Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Trump Presidency, US Foreign Policy and the War against Terrorism

What impact will the Trump presidency have on US foreign policy, particularly the war against terrorism? In many parts of the world, there is deep concern about what type of foreign policy Donald Trump will pursue, both among allies and states opposed to the United State.   

To get a sense of what US foreign policy will look like under Trump, and its possible long-term consequences, I analyze 5 variables: ideology, temperament, military preparedness, isolationism and economic policy/climate change.  Each of these variables provides insights into the type of foreign policy Trump will follow, the extent to which it will be successful, and its long-term consequences.

Ideology may be too sophisticated a term to apply to Donald Trump in light of his superficial grasp of foreign affairs, as he made clear during the recent US presidential campaign.  I use this term to characterize Trump’s world-view which is largely based on binary thinking and the resort to strong measures to address problems which he finds threatening, whether domestically or in the global arena.

By ideology, I include several dimensions.  Let’s begin by examining Trump’s attitudes towards minorities in the United States, whether they are Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims, or disabled people.  If we think of his comments – which are all available on video – Trump has clearly provided a trove of material for terrorist groups to use for propaganda purposes.  Put differently, Trump has already provided anti-American terrorist organizations with a powerful ideological weapon to use for recruitment purposes and to legitimize their message of the threat against Islam posed by the “Crusader West.”

Despite its all too frequent support for dictators in the Middle East and elsewhere, the United States has never elected a president as bellicose and pugnacious as Donald Trump.  The US will certainly lose what moral high ground it had under President Barack Obama and make it much easier for groups like the al-Qacida, the so-called Islamic State, and the repressive regime in Tehran to portray US foreign policy as disingenuous and hypocritical.

Second, it is clear that Trump possesses few ideological positions once he moves away from the business world.  Trump has strong views on trade and the impact of countries like China and Mexico on US trade, but little else.  Trump’s ideology can be characterized as ill-formed and one which views foreign affairs as isomorphic to business contracts.  Everyone and every country has their “bottom line.”  If you can find the ”sweet spot” where you and your competitor can meet after making mutual concessions,  then a “deal” can be made.  For Trump, this is how all problems in the international arena can likewise be solved, by cutting a deal.

The lack of a developed political ideology, particularly one concerned with foreign affairs, suggests that foreign policy will be delegated to as cadre of advisors who, like Dick Cheney et al. under George W. Bush, will decide its final contours.  The argument that Trump does not have the ability to understand the complexities of foreign affairs and will most likely be a “hands off” commander-in-chief is underscored by the 20 words he uses most in his speeches (

If we add Trump’s personal disposition to this equation – an ill-formed ideology, negative characterizations of minority groups, including Muslims, and a lack of interest in foreign affairs - we encounter a toxic mix.  Taking Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as “murders and rapists,” and stereotyping all Muslims as potential terrorists is bad enough.  However, adding these characterizations to his tendency to become agitated and resort to his Twitter account whenever he feels attacked, we can be sure that diplomacy will not be one of his strong suits.  While he later backed off, the President-Elect has already responded negatively to the numerous demonstrations which have occurred since he won the presidency earlier this week. 

Military policy is closely related to the issues of ideology and temperament. Trump’s “tough guy” approach to foreign affairs - a way of avoiding dealing with nuance and complexity - will have a negative impact on US military policy and readiness. 

Trump’s emphasis on rebuilding US armed forces is based on outdated understandings of both the threats which the US faces in the world today and the best means to confront them.  Building more ships, which is one of the few specific policies he outlined during the presidential campaign, will add little strategic value in the struggle against terrorist groups.  Nor will building more sophisticated fighter aircraft, such as stealth bombers, play a central role in that battle either.

What is needed above all is the development of new strategies and military forces to meet the changes on the battlefield, particularly those required to successfully engage in asymmetric warfare.  Will the joints chiefs and respected military planners convince Donald Trump to backtrack from his outdated vision of the US military?  A more likely scenario will be Trump's desire to appear “strong,” before his political base and Republicans in Congress who also share his outdated notions of military preparedness. 

The nature of asymmetric rather than conventional war means the US needs to place greater emphasis on highly mobile military units whose members have not only military but cultural and language proficiency.  The problem with the Trump administration is that it is not likely to emphasize these qualities.  It was the lack of Arabic language speakers, and officers, troops and CPA officials with knowledge of Iraqi society and culture, which led to such a disaster after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Nor does Vice President-elect, Mike Pence, a former talk show host, Congressman and Indiana governor, have much interest in or aptitude for foreign policy.  While the names of Steven Hadley and former Intelligence House Chair Mike Rodgers for Secretary of Defense suggest highly competent nominees, the new secretary will represent the tip of the iceberg.  He will not bring the type of innovative and forward-looking foreign policy analysts to the Pentagon which one would have expected in a Clinton administration.  One of the causalities of the 2016 presidential elections will almost certainly be US foreign policy.

Isolationism will certainly weigh heavily on a Trump administration.  He will find little support among his political base for active US involvement in foreign affairs.  There will be no trade war with China because it would be a costly blunder for the US.  Despite the bluster, there will not be mass deportations of undocumented immigrants.  The US Embassy in Israel may be shifted from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and support for moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Asad regime in Syria will most likely be eliminated.   

NATO will no doubt be left untouched and perhaps even largely neglected. Trump might elicit some modest concessions from Putin for his administration’s lack of engagement with NATO and European affairs.  This will certainly outrage some Neo-Cons such as The Weekly Standard's William Kristol.  However, the US role in the world will almost certainly contract during the Trump years, which is not a good sign for developing effective policies to use in the struggle against terrorism in the MENA region, and in Eastern and sub-Saharan Africa.

The only area where I see Trump deviating from a neo-isolationist strategy will be his ideological support for right wing anti-immigrant governments and movements in Europe, e.g., Le Front National in France and the Alternativ für Deutschland in Germany.  Already United Kingdom Independent Party leader Nigel Farage had paid Trump a post-election visit at Trump Tower in New York.

Another foreign policy area where Trump may intervene is to either amend or cancel the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran.  Certainly, there are many Trump advisers who feel that such a decision was fool hardy.  While the abrogation of the agreement may make Sunni Arab regimes, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, more supportive of the United States, it would most likely lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East with possible devastating consequences.

Trump’s economic policy is closely linked to his views of regulation and climate change.  He rejects government regulations and states that he doesn’t believe in climate change.  The Syrian uprising made clear the extent to which climate change is affecting Middle East politics.  Drought and Turkish dams, which severely cut the flow of water in the Euphrates River, destroyed 175 Syrian villages and set in motion peaceful demonstrations which were brutally suppressed by the Asad regime, leading to the current civil war, with all its massive destruction, deaths and displacement of civilians.

Denying climate change, and thus refusing to see its relationship to political instability, would be an especially damaging policy in the MENA region where water is already a scarce commodity.  With military planners not developing contingencies for conflict caused by global warming, the Trump administration will cause the US to fall behind in coping with the new global challenges of the 21st century.

Donald Trump’s presidency will be one in which foreign policy is not a high priority.  Many important issue areas will either be ignored or given short shrift.  The types of specialists who could bring new and innovative policy perspectives to the State Department and the intelligence community will not be attracted to the Trump administration. 

New perspectives designed to quell conflict and encourage long-term stability by deeper engagement with foes as well as allies will no doubt be replaced by a foreign policy of “benign neglect.” The war against terrorism, which requires a comprehensive and multi-faceted effort to eradicate the causes which attract youth to extremist organizations, will suffer as a result.  Increased global instability will be the result of Trump’s presidency, not because of what he does as president, but what he doesn’t do.