Contours of the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy: Regional priorities

28.12.2016

The US presidential campaign has reached its final point. Despite unprecedented political pressure, the majority of US electorates supported their states’ popular vote for Donald Trump. Having received 304 of the required 270 electoral votes, Trump overcame the last formal obstacle on the way to his presidency. He has now been formally elected President of the United States.

The inauguration of the President-elect will take place in a little less than a month. He has already formed his foreign policy team for the most part. It consists of Trump’s fellow thinkers that have a non-ideologized, pragmatic approach to international relations. They are mostly directors of major companies in the real economy and former high-ranking military officials. Most of them are staunch conservatives like Trump (classic conservatives rather than neo-conservatives). No cabinet positions are occupied by representatives from the traditional Republican political elite, including any of the top officials from former Republican administrations of the post-Cold War period. There are some former employees of George W. Bush’s Administration at a lower level but no neo-conservatives among them.

It is already possible to predict what foreign policy the new administration will layout judging by Trump’s foreign policy statements, his team and his rhetoric and preferences on the items of the Republican traditional foreign policy agenda. On some issues (renunciation of the regime change policy, less emphasis on the dissemination of Democracy and the abdication of “the right” to consider US interests as part of the universal, US-centric international order) it will differ from the US foreign policy tradition of the past 25 years. This policy will be more or less consistent with the policies of the previous administrations (including Barack Obama’s) on other issues (focus on narrow national interests, a unilateral approach, less solidarity with allies on the issues that are not major US national interests, a commitment to the maximum freedom of action on the issues of national security and defense, an emphasis on Asia and even a striving to use cooperation with Moscow to promote US interests).

We have expressed our view on the principles and functional priorities of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Now we will concentrate on its regional priorities.

Although now the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS) and radical Islam in general is proclaimed to be Trump’s most urgent national security task, there are grounds to assume that relations with great powers will still be its main strategic priority. Realistically, these are relations that produce the biggest influence on US international standing and determine US security, economic development and prosperity in a long-term perspective. This primarily applies to the countries that may turn or have already turned into US rivals on the regional and particularly the global levels.

In this context, China will become the main priority for the Trump administration among the great powers. President Trump, many leaders of his foreign policy team and other realistic politicians in the Republican establishment view China as a main US rival in the Asia-Pacific region and the world in general. The US will most likely toughen its policy on China’s military-political deterrence and increase its military presence in the APR. This is the purpose of Trump’s promise to increase the number of US warships from 274 to 350. Trump will build up the defense budget and is likely to cancel Obama-introduced cuts in US military spending. A substantial part of these expenditures will be used to upgrade the US strategic nuclear arsenal and nuclear triad (ICBMs, SLBMs and strategic bombers) but the US will also spend much on consolidating and expanding its military infrastructure in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.

Trump’s foreign policy statements and appointments in November and December also confirm his intention to enhance a Chinese deterrence policy. This can be seen in his telephone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, his subsequent statement questioning the US adherence to a “one-China policy” and implying that the US approach to the Taiwan issue should depend on Beijing’s behavior towards Washington, and, finally, the appointment of economics professor Peter Navarro as the Director of the National Trade Council. Navarro is the author of “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon” and is known for his staunch anti-Chinese position.

Apparently, the future Trump administration is going to subject China to what the Reagan Administration subjected the USSR in the 1980s: sharply increase pressure – both rhetoric and real military-political and economic deterrence – in the hope that the Chinese will “break down” and make considerable concessions. Most Republicans remain convinced that ultimately Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign policy concessions and cessation of the Cold War on predominantly US terms were not only and not so much a consequence of internal Soviet problems or Gorbachev’s personal preferences but primarily a result of tough US pressure in the first half of the 1980s when the USSR was proclaimed the “evil empire,” the US launched its Strategic Defense Initiative, deployed medium-range missiles in Europe and stepped up the arms race in general. According to the US, the Soviet Union could not withstand this pressure either economically or mainly morally, and “came tumbling down.”

However, the problem is that the current Chinese leadership exists in a completely different paradigm than the Soviet nomenclature of the 1980s, and faced with tougher US pressure, will go for “perestroika” and “new thinking.” An attempt to take China unawares will not work. Most probably, China’s answer will be reserved but tough, leading to an aggravation of the general confrontation and geopolitical split in the region.

