Trump

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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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Trump and the future of NATO

Professor Andrew Dorman

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States has been shrouded in controversy. His apparent close links with Russia and questioning about the ongoing relevance of NATO has caused concern on both sides of the Atlantic. Trump’s questioning of the European dependence on the US for its security and the imbalance in relative spending and military capability between the United States and the European members is not new for an incoming or even serving US President. Nor is a questioning of NATO’s future, John Mearsheimer’s classic ‘Back to the Future’ piece in the journal International Security are evidence of this. What is new is his questioning of Article V of the Washington Treaty which provides the collective security guarantee for all NATO members. Without it the value of NATO membership is unclear.

Adding to the complication of Trump’s challenge is the timing of this. Questioning the relevance and future of NATO at a time where Russia, and in the past its predecessor the Soviet Union, is openly becoming increasingly assertive in what it perceives to be its area of influence. The central question confronting the NATO alliance is whether to acquiesce to Russia’s tacit demands that NATO respects its dominance of the post-Soviet space and let’s Russia illegally annex the Ukraine, attack Georgia and so forth, or alternatively continues to allow democratic states that wish to continue to join the alliance and benefit from the collective security guarantee.

In response to Trump’s latest comments on NATO, German Chancellor Merkel has stated that the Europeans may have to provide for their own security without the United States. Fine words but the reality of this for Europe is at best questionable, especially given the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union and the possibility of the election of Marine Le Pen as French President followed by a French vote to leave the European Union. Countering the increasing threat posed by Russia looks increasingly precarious for those in NATO, for those in the former Soviet space that have not yet managed to join the NATO, the situation is far more disconcerting.

Fifty years on from the adoption of the Harmel report by NATO, which led to a focus on both dialogue in the form of détente and deterrence with Russia, there is increasing unease in the hallways of the NATO governments. Normally one would expect the incoming US president and those around him to emphasise reassurance and continuity to its partners. However, such conventions do not appear to apply to Donald Trump and whilst those he has nominated to key cabinet positions, such as Marine General Mattis as the new Defense Secretary, are emphasising the ongoing importance of NATO for the US, Trump himself continues to send a contradictory message which Russia would no doubt approve. At best the road ahead for NATO will be rocky, at worst we may be seeing the destruction of the most significant military alliance in history.

Image: NATO Headquarters meeting. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Trump’s Improvised Foreign Policy

Dr. Andreas Krieg

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.

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Iran’s Afghanistan Policy: At odds with Trump?

By Dr. Amir M. Kamel

The prospect of the US president-elect Donald Trump’s Administration has led to ripples across the international system, not least in the Middle East. Indeed, at the time of writing, Trump had pledged to reduce the US tendency to carry out foreign interventions. Significantly, this included harsh criticisms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (i.e. the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the US, UK, France, Russia, China, plus Germany). The problems this may cause have implications for Iran’s neighbours, Afghanistan in particular. Not least as a result of Tehran’s own interests in Kabul.

Indeed, in a recent book chapter, titled ‘Iran in Afghanistan: Rejecting Foreign Presence’ in Afghanistan’s Regional Dilemmas: South Asia and Beyond, I argue that Iran’s ties with Afghanistan are increasingly driven by Tehran’s interests. Specifically, this pertains to the Islamic Republic of Iran regime’s (IRI) dedication to 1) rejecting foreign presence in the region, as well as 2) providing economic and political support to a Taliban-free Kabul. Predictably, such a dual-barreled policy has led Tehran to take contradictory actions since 2001. That being said, the IRI has continued to implement a policy which aimed to sure up its interests, particularly in light of the post-2014 withdrawal of the United States of America (US) led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military personnel from Afghanistan.

A key part of this is Iran’s influence over its neighbour, whether it be as a result of the shared cultural history between the two countries or the fact that opium trade is able to flow across the border, which was identified by the outgoing President Barack Obama Administration choke-point for constraining the Taliban. The feeling of cooperation and shared interests is seemingly mutual. Indeed, for nearly two years, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Iran twice a week in a drive to increase Afghanistan-Iran trade. The fact that Ghani has made such a concerted effort to boost economic ties with Tehran is further evidence of Iran’s interest in ensuring stability in Kabul.

With this in mind, it would seem apparent that an ‘onside’ Iran would also serve the potential interests of the Trump Administration. Indeed, one could speculate that the tearing up of the JCPOA, which already has its critics in Iran (most notably in the form of the more conservative political forces in the country), would hamper Tehran’s ability and propensity to align itself to the US (and broader) interests in stabilising Afghanistan. Whilst it is still unclear what Trump’s policy toward the region will be, the rhetoric in the run-up to what will be the 45th President of the US’ time in office, does not seem positive for Tehran’s interests in Kabul. The hope is that this will become more clear after January 20, 2017.

Image: Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani meeting with Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani in Saadabad Palace, April 19, 2015. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.