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Foreign policy: can Donald Trump rise to the occasion?


Foreign policy: can Donald Trump rise to the occasion?

trumpVery few of us thought this day would come. On November 8, Donald J. Trump won the US election and will take office on January 20 2017. This article will focus on what we know at this stage about his proposed foreign policy, and its implications for the global order.

I say ‘proposed’ because unlike most candidates, President-elect Trump has not released the usual white papers stating his foreign policy objectives and plans of action. Therefore, what we know is made up of various, often contradictory, statements he has made on the campaign trail. Trump’s very limited experience and understanding of the nuances of foreign policy could be a serious liability for the United States. Yet there is always the possibility that he could defy the odds and surprise everyone with a fresh perspective.

Before we analyse his proposals, it is essential to summarize his world view. Trump has a tendency towards American isolationism. He has expressed interest in wanting to withdraw from long-term organizations in which the US has played a vital role, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

He wants to back out of or renegotiate international treaties such as the Paris Agreement (on climate), the Iran Nuclear and trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

This isolationism finds no greater symbolism than his proposal to build a wall along its southern border. His proposed foreign policy, therefore can be viewed as a major change in direction from President Obama’s policy of multilateral engagement and American leadership.

The climate Trump would work in is also different from what President Obama had to contend with during much of his presidency. Obama often had to resort to using executive orders to push his foreign policy agenda against the challenge of a Republican majority in the house and the senate. Obama built his legacy on executive orders in hope that a possible Hillary Clinton presidency would build on it. However, it is as easy for Donald Trump to now rescind all of them. But Trump will not have an easy time.

While President Trump will operate with Republicans who still control both the House and the Senate, he will be severely constrained in using executive orders against his own party. If he did, many of his Republican rivals and colleagues might feel free to delay or block his domestic legislative agenda.

This will be in addition to a fired-up Democrat party whose purpose will be to obstruct as much as the Republicans did to President Obama.

Most importantly, Trump must win over the security community in Washington – a group which is fearful about his presidency.

In short, President- Elect Trump will face significantly more constraints as president than he may have expected on the campaign trail.


On the campaign trail, Trump said that he would formally label China as a “currency manipulator”; address U.S. intellectual property theft and increase military presence in the Asia-Pacific. This would be a renewed understanding of the threat that a rising China poses to the region and global affairs – following the Obama administration’s ‘Rebalancing towards Asia’.

However, with China’s slowing growth rates, an ageing infrastructure and growth in population, and its recent acquiescence to international treaties like the Paris Agreement, China may not be the threat that America thinks it to be. Additionally, with the Philippines moving closer to China and Trump challenging long-term alliances with South Korea and Japan, one would have to seriously question how these would play out in terms of impending conflict in the region.


Under President Obama, US- Russia relations were strained. The perceived closeness between Trump and Russian President Putin could usher in a new chapter in the history of the two powers. However, Trump’s statements on the effectiveness of NATO may see reduced US commitment to the organization which will no doubt create a sense of insecurity among European members who fear Russian aggression. Trump has also supported increased Russian efforts in Syria to combat the so-called Islamic State (IS), even calling Russian airstrikes a “positive thing”.

In both these examples and others Trump demonstrates isolationist tendencies that existed in the US pre- World War – II and the establishment of the Brenton Woods system. He prefers to resort to trade restrictions in dealing with most countries. He has suggested this to deal with China, North Korea and Cuba among others. He prefers little military involvement and would prefer to withdraw from “entangling alliances” that could draw the US into war again. In short, he prefers to keep American involvement in global conflicts to a minimum.

In every beginner course on US Foreign Policy, there will be a discussion on America’s place in the world. Even though we are not aware of his specific policy proposals, we are clear on Trump’s perspective on this question.

American leadership has helped build the foundations of the international system and still plays an important role in maintaining the system. An American retreat may see the unhinging of the system itself which could reawaken numerous state and non-state actors in the system. In short, it would be wise for President Trump to carefully deliberate on a strategic vision for the United States asking three questions – Where are we now? Where do we want to go? And, how do we get there with the least amount of friction to ourselves and the international system?

Campaigning is one thing. The US and the world will be placing expectations on the President-elect which it is to be hoped he embraces as he leads his country in the pivotal role it plays in world affairs for the next few years.

M. Sudhir Selvaraj

M. Sudhir Selvaraj writes the Weekly Security Brief for GCN. He is a fellow with the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. His interests lie in security of religious minorities, secularism, U.S. foreign policy and politics of South Asia. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at King’s College London. He has a master’s (with distinction) in International Relations from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and graduated cum laude (with honors) from Concordia College, Minnesota with majors in Political Science and Global Studies and a minor in Business.

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