Obviously, the Trump administration will bring more pressure to bear on its allies in Asia Pacific. They will intensify their military-political support but Washington will demand that they spend more on US military facilities in the region and increase their arms spending in general. In exchange Washington is likely to enhance its support for its Asian allies in their territorial disputes with China. US general involvement in the territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas is likely to increase substantially. This policy may well be mutually beneficial for the US and the majority of its Asian allies and could consolidate their bilateral relations that obviously grew weaker by the end of the Obama presidency. Thus the Trump administration’s stance that its allies should increase their domestic defense spending fully coincides with the striving of the current Japanese leaders for more freedom in military policy. This will allow Trump to say that his tough approach is working since Japan will have supposedly built up its military spending at his demand. Consolidation of US military presence and activities also corresponds to the striving of South Korea that has long voiced its discontent with what it considers inadequate US support and even occasionally threatened to acquire nuclear weapons. Once again, this will allow Trump to exploit Seoul’s greater loyalty and willingness to escalate arms spending.

The US will face another major task – to restore its influence on the Philippines, which decreased considerably by the end of the Obama presidency because of its reluctance to sharply aggravate relations with Beijing. If the US fails to “retrieve” Manila under current President Rodrigo Duterte, it will focus on other partners and initiate a tough policy towards the Philippines and its leadership. The US is most likely to upgrade its military aid to Taiwan (Trump’s conversation with its president is a move in this direction). Its aid to Pakistan that has gravitated towards China in the past few years is likely to be reduced. The US will intensify its policy of military-political rapprochement with India.

Trump will fulfil his promise to deter China economically, which promoted his popularity during the election campaign but will move it below military-political deterrence on his list of priorities because of the enormous economic interdependence between the two countries. This interdependence will decrease (and not so much because of Trump’s actions as due to a number of objective global economic and technological trends) in a slow and gradual process. Yet, most likely, the Trump administration will dare announce that China is a currency manipulator and introduce some protectionist measures against it (but certainly not at the 45 percent level as Trump declared). As a result, the scale of US-China trade and economic relations will gradually decline, affecting both US imports and exports. Both sides will start looking for alternative markets and find them mostly in their own regions, thereby strengthening the trend towards regionalization.

The Middle East, especially the countries and territories with the largest concentration of Islamic terrorist organizations, will be the second most important and the most urgent regional issue in the short term. Strategically, Washington would like to distance itself from the region as much as possible (except for support for Israel, which the US will not give up for domestic reasons) because it has to release additional forces to deter China in Asia. US dependence on Mid-East oil is decreasing. The Arab Spring has destroyed the illusions of a fast democratic transformation in the region even in the minds of the most bull-headed ideologists. Moreover, Trump himself and most of his close associates dislike the idea of social engineering and state building.

Nevertheless, current developments in the region are evoking deep concern for the new administration. The president-elect himself and the leaders of his power block – National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Defense Secretary James Mattis – view radical Islamism and Islamic terrorism as the worst current threat to US national security. Indicatively, they perceive as a threat not only the Islamic State (ISIS) but radical Islamism as a whole. This is fairly consonant with the Russian approach.

Importantly, the Trump administration understands that the threat is emanating from radical Islamists rather than the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and that the policy of changing regimes that was pursued in various ways by the administrations of George W. Bush and Obama substantially aggravated this danger. Therefore, the Trump administration will not emphasize democratization or overthrowing objectionable regimes in the region but rather on destroying radical Islamist groups (and not just ISIS) in Syria and Iraq as soon as possible and creating a balance of forces that will minimize their new upsurge in the near term, thereby allowing Washington to deal with more important strategic priorities.

This understanding of the goal will, first, prompt the US to step up its military operations in Iraq and, possibly, Syria with a view to destroying these Islamic groups rather than weakening and overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime. Second, the Russian-US contradictions on Syria will decrease. The two countries will move much closer on the main issues: what forces in the Middle East should be considered terrorist and how to fight them. As distinct from his predecessor, Trump is unlikely to emphasize support for “the moderate opposition.” He is unlikely to delay US disassociation from the radicals or to criticize Russia for fighting “the wrong groups” while cooperating with the al-Assad regime or seek the removal of Bashar al-Assad. Washington’s general attitude to the Syrian regime will become much more neutral and Russia will be given carte blanche to destroy radical Islamists in Syria. All this will allow Russia and the US to develop productive cooperation in fighting radical Islam.

