Contours of the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy: General Principles and Functional Priorities


As the US President Elect Donald Trump is busy staffing his administration, he occasionally makes rather unexpected, or even shocking, statements, leaving the traditional American political establishment baffled. Just look at the appointment of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as the next Secretary of State or the claim that the United States can review the One China policy pursued since 1979. These steps, along with certain fundamental factors, give quite a clear idea of the general foreign policy contours of his administration, at least its principles and priorities in the early days of his presidency. This foreign policy may evolve moving forward, reshaped by unforeseeable events or crises, as was the case with the 9/11 attacks under George W. Bush’s administration or the Arab Spring breaking out under Obama.

First and foremost, Trump seems to really want change in the United States’ foreign policy and a break with the tradition of foreign policy continuity which has dominated in the US for the past seventy years. The president-elect avoids appointing to key posts members of the traditional Republican elite and people who have run the nation’s foreign policy over the past quarter-century. All of his appointees are either retired generals or CEOs coming from the real sector of the economy. Hard industries are turning the table on the financial sector and pragmatists are having revenge on the ideologists. It is not yet clear how long this will last.

Most of Trump’s key appointees share his philosophical views on foreign policy matters. It is very important that he picked for his Secretary of State a man who shares to a maximum extent Trump’s ideology-free and business-like approach to international relations as a set of deals, which require taking into account the partner’s interests. The scope of differences on foreign policy issues between Trump and Tillerson will be minimum. Other members of Trump’s team are conservative hawks like the next Defense Secretary James Mattis or National Security Adviser Michael Flynn or realists like his Deputy National Security Advisor Kathleen McFarland. None of them is an ideologist. Each of them treasures narrowly understood interests, not values.

Interestingly, Trump’s team includes almost no people whose mindset was shaped under the fanfare of the United States’ (and the West’s) historic victory, universality of American values and global leadership of the US as the cornerstone of global order and stability. Trump, it seems, does not trust in this generation and believes (not without a reason) that it led America to its current relative weakening. Almost all of Trump’s appointees are sexagenarians at least.

Will Trump be really able to reduce to minimum the role of the establishment and pursue a foreign policy, “free” from its axioms? He hardly will. Domestically, the president-elect’s position is extremely precarious and the hate campaign against him, unparalleled since Watergate, will only become more vitriolic over time, therefore his own policy will most probably be a common denominator between his own vision and the approaches of the GOP establishment.    

Multiple filters will be applied to Trump’s foreign policy. First, there is his own administration. Although most of its members share Trump's ideas, there is no complete accord on all foreign policy issues. So, the next Vise President Michael Pence, Defense Secretry Mattis and National Security Adviser Flynn do not share Trump’s constructive approach to Russia. Second, the government apparatus is by and large dominated by people opposed to Trump and his ideas. Government employees have coalesced into the current consensus over US foreign policy.

The third filter will be the US Congress. It has a major say on foreign policy matters regardless of the administration, from budget approval to ratifying international treaties and adopting foreign policy legislation. Although the G.O.P. currently controls both the Senate and the House of Representatives, dealing with the republicans will not be easy for Trump. They embody the very republican establishment that sought to derail Trump’s candidacy during the primaries, and during the election campaign some went as far as to support Clinton. Significantly, Trump has a tense relationship with Paul Ryan, the current Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, who supports claims that Trump’s electoral victory was a result of Russia’s interference. Lastly, the Democratic Party is likely to strengthen its positions in the 2018 mid-term elections, which will only make Congress even more hostile towards Trump.

Donald Trump is entering his presidency as a weakened political outsider hated by most of his fellow-Americans and a large part of the establishment. He will preside over a country that will be much more divided than it was under Barack Obama. Trump will face democrats who will be much more united and obstructionist than republicans were during Obama’s term in office, including on foreign policy issues. Unlike Obama, Trump will be deprived of support from a substantial number of members from his own party, and from the media. In this situation, the only way for Trump to avoid a paralysis of power or impeachment would be to exercise great caution and strive to better align himself with the establishment.

