Complicated Decisions That Await Donald Trump
Donald Trump’s victory caught everyone by surprise, injecting a frisson for international observers. Those who deal with foreign policy immediately took note of the great promises made during the election campaign. During the 18-month campaign, Trump suggested numerous international policies of detente and cooperation. Washington still needs to focus on historically relevant regions of paramount importance, such as Europe, the Middle East and Asia. What, realistically, could be a credible foreign policy doctrine for Donald Trump?
While Donald Trump was elected against the will of the whole state apparatus – the media, military, intelligence, etc. – the real battle begins now. The first step for the President-elect involves the appointment of his staff. It is a difficult and complicated task that could shape the future of the Trump administration. The right mix would require the new president to assign to key roles of the administration people considered not only suitable but also in line with the expectations of the establishment. Trump is believed to be a successful person mainly because of his ability to negotiate; throughout the election campaign he has repeatedly highlighted this. He said he wanted to change the nation as well as international treaties, giving a major overhaul to norms and agreements, stressing that the US president would make America ‘win, win, win’. The first challenge has already begun just a few days following the elections. The appointment of key figures in his administration seems to annoy everyone, Republican leaders and as well as his most loyal supporters. Indeed, the New York-based tycoon intends to appoint to the roles of councilors or national security personalities outside the Washington consensus; while for the role of Secretary of State he advances the nomination of Bolton, a Bush-era hawk. But without speculating too much on names, not at all certain, we seem to be witnessing a typical process of negotiation, in which both sides will come to a settlement at some point.
The goal is to find a conciliatory arrangement with the Washington elite without betraying the electoral base, his only ally. Trump already has against him three-quarters of the nation; were he to also alienate his constituents, his presidency would automatically become a nightmare.
It is possible that we can better understand the direction he intends to take by reference to the appointment of his staff, especially in foreign policy. With Bolton as Secretary of State, there are two hypotheses: the betrayal of the mandate handed to him by voters, complete repudiation of the Republican base, popularity at historic lows and the perfect viaticum for an impeachment in which no one would have any interest in defending him. The alternative is a deeper strategy. The appointment of a hawk like Bolton may simply serve as a cover to reassure power conglomerates such as the neoconservatives, NATO bloc and Asian allies. It may be a mere matter of image that lacks any executive actions reflected in foreign policy; a simple but effective way to please with words the most enthusiastic supporters of the American war party.
After all, there are only three hypotheses concerning Trump’s foreign policy: interventionist, similar to the previous administration; undecided, made of non-choices, consisting of isolationism and constant disregard for events around the world; or the third option, certainly the most revolutionary, namely a very different foreign policy to the US role exercised over the last 70 years. Trump certainly must be very careful in each of these situations. In the first case, he would end up betraying the mandate granted him by voters as did Obama, plunging in popularity. The second hypothesis, in fact a calculated indifference, would end up severely injuring American interests. Trump may also adopt an attitude of disenchantment, disinterested and not aggressive, but would necessarily need a common strategy negotiated with regional allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. In the case of a renunciation of dialogue, opting for an extreme isolationism, the consequences would lead to an unprecedented activism by allies.
Nations in some way betrayed by Washington’s withdrawal of protection would ultimately face exacerbated tensions and geopolitical rivalry with opponents, with disastrous consequences.
If Donald Trump’s intentions are a relaxation of international relations, he will have to fight to get them. It will be necessary to deal with friends and foes, getting one’s hands dirty and stepping into the international political arena, always keeping in mind the huge domestic opposition that will confront him. If the newly elected president will truly revolutionize domestic politics to make America great again, he will have to find an international agreement mediating between great powers to trace a path for the coming years. It will require a positive attitude, dialogue and cooperation.
This is the basis on which to continue this in-depth analysis. In addition to assuming challenges and future strategies of Trump, the intention is to focus on how he should develop a coherent foreign policy in line with the intentions expressed by the President-elect.
The most important possibility that remains etched following the election of Donald Trump regards the positive intentions of dialogue with the Russian Federation. For months we were in a dangerous limbo faced with the real possibility of a direct confrontation between Washington and Moscow in Syria. For weeks the world waited with bated breath for some positive signal. A few days later, with Trump elected, finally came on November 14 the much-desired phone call between the two leaders. A long-awaited and much anticipated exchange of courtesies and good wishes which shows a desire, unusual for the two tenants, to smoothen contradictions and frictions between nuclear powers, inaugurating a new course for US-Russia relations with important consequences for the entire world order.
