Trump’s Foreign Policy: a Radical shift or Continuation of Obama?

Comment: Written by Ibrahim Daair.

It’s done. Despite the chants and the hashtags of ‘not my president’ Donald Trump will be president of the United States come January 20th. Many, myself included, were amused by Trump’s campaign antics. And even toyed with the idea of his presidency based solely on the comedic value. However, as inauguration day approaches, now is a good time to seriously consider what his foreign policy might actually look like. 

It is misguided to judge an incoming administration’s foreign policy based on campaign rhetoric designed to get votes. Policy is made in office, not on the campaign trail. There appears little reason to worry about Trump’s more discriminatory policies being realised.

Backtracking his campaign 

He has already u-turned on promises that were the cornerstones of his campaign. The ban on Muslim immigration to the United States has disappeared from his campaign website. The border wall with Mexico has morphed into a part-fence structure. He has seemingly softened his stance on waterboarding after being told a ‘pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers’ work better.

Domestically, the plan to ‘repeal and replace’ Obamacare is starting to look like ‘retain and alter’. And now, it even looks like ‘crooked’ Hillary will not face prosecution. With all these sudden changes of mind and Trump’s chronic policy vagueness, it is difficult to know which, if any, of his campaign stances were genuine.

Nevertheless, despite being one of the most unfavourable candidates to ever run, his approval ratings have risen to 46% since winning the election. These elections spoke more of an America frustrated with the past than hopeful about the future. Trump will face an uphill battle making that “America great again”. Assuming, of course, we can agree on the definition of greatness.

Global relations and combatting terrorism

On Russia, the president-elect’s options are either reach out to Putin, or continue the frosty relations that became a feature of the Obama administration. It does not take a genius to see that the latter option has largely failed to produce meaningful results.

Trump repeatedly voiced his desire to renew US-Russian relations. If Trump is indeed the candidate of change, he would lean toward fulfilling this campaign pledge; and this appears to be his plan. He spoke of the need to work with Russia on international issues, primarily combatting terrorism. Vladimir Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate the new president after his win. The two reportedly spoke of the need to improve ‘unsatisfactory’ bilateral relations and resolving the war in Syria.

Words are rarely enough, and there are a number of crises that have strained relations in recent years. President Trump would need to find common ground with Putin on Crimea, the civil war in Syria, and NATO enlargement in Eastern Europe. Crimea, considered by the US ‘annexed’ and by Putin as ‘reunited with Russia’, is symbolic of the distance the two sides must travel towards each other. Obama tried to ‘reset’ relations with Russia early on in his presidency. But, wars in Ukraine and Syria soon scuppered those attempts.

Despite the distance, Russia and The West are not as irreconcilable as they seem. When a newly elected president Putin was asked in 2000 about Russia joining NATO his response was to say “if as equals, Why not?”. There could be the potential to reach a certain level of rapprochement between the two countries if a US administration is willing to compromise with Vladimir Putin.

However, many in Washington, even within the President-elect’s own party, are sceptical of his desire for warmer relations. Both John McCain and Paul Ryan have voiced concerns about cosying up to the Russians. With McCain urging the new administration not to trust “a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny”. The president-elect denied that he wants to reset diplomatic relations, instead continuing to advocate for reduced antagonism. Whatever the anti-Putin rhetoric in Washington, Trump’s recognition that the US and Russia must work together to resolve crises is a promising sign.

Increased cooperation between the two countries would go some way toward ending the war in Syria. The US has been actively supporting many of the rebel groups fighting the Assad regime which is militarily supported by Russia. These groups often ally with jihadist fighters supported by regional US allies. The US could put an end to much of the fighting by pressuring their allies to stop funding and arming these Jihadist elements.

However, whether the US still has sufficient clout in the region is doubtful. Turkey has shifted away from The West and toward Russia in the wake of July’s failed coup. This seems to suggest Erdogan believes the US to have played a role in the attempt to ouster him. Meanwhile, following the Iranian nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia and other GCC states are increasingly taking security matters into their own hands.

By renouncing liberal ideals of nation-building and democracy-spreading, Trump has shown a clear tendency toward isolationism. The world’s ‘indispensable nation’ may start looking inwards toward achieving the huge infrastructure programmes Trump has promised. In the Middle East (amongst other places) Trump has expressed a desire for regional actors to play a bigger role in security. Throughout the campaign he repeated how disastrous previous US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven to be.

 Following up Obama

Trump’s view of America’s place in the world is really a radical version of Barack Obama’s. The out-going president publicly criticised allies as “free riders” for relying too heavily on the US. Last year the Obama administration renegotiated an agreement with Japan that would see the latter take a much bigger role in regional security. Trump wished to go further when he declared that the US should leave Asian allies to defend themselves from North Korea. Throughout the campaign he repeated how disastrous military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven to be. Trump has a point. Considering, the poorly executed Libyan intervention, no clear strategy in Syria or Yemen and a disintegrating Iraq, The Obama Doctrine has clearly reinvented the cliché ‘leading from behind’.

While many across the Middle East may rejoice at the probability of a more isolationist America, there is the possibility of the president-elect continuing the poorly devised policies of the previous administration. So far Trump has refused to give away any details of his ‘plan’ to defeat ISIS. Yet it is safe to assume that whatever the plan is it will involve the use of drone strikes.

The controversial drone program was greatly expanded during the Obama years as a way of supporting local fighters without committing US troops. The programme’s effectiveness at combatting terrorism has been questioned on a number of occasions. Despite more than a decade since the first strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, terrorist groups continue to operate largely unhindered.

If Trump is serious about combatting ISIS, then he must do more than just drop bombs. Saudi Arabia and other GCC states have long been accused of supporting extremism. Whether by turning a blind eye to the financial support their citizens give to terrorist groups, or in some cases, actively working with them. Last year a BBC report on the Saudi-led war in Yemen showed coalition troops fighting alongside Al-Qaeda militants.

Despite them being strategic allies to the US, reining in these governments is not as difficult as it may seem. Trump has echoed president Obama’s desire to end US dependence on foreign energy. With US shale fields increasing production despite the oil slump, the country has become an energy exporter for the first time in 40 years. Decreasing reliance on Mid-east energy will reduce the importance of such strategic alliances with the GCC states. After recent military debacles, we have already witnessed a gradual US withdrawal from the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula.

On the other hand, his rhetoric condemning the Iran nuclear deal has been well received in Saudi Arabia. Trump characteristically labelled the deal a disaster. Several republicans have also criticised the Iran deal as appeasement and against US interests.

Mitt Romney, currently front runner to become Secretary of State, was vocally opposed to the nuclear deal. In an op-ed last year he argued that Iran must be crippled with even more sanctions to ensure the regime completely abandon their nuclear ambitions. However, it’s debatable how much Republican criticism is genuine instead of partisan point-scoring.

In any case, with the Republicans firmly controlling Congress and the White House, the US is likely to take a firmer stance with Iran. Whether this hard line can include the legally challenging process of overturning an international agreement, with all its ramifications, including a US split with its other P5+1 co-signers, is debatable. While a hard-line policy might be a way of curtailing Iranian ambitions, to introduce any stability to the region it must be balanced with challenging Saudi support of extremism.

During his campaign Trump repeatedly stated that US officials needed to figure out ‘what’s going on’. While many of his comments were met with a mix of amusement and horror, Americans and the rest of the world must take serious heed of this one. With foreign policy, Donald Trump has raised a valid point: America needs to re-evaluate. Only time will tell whether the new president is capable and willing to fundamentally shift US policy in a different direction.

Whatever the next four years have in store for the world, at least we’ll have some great tweets to read.

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