The Age of Uncertainty: US Foreign Policy in the Trump Era?

By Dr. Ellen Hallams and Dr. Tracey German

In April 2016, Donald Trump declared ‘We must as a nation be more unpredictable.’ In a speech on foreign policy during the Republican primary campaign, Trump – who at that point was the front-runner for the GOP nomination – set out what the New York Times in its editorial described as a ‘strange worldview,’ one that appears to be a throwback to the isolationist movement of the 1930s – ‘America First’ – but which betrays a total misunderstanding of the complexities of the world in which America is deeply embedded. Dissecting that worldview and extrapolating what the Trump administration’s foreign policy will look like over the coming months and years is something of a fool’s errand; this is a man who prides himself on being unpredictable, in keeping allies and enemies second-guessing his intentions, and using his personal Twitter feed to make policy pronouncements.

Yet amidst the chaos, some things are all too clear. The first is that the world as we know it has been upended, and is now violently spinning on its axis. Most of us in the West have grown up in a world defined by certain core principles – democracy, liberty, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and fear – embedded in a liberal order that the US – more than any other nation – has sought to defend, maintain and advance since 1945. It is in part because we live in such a world that Donald Trump now finds himself sitting in the White House, democratically elected (though not by a majority of the American people) with the freedom to express the views he holds. But by doing so, he is undermining many of the values on which liberal order rests: refugees who find themselves being turned away from American airports are living in fear, their yearning to breathe free suffocated by the stroke of a pen; the LGBT community in the US feels more afraid than at any point since the end of the Cold War, while women in America face the prospect that their right to an abortion will be stripped away; Muslims in America are increasingly vilified and demonised, no longer free to worship in peace. Protestors are dismissed and derided; in the world of @readldonaldtrump these are not the legitimate acts of a people with the constitutional right to ‘peaceably assemble,’ but the product of manufactured outrage created by a liberal elite hell-bent on undermining the will of the people.

Internationally, Trump represents the greatest deviation from the liberal bipartisan consensus that has underpinned US foreign policy since 1990. In Obama’s parting speech to the UN he spoke passionately about the threats facing liberal international order. That liberal order has rested not only on a set of core ideas and values, but also an institutional architecture centred on the UN and NATO. Yet in his policy pronouncements thus far, Trump appears to be re-writing the script. He has injected a greater degree of instability into America’s relations with Europe and NATO than any presidency since the end of the Cold War, and is far more willing to embrace, rather than reject, the alternative vision of international order promulgated by Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Trump’s election has injected a new element of uncertainty into an already perilous state of affairs in Eastern Europe; not only are Putin’s intentions unclear, so are Trump’s. Lawrence Freedman once wrote that credibility is the ‘magic ingredient’ of deterrence. It is one thing for NATO to be facing uncertainty over Putin’s intentions, it is quite another to be facing its own crisis of credibility caused by uncertainty over the Trump administration’s policy towards both Russia and NATO; this at a time when Europe is witnessing the biggest deployment of US military forces to the continent since the Cold War.

Relations with Moscow may well prove to be one of the most pivotal elements of Trump’s foreign policy; between them, Trump and Putin have the ability to shape international order in ways that affect us all. A matter of weeks after the election of Trump, Putin signed a new Foreign Policy Concept, outlining Russia’s ambitions to play a leading role on the international stage and boost cooperation with the administration of the new US president. It remains to be seen whether these two goals are mutually exclusive – whilst the early atmospherics surrounding both the Russian and US camp have been positive, there are still many obstacles ahead. Moscow has consistently opposed what it views as a US dominance of the international system and has made frequent reference to the destabilising influence of Washington, DC’s international actions.

Trump’s election success was greeted with elation in Russia, with Trump ‘fever’ leading to some interesting images being published in the Russian media: boxes of sugar bearing Trump’s smiling face, the Army of Russia store offering a 10% discount for US citizens and embassy employees on the day of Trump’s inauguration and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of Russian far-right party, the LDPR, drinking champagne with members of his party in celebration of Trump’s election victory. But these images contrast sharply with the realities of the state of the current relationship between Washington, DC and Moscow, which had hit rock-bottom during Obama’s presidency. Whilst it remains unclear what the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy will be, there are already signs that it will take a hard line, particularly with regards to international terrorism and the threat from IS – Trump has indicated that torture is an acceptable tool in the fight against IS, a hard-line stance that will appeal to the Kremlin, which has never shied away from the use of force (legitimate or not) in pursuit of its strategic objectives. This highlights one of the key potential drivers of any future US-Russia relationship: similar personality traits. Both presidents like to portray themselves as ‘strong men’ who are seeking to make their countries ‘great’ again. Relations between the two are currently in a honeymoon phase, with each president apparently delighted to have found a similar character in the other, but there could be problems ahead if neither is willing to embrace compromise or concession.

Following UK PM Theresa May’s visit to Washington, DC on January 27, Trump and Putin held an hour-long telephone conversation during which both leaders apparently undertook to repair bilateral relations. During a wide-ranging conversation, they discussed the fight against terrorism and ongoing instability across the Middle East, as well as the possibility of expanding their economic ties. This latter issue raises the possibility of US sanctions against Russia being lifted, although the topic was not discussed during their call. Trump has mooted the possibility of lifting the sanctions regime, imposed in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and ongoing support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. This position is at odds with that of Europe: European leaders including May, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, have all expressed their opposition to any lifting of sanctions until Moscow complies fully with the terms of the Minsk agreement. Any attempt by the Trump administration to ease the sanctions regime risks the emergence of further rifts between the US and Europe, which is precisely what the Kremlin is seeking.

The new Foreign Policy Concept suggests that Russia will continue its pivot towards Asia, partly driven by the lack of access to Western markets, a consequence of the ongoing sanctions regime. However, it also makes clear that Russia will continue to consolidate its position as a ‘centre of influence in today’s world’. Encouraged by its use of the military lever in Syria, Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming year and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means.

Since Putin came to power in 2000, the Kremlin has demonstrated an increased willingness, and ability, to use the military lever to achieve broader strategic and foreign policy goals. Despite this, many in the West continue to be surprised by the primacy of hard power in Russian policy-making, particularly the use of force. Russian involvement in Syria has undoubtedly demonstrated that it is now able to project power beyond its own strategic ‘backyard’ and that it is determined to play a global role. The Kremlin appears to have high hopes for a considerable improvement both in its relations with the US and its position on the global stage. However, whilst relations between Trump and Putin are currently very positive, this could change dramatically if either oversteps and finds themselves in an opposing position.

However, as the relationship unfolds between Trump and Putin, one thing appears clear: we are living in an era of instability and uncertainty, the likes of which many of us have never experienced before.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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