Of course we must also consider the environment from which these reports come to life. The situation of Trump, a US president belonging to the Republican Party, assumes a certain difficulty in implementing this strategy. The GOP, the party that gave birth to the neoconservatives, from which was forged the policy of global hegemony, certainly does not bode well for the positive intent of the next elected president. Quite frankly, it seems to be anything but the perfect party with which to conduct a revolution in the name of mutual cooperation.
Donald Trump, however, has been elected mainly for two reasons: to focus on internal dynamics in order to revitalize the domestic economy; and to prevent the US from being involved in delicate international situations that would ultimately erode national priorities. It is obvious to say that intentions and will must necessarily be reconciled with the powers that be within government, namely the intelligence agencies, the military, the media, and corporations. It will require a great effort in internal diplomacy within the same administration in order to avoid a crossfire of opposition and obstruction. In this regard, the appointment of highly questionable figures inside Trump’s staff should not be exaggerated. With the words of the great general Sun Tzu in mind, with his famous slogan, “Keep your friends close, your enemies closer”, Trump seems to want to adopt a soft approach with the most warmongering wing of the establishment. At the same time, however, in just six days as President-elect, Trump has already entertained a phone call with Putin, historically foreshadowing more than a simple co-operation. The common intention is to resolve long-standing issues and pave the way for a major downgrading of international tensions.
Syria and Ukraine are at the top of the priority list for the Kremlin and the White House. The Trump and Putin administrations have very different policies, even if the words of the President-elect are certainly auspicious. In reality, it is very difficult to imagine how the United States and Russia will be able to cooperate in the fight against terrorism. Let us remember that through regional allies, Washington for years employed directly and indirectly several tools like terrorism to destabilize other countries. Al Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda, Daesh and other organizations active in Syria and Iraq have at least benefited from a certain indulgence of US forces, if not direct assistance. It is clear that much of the Trump administration could be heavily contaminated and influenced by money and interests shared by the elites of the countries and supporters of international terrorism. Therefore it is very unlikely that the newly elected president can easily find common ground in these conditions.
As often happens in such situations that are so intricate, there is nevertheless some room for negotiation and a point of contact. Let us take, for example, Turkey. It has always been a strong backer of terrorists in Syria, but in the future it may have to be content to remain in possession of the Syrian territory illegally occupied with the military operation Euphrates Shield. The priority for Ankara is to keep Kurdish territory separated, and this solution would achieve this objective without re-engaging in a harmful clash with Washington. This is not to forget the wildcard of the extradition of Gülen that Trump could play at any time to convince Erdogan of the goodness of his intentions.
With the Saudis, the situation is much more complicated. The President-elect needs a strong weapon of persuasion to force Riyadh to cease its assistance of terrorists in Syria. As always, political blackmail offer the right solution and perspective. The sale of 60 billion dollars of arms to the Kingdom may be delayed, assisting in the discontinuation of the inhumane war in Yemen, as well as the possible revelations about 9/11, represent important incentives to persuade Riyadh to cooperate. Washington must still pay close attention to the relationship with the Saudi royal family, for Beijing is always waiting in the wings, ready to take advantage of every crack in this strategic relationship. The danger is a shift from the system of the petrodollar to petroyuan, threatening the existence of the United States and constituting a point of special attention. In this sense, the Saudis will have a strong negotiating advantage with the new administration, and if a framework agreement will be found, it will take into account the other dynamics at play as well as Syria and the Middle East. Without a doubt, one of the major obstacles facing the Trump administration concerns Saudi Arabia and all the branches of related interests.
Even more difficult is to speculate realistically and accurately on how relations between Tehran and Washington might evolve. During the election campaign, Trump was very decided on his anti-Iranian rhetoric. To understand if these statements were essentially aimed at the Republican base or actually harbored hostile intentions, we will have to wait. But certainly both Tehran and the administration of the newly elected president have shown important negotiation skills. Currently the main problem for Iran is the inability to work with private banks due to US pressure, in spite of the nuclear deal. It is in the interests of Trump to have a good relationship with Iran if he really intends to indirectly balance the Saudi-Qatar-Turkey axis in the region. It is no exaggeration to imagine that there may be sufficient margins to strike up a deal with Tehran; after all, they also are interested in becoming a player in the world oil market.
Speaking of good intentions, interestingly, rumors have surfaced around the possibility of a new negotiation between Israel and Palestine with the involvement of the Trump administration. It is another high-profile affair that requires important contributions on the part of all the stakeholders, representing a deal that would pave the way for an improvement in relations between the US, Israel and the Gulf countries (who are the economic supporters of the Palestinian Authority). It would be another piece to fit together in this chaotic situation in the Middle East.
