On 20 January Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated to become the 45th President of a country trying to find its role in a globalized world. The United States remain the strongest economy and possess the most capable military force in the world. Yet, in the apolar world of the 21st century where non-state actors use disruptive technology and ideologies to effectively undermine state authority, and where global economic push and pull factors cause individuals and communities to migrate across borders and continents, the US regardless of their size or power have less and less means to singlehandedly influence or shape economic and socio-political affairs.
In this rapidly changing world where notions of state-centrism, nationalism and territoriality appear archaic, Trump looks like a relic of the past. His promises to make America great again appealed to the losers of globalization, those unable to adapt to the new realities of open markets and transnational communities. Responding to these fears and concerns is within Trump’s comfort zone: looking inwards and focusing on the economy. Thereby, the high politics of foreign and security policy have been widely ignored. And it is here where Trump remains an unpredictable enigma for analysts, diplomats and journalists.
Yes, Trump will not govern alone. Yes, Trump will have to delegate key portfolios to his cabinet. And yes, much of his racist, ignorant and naïve comments, as inexcusable as they might have been, were campaign rhetoric. Nonetheless, the foreign and security policy of the allegedly last remaining superpower in the world will be determined by the comments, actions and decisions of a man who up until 2015 could not have been further removed from geo-politics. Some say this might be his strength. However, looking at the fragility and unpredictability of the global security context today, someone as imprudent, undiplomatic, impulsive and ignorant as Trump could become a liability not just for the United States but the West at large.
Trump’s first press conference on 11 January revealed that he was still the same man he was on the campaign trail: impulsive, irrational and incoherent – a man without a clear strategy or vision for America’s place in the world. He lacks a defined worldview as he has so far just looked at the world through the eyes of a business man whose views of the world have not been shaped by geo-political developments but by his ability to generate individual business profit. His national security objectives remain defined by naivety and simplicity. With an oversimplifying stroke of black and white, China, Iran and ISIS are presented as threats, Russia as a potential partner, while NATO and the EU are being mocked for their ineffectiveness, red-tape and free-rider problem. These emotionally-formulated foreign policy maxims remain underdeveloped and provide no basis for a Trumpian national security strategy.
So what to expect? While Europe is concerned with his rhetoric of putting America first, partners in the Middle East see Trump as an ignorant pragmatist who can be easily impressed and won over by commercial opportunities, i.e. Riyalpolitik. His posture as a strongman might frighten liberals in Europe but appeal to Arabs who are hoping that after years of Obama’s dovish approach to foreign policy, Trump’s hawkish stance on Iran could work in their favour. Similar hopes can be heard within conservative circles in Israel who expect Trump’s support to be much more unconditional than his predecessor’s.
Trump will put America first, thereby putting an end to the implicitness of America’s role as the world’s police man. Here, Trump will not divert from the legacy of Obama but instead continue to limit America’s commitments overseas. In so doing, he will be pragmatist rather than ideological. His policies will not be guided by strategically defined objectives but by ad hoc responses to ongoing events. The world should not expect foresightedness in US foreign and security policy in the coming four years as Trump will have to learn along the way how to formulate strategy and how third-order effects of any action or comment could potentially have catastrophic consequences in the international arena.
At a time when US leadership might be most needed America’s new commander-in-chief lacks the qualities, expertise and experience to carve out a role for the United States in the 21st century. Trump’s presidency will be truly improvised.
Image: Presidential candidate Donald Trump, watch party, Feb 2 in West Des Moines. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.