The Rhetoric and Reality of Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy

The articles is orginally published by Stratfor.

The election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency has set the world abuzz. U.S. allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, smiling through their teeth, are feverishly hoping that Washington will maintain its security commitments. The Russians are eagerly trying to get the ball rolling on negotiations while warning that they expect real concessions from the Trump White House. A largely helpless Mexico and other major trading partners of the United States are trying to weather a storm of uncertainty over future U.S. trade policy. The coming months will test the reality behind Trump’s rhetoric on major policy matters. What follows is internal brainstorming with Stratfor analysts on some (not all) of the bigger hot spots that will be affected by his presidency.

Dealing With Russia and a Divided Europe

Given the friendly rhetoric during the campaign season (and the indirect assistance to the Trump campaign from alleged Russian cyber attacks), Russian President Vladimir Putin is expecting to sit down for a serious negotiation with Trump. The U.S. president will have the executive authority to ease sanctions, and Russia has room to de-escalate in its military campaign in Syria to get the dialogue moving. But there is a limit to how far either side can go. The U.S. military establishment, the U.S. Intelligence Community, Republican congressmen and even potential members of Trump’s Cabinet are hawkish on Russia and realize the high strategic cost of encouraging an expansion and entrenchment of its sphere of influence in the former Soviet sphere. Putin is also not going to significantly compromise Russia’s position in critical buffer states such as Ukraine. Moreover, the increasingly Putinized Russian state has coped with domestic challenges by demonizing the West and claiming a U.S. plot to dismantle Russia as a whole. If the Kremlin cannot secure big strategic concessions for its domestic audience, then it will need to keep vilifying the West to sustain nationalist support.

Still, Russia can use the interim period to build on the mere perception that it may strike a major bargain with Washington that could compromise U.S. allies on Europe’s eastern front. This will give Moscow more of an opportunity to play on Eastern European states’ insecurities to try to steer their politics toward compromising with Russia on issues such as limiting NATO’s reach. Some countries will be more vulnerable to Russian influence than others, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, which will try to band together and strengthen their own defenses in these uncertain times. Europe is also facing major elections in 2017 in France, Germany, the Netherlands and possibly Italy. The fragmentation of Europe and the emergence of nationalist and Euroskeptic parties that are more likely to soften their stance on Russia plays to Putin’s advantage as he sets the stage for negotiations with Trump.

A Murky Picture in the Middle East

Trump promised throughout his campaign a tough fight against Islamist extremism at home and abroad — and a harder stance on combating the Islamic State in particular. When Trump takes over as commander-in-chief in January, military operations in Iraq and Syria to combat the Islamic State core will be well underway, particularly in Iraq. U.S. support for Kurdish militias will likely continue, pushing Turkey further away from the United States, but Turkey is already on a unilateral path to deepen its footprint in northern Syria and Iraq.

The biggest shift on the battlefield would stem from a U.S.-Russia negotiation where the United States agrees to reduce aid for Syrian rebels. (Trump has already expressed doubts on the policy of supporting rebels who could be characterized as Islamist extremists.) This would bolster the positions of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and Iran, which would greatly unnerve the Sunni bloc led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. A pullback of U.S. support for Syrian rebels would spur Turkey and Saudi Arabia to step up their involvement, thereby intensifying the broader ethno-sectarian struggle with Iran.

Trump’s victory also raises questions about Iran’s own presidential election next May and the fate of the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump is unlikely to throw out the deal outright. Iran, despite its political divisions, broadly agrees on the need to avoid an escalation with the United States and bring in much-needed investment while it deals with its other proxy wars in the region. Tehran will continue to telegraph to the international community how it is fully adhering to the International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines. It will also appeal to European signatories to the nuclear deal to try to ensure that the United States does not pull out of the agreement or attempt to revive sanctions.

Hard-line opponents of President Hassan Rouhani have used ballistic missile testing and harassment of U.S. vessels to assert Iran’s military power and differentiate their camp from the moderates. But under a Trump presidency and Republican Congress, any infraction of the JCPOA or aggression outside of the nuclear deal has the potential to lead to additional sanctions. Iran would interpret this as a violation of its overall understanding with the United States on backing off sanctions, applying heavy stress to the deal. Even if the United States does not immediately jeopardize the JCPOA, it is likely that European investors will move cautiously forward with investments into Iran’s financial system because a Trump-led administration will be far less accommodative to Iran’s concerns or potential infractions.

An Even Less Assertive Posture in Asia-Pacific?

In some ways, a Trump victory represents an extension, rather than a repudiation, of recent trends in U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. As Stratfor has argued, in the coming years the United States would begin to shift more of the burden of regional security to partners such as Japan and South Korea. That process, however volatile, is likely to continue under a Trump administration.

As the United States becomes relatively less assertive in East Asia, Japan, South Korea and other members of the U.S. alliance framework will pick up the slack. In Japan and South Korea, this will manifest in accelerated military investment and potentially even gradual steps toward developing a nuclear arsenal should U.S. security commitments to the region see a major restructuring. Moreover, the coming years will likely see Tokyo push more forcefully to revise constitutional limits on fielding a “normal” military — a process that will see Japan emerge as the leading regional player in efforts to check China’s rise.

China likely will approach a Trump administration with guarded optimism. On the one hand, Trump’s lack of a diplomatic track record and penchant for ostentatious political remarks makes him something of an unknown — a quality that could generate new friction in the U.S.-China relationship. On the other hand, China’s leaders look on Trump’s self-proclaimed pragmatism — and relative disinterest in human rights issues abroad — as a potential bridge to increased U.S.-Chinese cooperation, or at least a less cantankerous relationship. Nonetheless, Beijing will guard against any effort by a Trump administration to impose punitive economic measures, such as through restrictive tariffs on Chinese goods.

The chances for U.S. ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement are extremely low under a Trump administration, barring a sudden and complete reversal of what was one of Trump’s key positions throughout the presidential campaign. And without U.S. participation, the TPP is dead: The agreement stipulates that at least six signatories with a collective gross domestic product equal to 85 percent of the pact’s total GDP must ratify the agreement for it to go into effect. The TPP’s failure is a blow to key U.S. regional partners, mostly notably Japan. Tokyo not only staked much of its own domestic political and economic reforms on Japan’s entry to the TPP but also vocally foregrounded the pact’s strategic importance for U.S.-Japan ties and for Washington’s broader regional position. With the TPP likely to fail, China will move swiftly to more actively promote the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.