The central point is that Trump will need all possible support to carry out such complicated negotiations. The biggest obstacles are represented by politicians, the military, intelligence agencies, intellectuals, the media, and foreign powers. Presumably, each of these conglomerates of power will object over the purpose of these negotiations. It is easy to conclude that many of Trump’s actions in the Middle East will concern trade cooperation (oil, gas, arms sales). In return, it will be necessary for nations hostile to Damascus and Moscow to reconsider their foreign-policy priorities. In the event that this attempt fails, it is more than likely that Trump will decide to switch to a Middle East foreign policy of inactivity; simply deciding not to decide. The consequences would lead to huge impacts on the developing alliance between Iran, Russia and China. With the field free of American interference, this would provide the necessary conditions to reshape the Middle East. This could be the tone and tactic that Trump will set internally, brandishing non-interference as a threat directed at domestic detractors. There are no alternatives: if Trump is sabotaged in his attempt at conciliation, the United States will cease to provide assistance to Riyadh, Doha, Ankara and Tel Aviv, with adverse consequences for the latter.
In terms of marketing, it is a very simple operation. Trump has for eighteen months said he wants to cooperate with everyone. Should he encounter any hostility, he is likely to reveal everything, announcing an incendiary policy towards some Middle Eastern countries, US allies, and internal obstacles to his administration, or Congress. His justifications will a follow a line of communication already heard in recent months while remaining consistent with its intentions, to wit: repeat ad nauseam that it is time for Washington to stop assisting nations that do not advance the national security interests of the United States.
After all, both Israel and Turkey, despite having conflicting interests in Syria and Iran, have every intention of developing good relations with Moscow. In this scenario, a good prospect of dialogue between Washington and Moscow would impose important constraints on countries like Turkey, Israel, Iran and Syria. Only an agreement between Russia and the US would benefit virtually all Middle Eastern nations if they are able to take advantage of the opportunity. Even the Saudis could get the maximum reward possible with a new increase in oil prices if OPEC countries, Russia and the shale gas industry and US fracking corporations are able to agree to homogenize their extraction and economic policies.
Trump definitely does not start with good odds in the Middle East, given the notorious difficulties in reaching an agreement between conflicting nations. It is especially for this reason that he needs all the support possible from the Russian Federation. Also remember that Moscow intends to exploit this situation to normalize relations with Washington, to cancel the sanctions and return to a constructive dialogue with the West, especially Europe.
Probably Trump does not yet possess a grand strategy (global strategy); it is too early to see that emerging. Meanwhile, in addition to the Middle East, we are able to guess how he might relate to the Baltic countries and Ukraine, always big sponsors of a Western attitude hostile to Russia. In this context, rather than direct cooperation with Kiev, it is easier to imagine a slow but inexorable silence from Washington with the aim of freezing the situation in the east of the country. Already two years ago Washington was reluctant to excessively help Poroshenko to massacre civilians in the east. Two years later, with a nation even more divided and in economic difficulties, it is likely that Kiev has no option to protest the indifferent attitude of the White House. Sooner or later Ukraine will be forced to recognize that without a logical and rational cooperation with Moscow, it is designed to dissolve and disappear. Without the US, and with the EU too worried and distracted by the next internal elections and the populist wind blowing, there remains no one in the establishment to lobby for Kiev. The Baltic nations are experiencing a similar situation, wailing from economic misery. If they insist in their denunciations of Moscow and provocations against the Russian Federation, they are likely to trigger a reaction from Trump in the manner of accusations of “free passes” (free-riders) for NATO members. In addition to some lament, it is likely that Riga and company remain in deep silence during the Trump administration, too frightened by the threats from Trump of ending NATO.
For the rest of Europe, this is a new phase in which the main priority is the survival of the current political class, with a wind of change blowing from east to west in the name of Trump, and from north to south in the name of Brexit. In this situation, it is easy to imagine that sanctions on Russia will become a topic of great discussion with EU countries like Italy, France, Greece and Austria strongly opposed, while Germany and some Nordic countries wish to adopt a political line that is in fact more hostile towards Moscow than is Washington. Economic relations such as the TTIP will see a rapid decline, forcing European countries to look to the east if they want to continue to exist and resist. The lack of residual cunning in European leaders should take them toward a primary collaboration with the People’s Republic and the Russian Federation on topics such as the Silk Road and the Eurasian market. Will they be capable of doing that?
