the White House chief strategist and senior counselor. Additionally, Trump recruited Mike Flynn as his national security adviser who has a very hard line stance against Islamic terrorism. So despite that predicting Trump’s foreign policy is an exceptionally difficult task, his current picks for top officials and his general campaign message point to a few general principles.
First, Trump is a mercantilist. He frequently stresses his ability to renegotiate trade deals that will put ‘America First’ and is deeply critical of the loss of domestic American jobs as a result of free trade agreements. Trump’s beliefs are largely informed by a particular context in American politics. The governing philosophy of presidents is often conditioned by a formative era or series of events that shapes their worldview. For example, Obama was informed by 9/11 and the military entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. These events guided Obama’s to take a more multilateral approach to foreign policy; this differed from Bush’s unilateral tactics and shunning of international conventions, which he was often criticised for.
In the case of Trump, his perspective was seemingly shaped by the early 1990s when the Cold War was over and Japan was perceived as an economic competitor for America. The US faced an economic decline after bearing the costs of ‘winning’ the Cold War. Japan benefited from the US security guarantee and was able to focus on technological sectors of the economy rather than defence spending, which allowed Japan to surpass the US in the automobile and electronics industry. For these reasons, books like The Coming War with Japan were published. It argued Japan’s economic competiveness would undermine the Japanese-US alliance and result in a geopolitical conflict.
The lesson that Trump seemed to take away from this era was that the international system takes place in a fiercely competitive context, where enemies and even allies will take advantage of the US unless it negotiates from a position of power and legitimacy. For these reasons, Trump often advocates for a hard line mercantilist agenda that rejects free trade agreements and advocates for always putting ‘America first’ when it comes to bargaining with international actors.
Second, Trump will aggressively target the Islamic State (ISIS). This prediction goes beyond Trump’s incendiary rhetoric during his campaign such as his pledge to bring back ‘waterboarding and much worse’ or his call to kill the families of terrorists. Again, Trump chose the former Lieutenant General and head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Mike Flynn, as his national security adviser. Flynn has often argued for keeping Guantanamo Bay open indefinitely and claimed Obama is overly concerned with avoiding civilian causalities in the fight against ISIS. He was also supportive of Trump’s call for extreme vetting for individuals who wish to enter the US from war-torn countries.
Third, Trump will take a non-traditional approach to US allies and adversaries. He may be willing to cooperate with authoritarian regimes such as Russia. For example, Flynn has backed Trump’s plan to restore relations with Russia. A pertinent issue however is the signal a warm US-Russian relationship could send to America’s more traditional NATO allies. Trump might also be less inclined to sustain US security commitments that were put in place to preserve regional stability. Trump retains a deep-rooted suspicion when it comes to providing a credible military deterrent for allies abroad, and has said during his campaign that member states of NATO should be paying more for American protection. He made similar claims about countries such as Japan and South Korea not paying their fair share. Obama recently visited Europe in an effort to promise the future presidency would not fundamentally shake up America’s alliances with current European allies. Japanese Prime Minister Abe was concerned about a lack of American commitment in the Asia-Pacific region, and recently met with Trump in an attempt to guarantee a relationship of mutual trust.
Whether Trump will follow through with his campaign promises about demanding more from US allies or flip flop during his actual presidency is unclear. Still, the current credibility of the US security umbrella is waning. This may force countries that have historically relied on the US to bandwagon with other regional hegemons, or develop their own military and nuclear capabilities. The geopolitical consequences of rewriting the structure of the international system to this extent could be disastrous.
So despite the many unknowns that remain with regards to Trump’s future presidency, there are a few principles of his foreign policy that can be anticipated. Trump will take a mercantilist approach to economic policies and will be deeply sceptical of free-trade agreements. He will likely take a very hard line stance on terrorism. Furthermore, Trump may take a very unconventional approach to US allies and adversaries. These policies may result in a very destabilising administration that undermines the 70-year-old liberal international order constituted by the US since the end of World War II.