Lastly, the fact that Trump’s foreign policy statements, both before the election and during the ongoing transition, include both anti-establishment ideas (protectionist foreign economic course, anti-globalism, renouncing the spread of democracy) and ideas that are quite consistent with the traditional republican agenda, also hints at continuity of Trump’s foreign policy as regards the traditional republican approaches. These core republican ideas include a tougher migration policy, bigger defense spending, showing more resolve in the use or threat of force when it is in the country’s vital interests, tougher diplomacy, and unilateralism or even refusing regime change through intervention (republican realists have long been calling for this). The Trump administration will be united on most of these issues and supported by Congress and the republican media. The new administration will probably start by implementing these priorities.

Above all, the Trump administration will adopt a different vision of the national interests by giving up on seeking to strengthen and expand the US-led world order. National interests will be viewed in more classical terms of a nation state. Drawing countries into the American sphere of influence will no longer be a goal in itself. Developments on the international stage will be evaluated through the lens of their significance in terms of security, prestige and economic well-being for the US, not its allies or international institutions that work for American interests or the US-led order. As Donald Trump has already hinted, American greatness will no longer be a matter of preserving and expanding the “liberal hegemony.”

There will also be a clearer hierarchy of national interests, enabling the US administration to understand what should be regarded as vital US interests, and what should not and may be disregarded. Incidentally, this was also what Barack Obama’s administration did in its early days, but the Arab Spring and the overall commitment to the idea of a universal US-led world order eventually took the administration down the liberal interventionist path. The US is now expected to focus on a smaller number of international issues and regions, while its global role will decline at an even faster pace than under Obama. The Trump administration will be tougher compared to Obama, and will stand up for America’s vital and essential interests, while also being more willing to turn a blind eye to whatever is not related to these interests. All in all, maintaining leadership in countries and regions where the US does not have any immediate interests and drawing them into the US-led world order will cease to be a goal in itself.

The US is quite likely to move away from the politics of regime change (especially through direct intervention or by supporting armed opposition), attaching less importance to spreading democracy, especially in regions like the Middle East. After his election, Donald Trump talked about renouncing regime change as one of the key principles of his administration. In doing so he is sure to win the support of both the military hawks, and former business leaders. Retired officers, especially those who have gone through Iraq and Afghanistan, and heads of biggest real sector corporations are far from the messianic ideologies preached by neo-cons and liberal interventionists. Defeating Islamists is much more important than spreading democracy for both Michael Flynn and James Mattis. At least, at its early stages, the new administration will sell minimization of America’s interference in other countries’ foreign affairs as its credo.

The one-sided nature of US foreign policy will become even more pronounced than it was during the Obama presidency, and is likely to be revived as a philosophical underpinning in dealing with various international situations. In this regard, the approach adopted by Trump and other like-minded people is fully in line with the overall common denominator of the republican establishment, including the neo-cons. The interests of allies, considerations for international law and arms control will be less of a concern for the White House compared to Obama’s presidency, while a laissez-faire approach and minimal external restrictions will also become a foreign policy credo for the Trump administration. The formula introduced by George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – “the mission determines the coalition, and the coalition must not determine the mission” – will be relevant once more. Washington will decide on the use of force independently, based on its own interpretation of national interests, not the opinion of allies or considerations of international law. And even though there will be fewer missions to spread democracy or change regimes, it will be hard to stop the Trump administration once it decides that the use of military force is a necessity.

The US will attach less importance to international organizations, while focusing more on bilateral relations and working within flexible interest-based coalitions. This goes for both security and the economy. This trend is not as new as it may seem. However, it will become increasingly pronounced during a Trump presidency.

The incoming administration will adopt a utilitarian and pragmatic approach to dealing with military and political alliances. Allied solidarity will cease to be a goal in itself. Alliances will be viewed as a tool for achieving the national interests of the United States in a narrower, US-centered sense, a way to counter national security threats and maintain the influence of the US in regions that matter. In the event of a contradiction with allies on ensuring national security, the US will simply ignore them.

Of course, the Trump administration will not dismantle the network of unions and alliances it controls. Moreover, Washington will even seek to expand this network in Asia as it steps up its containment policy towards China. Most of the leading figures in the Trump administration, both already appointed and future picks, are strong supporters of NATO and welcomed its expansion to include countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics in the 2000s.

