Donald Trump proclaimed “America First” on his way to his head-spinning victory in Tuesday’s presidential election, and the success of that message will rock many foreign capitals where leaders have feared that Trump would alter the basics of U.S. foreign policy.
Making predictions about Trump’s foreign policy is difficult, given his lack of experience. But the most likely bet is that as president he will seek to do what he promised during the campaign in breaking from current U.S. approaches to Russia, the Middle East, Europe and Asia.
Traveling abroad over the past year, I heard concern about Trump’s candidacy from senior officials in more than a dozen countries. He was viewed as an inexperienced and unreliable figure who might dismantle traditional U.S. commitments and alliances. Most foreign leaders will be upset that Hillary Clinton, an advocate of traditional U.S. strategy and commitments, lost the race.
A Trump foreign policy, based on his statements, will bring an intense “realist” focus on U.S. national interests and a rejection of costly U.S. engagements abroad. It will likely bring these changes:
r A move to improve relations with a combative, assertive Russia. Trump stressed repeatedly during the campaign, at some political cost, that he would work with President Vladimir Putin. “I think I’d be able to get along with him,” he said in September at a televised forum hosted by NBC’s Matt Lauer. “If he says great things about me, I’m gonna say great things about him. ... I mean, the man has very strong control over a country.”
Trump also discounted allegations that Russian hackers had meddled in the presidential election. “I doubt it, I doubt it,” Trump said when asked in an Oct. 19 debate about a statement by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. accusing “Russia’s senior-most officials” of approving hacking of Democratic Party websites. Trump’s denial led some Democrats to argue that electing Trump had been Russia’s real goal.
r A joint military effort with Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad to defeat Daesh (ISIS). Trump proposed this shared campaign during that same debate.
“If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good,” he said. He offered positive comments about Assad, saying, “He’s just much tougher and much smarter than her [Clinton],” adding that if the opposition should win in Syria, “you may very well end up with worse than Assad.”
Trump also promised repeatedly that he would step up the U.S. military campaign against Daesh and replace U.S. generals who were insufficiently combative. But he has been vague about what he plans to do in Iraq and Syria.
r A new push for European allies to pay more for their own defense. It’s unlikely that Trump will dismantle NATO, as critics charged during the campaign. He said in a debate that Clinton was telling “just another lie” when she accused him of undermining commitments to defend NATO allies and Asian partners such as Japan and South Korea. But he never retreated from an April 27 speech in which he said “the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves,” even if that means letting them acquire nuclear weapons.
In Europe, Trump’s victory is likely to reinforce the trend toward politicians expressing similar right-wing, nationalist views. The avatar of this neonationalism was the surprise victory of Brexit supporters in June’s referendum in Britain, and there are comparable movements in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. President Trump will have to decide whether to embrace such movements, which could destabilize the European Union.
r An attempt to alter the terms of trade in Asia by renegotiating trade pacts and forcing China to revalue its currency. It’s hard to predict how this combative approach to globalization will play out. Often, Trump’s extreme rhetoric and threats against business partners are tactics in what he has famously described as “the art of the deal.” A China that’s already experiencing a bubble economy might well be vulnerable to U.S. economic pressure. But the most likely outcome of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric will be a global economic downturn, many analysts have argued.
Trump’s campaign was premised on the idea that his approach would “make America great again.” His presidency will test that proposition. But many analysts argue that by putting America’s interests first so nakedly, he may push many U.S. allies in Europe and Asia to make their own deals with a newly assertive Russia and a rising China.
Undoing globalization isn’t possible. But undermining America’s leadership in that system would be all too easy.
David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.