This policy will generate serious changes in Washington’s relations with its regional allies and opponents. It will adopt a more critical approach to Saudi Arabia that is using the Islamists for its own purposes. True, the deterioration of US-Saudi relations over Syria and radical Islam as a whole will be made up by their new rapprochement on the Iranian issue if the Trump administration toughens its policy on Tehran and discards the deal on its nuclear program.

As for Turkey, the Trump administration will try to restore its relations with Ankara and will probably decide to extradite prophet Fethullah Gulen whom the Turkish leadership accuse of the attempted summer coup, all the more so since Ankara is tangibly adjusting its policy in the Middle East and is gradually giving up its support for the Islamist efforts to overthrow the Assad regime. However, a new US-Turkish rapprochement will be complicated by Washington’s attempts to use the Kurds to fight ISIS and the budding Ankara-Tehran rapport.

Washington’s general hostility towards Iran is most likely to grow with full support from the entire Republican establishment and Israel. Although the US and Iran will be on the same side of the barricades in fighting ISIS and other radical Sunni groups, the general confrontation between them will escalate and not only at a rhetorical level. It is important to understand that for the Trump administration the threat from radical Islam emanates not only from Sunni groups but also from Iran that continues its verbal support for the ideas of the Islamic Revolution. Therefore, for members of the Trump administration, such as Michael Flynn, radical Shiism is no less an evil than radical Sunnism whereas Iran-supported organizations like Hezbollah are not much better than ISIS or al-Qaeda. In this context, the US is likely to toughen its rhetoric on Iran and introduce new sanctions against it, and, probably, even throw out the 2015 nuclear program deal.

At the same time Washington will have a more favorable attitude to the consolidation of Russia’s positions in the region and approach it as an opportunity to transfer to Russia part of the burden on fighting radical Islam and maintaining at least relative stability, as well as on preserving and possibly reviving secular authoritarian regimes in the region.

Europe is most likely to be dropped down on the list of Washington’s priorities. It does not see it as a threat to its security and superiority or a potential partner in resolving problems with the Middle East and China. In this regard Trump will follow in the wake of Bush and Obama, both of whom re-oriented their policies to other regions but were diverted by emerging problems and again raised Europe’s importance in US politics. Trump is likely to make a more resolute and consistent turn. Needless to say, NATO will not be disbanded. However, the new administration will be tougher in demanding that Europe increase its defense spending and will not allow itself to be drawn into military ventures like Libya where the US does not have major national interests.

The new administration is most likely to weaken its emphasis on Russia’s military-political deterrence in Europe – both in the Baltic Sea region and Ukraine. It will probably not revise NATO Warsaw summit decisions on deploying allied military infrastructure in Poland and the Baltic countries but is likely to block its further buildup. Trump and his associates understand that these countries cannot be protected and there is no need to assume additional risk and provoke Russia. NATO’s general emphasis on Russia’s military-political deterrence is likely to weaken. Instead, the new administration will insist on expanding the alliance’s cooperation with Russia on fighting terrorism. With time Russia-NATO disagreements are likely to aggravate because of the missile defense issue, but the threat of a Russian-Western clash in Europe will decrease in the short term. Probably, Washington will turn down the anti-Russian sanctions and will not object to similar steps by the EU.

New opportunities will appear for settling the Ukrainian crisis – Ukraine’s priority in general and its preservation as an active element in deterring Russia in particular will decrease because the Trump administration does not see a threat to US national security in Moscow’s attempts to preserve influence on Kiev and prevent the US that backed the coup from turning Ukraine into an anti-Russian bulwark in the US orbit. Naturally, Washington will not give up on Ukraine for nothing. It will engage in tough bargaining with terms that may seem unacceptable to Moscow. Yet, US renunciation of unreserved support for Ukraine, both per se and its anti-Russian conduct, opens opportunities for a settlement.

A more detailed analysis of the prospects of Russian-US relations under the Trump administration will be presented in a Valdai Club report in the near future.

Dmitry Suslov is Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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