That said, the US is expected to put more pressure on its allies to force them to pay more for their security. In that regard, the republican elite and Trump also share the same views. Back in 2012, the outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that a time may come when Washington will reconsider the value of NATO, if European allies continue to rely on the US umbrella without chipping in for collective defense.

The new administration will also be tougher when responding to attempts by allies to drag the US into situations it may not view as important. The Trump administration will be unwilling to lend a helping hand to its allies for the mere reason of maintaining US global leadership, while risking being dragged into a new war and putting its own security under threat. There is nothing new about this either. In 1992, the George H. W. Bush administration (the first and so far the only realistic US administration since the end of the Cold War) refused categorically to participate in resolving the situation in the Balkans despite desperate attempts by Europe to drag the US into it. As then-Secretary of State James Baker famously said of the Balkan conflict, “We don't have a dog in that fight.”

Finally, the Trump administration will hardly agree to expanding military alliances (primarily NATO) if it undermines US national security instead of strengthening it. There will be no expansion just for the sake of expansion, i.e. making the US-centered world order universal.

The refusal by the Trump administration to create mega-regional trade and economic blocs seems like a done deal. While Barack Obama believed this to be one of his key priorities, the President-elect has already announced that withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed in February 2016, will be one of the first decisions he will take during his first 100 days in office. This dooms not only the TPP, but also the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which is a deal of a similar nature with the European Union. This is what will happen, at least in the short-run.

This approach is fully in line with the one-sided logic of the next US administration's foreign policy approach and its focus on national, narrow and self-centered interests rather than strengthening the liberal order. Washington’s foreign economic approach is likely to become more utilitarian, and somewhat mercantilist, with a focus on bilateral trade and economic deals that will make it easier for Washington to negotiate better terms.

Of course, an all-out revision of trade agreements and outright protectionism are not on the agenda. After all, it is the Republican Party that has always been a champion of free trade as a fundamental feature of the global economy. Most republicans, including the possible leaders of the incoming administration, still share this vision. In this connection, the White House will probably limit its gestures in favor of those unhappy with globalization by withdrawing from the TPP and TTIP, while refraining from leaving NAFTA and many other free trade agreements (for example, with South Korea) that Trump strongly denounced during the election campaign. It is worth noting that the President-elect has not mentioned NAFTA among the measures he intended to take in his first 100 days.

An aversion to arms control, and in general, restrictions in terms of US defense policy, will be an important element of the one-sided foreign policy philosophy of the Trump administration, alongside the commitment to further enhancing the country’s military dominance. The republican administration will support the White House in these efforts. Trump has mentioned on numerous occasions his intention to significantly increase the military budget and to pay more attention to the military threats the US is facing, above all from China and Iran, as well as radical Islamism. The fact that his foreign policy team will be dominated by retired generals only confirms this. Hard power will dominate soft power as a foreign policy tool. Military force will be viewed not as a tool for changing the world to conform to the US ideology, but as a means of destroying concrete military threats, containing rivals and maintaining a military edge over them.

Just like the republican establishment in its entirety, the Trump administration will seek to restore “absolute security” for the US, the idea which may seem obsessive to most foreign, including Russian observers, but is regarded as absolutely normal in the US. For that purpose, apart from increasing military spending and being tougher on Islamic terrorism, the new leaders of the US will probably revive the project to create a full-scale strategic national missile-defense system. This will probably plunge the nuclear and conventional arms control framework, in its current form, inherited from the Cold War, into crisis. It remains to be seen whether it will be replaced by a more modern and adequate system in step with today’s reality.

All in all, upon entering the White House, the Trump administration will conduct a foreign policy of “great power realism” with a focus on relations with great powers and fighting national security threats in their narrow, mostly US-centered interpretation, rejecting interventions for the sake of maintaining a liberal world order, sticking to a one-sided approach, emphasizing military supremacy and demonstrating aversion towards arms control. It can be argued with all due caution that this policy will be reminiscent of the first steps by the George W. Bush administration before the 9/11 attacks (which resulted in a neo-con revolution), with the only difference being that back then the White House did not have any doubts in the omnipotence of the United States, which may not necessarily be the case for the Trump administration. Maybe this time the US will get a chance to put this policy into action.

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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