In Asia, the global economic center, the situation is more complicated but certainly less militarized than other places such as the Middle East. First we must immediately reiterate a concept, namely, Donald Trump said on several occasions not to believe that conflicts are the ideal tool to solve crises or problems. In South Korea, the United States could lose one of its major allies, crucial to US policies in the region, due to a corruption scandal that has led millions of citizens to the streets to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye. It is a situation that seems to bode well for Trump, who intends to have a shot at negotiating an agreement of some kind between North and South Korea. The current government of Seoul is light years away from the possibility of cooperating with the North of the country. Provocations, military exercises and hysterical lamentations have been the only known noises emanating from Seoul in recent years.
As repeatedly stated by the President-elect, military arrogance seems foreign to his political doctrine. In this sense, disagreements over the South China Sea have been kept under wraps during the campaign; a critical aspect certainly appreciated by Beijing. Xi Jinping and Donald Trump have a strong need to work together, since they are the ones who actually hold the levers of global economic power. The telephone exchange that took place between the two a few days ago, described as very friendly, is positive news. Again, it is difficult to speculate what could be Washington’s attitude toward this area that is of greatest interest to the world, but the prospects seem encouraging. After eight years of Obama, the Asian region is in a particular situation, with Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines, after years within the American orbit, slowly moving towards Chinese influence. For Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Manila, the Trump victory represents a unique opportunity to propose new bases for negotiations with the United States. From the point of view of Washington, this move would be seen as an interesting development, anxious as it is to recover regional allies.
This does not automatically mean that these or other nations want to change their attitude to favor Beijing over Washington. As reiterated by Duterte in some public speeches, the goal of a multipolar world is to offer different choices, allowing one to be able to make choices in the best way possible for one’s own national interests. Trump should communicate with these nations without appearing to want to contain the People’s Republic, provided that this is the strategy to be pursued. Until now, with some exaggeration about the customs duties, this has not been explored, and we do not know the attitude that Trump will adopt with regard to Beijing. One thing is certain: the US and China are in desperate need of visa dialogue, demonstrating the interdependence of the two economies.
Surprisingly — but up to a certain point — the party that will benefit most from this new balance in the triangular relationship between China, Russia and the United States will be Moscow. The Russian Federation will enjoy a privileged position that will allow it to balance its dependent relationship with Beijing (borne of Western aggression) thanks to a renewed partnership with Washington. Similarly for the United States, it is difficult to imagine any successful tactic against Beijing without the consent of Russia. Finally, Beijing will have even more need for its Muscovite ally to withstand US pressure by accelerating the Eurasian integration. It is a huge tectonic realignment between the superpowers for the purposes of speeding up cooperation and development in the place of war and chaos.
This could even be a great illusion that Trump will throw to internal and external opponents to feed them, selling to the liberals and neoconservatives the idea of a strategic approach that leads to the containment of China, exhuming the alliance with Moscow with a view to a Chinese containment. It is a beautiful story that would justify Washington’s attitude to the Russian Federation in the Middle East and Europe. But it is a false hope for the American establishment, a great trap with which to protect the Trump administration from an internal sabotage by liberals or neoconservatives.
The focal point of Donald Trump’s foreign policy seems to revolve around the notion that too much time and too much money has been spent on dealing with wars, conflicts and strategies. With public opinion turned away from foreign policy and focused on domestic policies aimed at rebuilding the United States, creating jobs and boosting the economy, this should be easier.
To succeed he will need three major realignments: Iran in the Middle East; Russia in Europe to reinvigorate economic cooperation; and China to renegotiate some trade agreements in Asia. In the Middle East, Washington has an urgent need for Iran and Russia to stem the trio composed of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. In Europe, the United States once again needs Moscow to revitalize allies in a strong economic depression. Without a strong Europe, even the United States is suffering. In Asia, in order to avoid the pressures of neoconservatives concerning the South China Sea, it is crucial for Beijing and Washington to find some kind of commercial compromise.
In each of these scenarios, there are several possibilities for mutual cooperation. This assessment of the advantages and disadvantages will ultimately decide which will be the direction over the next few years in international relations.
More than a hike in the Fed’s rate, the economic nuclear weapon to sabotage Trump, destroying the US economy, it is more likely to imagine an objective difficulty of fitting together the pieces of this complicated puzzle. The common feeling is that of being in front of a global effort for reconciliation, perhaps the last one available. At stake is the future of humanity and the prospect of an end to a period of turmoil that has brought death, destruction and misery on all corners of the planet. We should all hope, for the sake of humanity, that Trump, Putin, Xi and Rohani proceed and succeed in their policies.
by Federico Pieraccini