News US Election 2016

Saturday 16 December 2017

Domestic frustration could make Trump take it out on the world

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was among the world leaders to welcome the election of Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was among the world leaders to welcome the election of Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

As the dust begins to settle on the fact Donald Trump will replace Barack Obama in the White House early next year, thoughts have turned to the question of what the world might look like with Mr Trump as US president.

So outrageous were Mr Trump's various campaign pronouncements - from his cosying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to his condoning of torture and his ill-informed bombast about Isil, not to mention his anti-Muslim sentiment - few could decipher much that resembled a coherent foreign policy.

Dubliner Thomas Wright, a specialist of US foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, has parsed Mr Trump's statements on international affairs during his presidential campaign and compared them with his past views to try to build a clearer picture of how the incoming US president sees the world. His conclusions are alarming. As Wright tweeted the week before Americans went to the polls, "Pretty clear this is the most important election anywhere in the world since the two German elections of 1932 . . . No other election has had the capacity to completely overturn the international order - the global economy, geopolitics, etc."

According to Wright, Mr Trump's approach is so heavily isolationist that it is unprecedented for an American president since World War II, and in fact threatens to upend the global order that followed and of which the US was a key architect. He breaks Mr Trump's isolationism down into three elements: scepticism of or opposition to US alliances; opposition to free trade; and a penchant for authoritarianism (as seen in his admiration for Mr Putin among others).

"What's unique about this election is that Mr Trump has a very, very different notion of American foreign policy and [the US's] global role, and would dramatically change US foreign policy if he was elected," Mr Wright told 'The Atlantic' magazine just before the election. "Since the world is essentially organised around American power and American intentions, that would have an enormously disruptive effect."

Wright notes that Mr Trump has argued that Nato's original mission is obsolete and that he believes the US should no longer be involved. If Mr Trump decided to leave Nato, this would essentially mean the end of the alliance, leaving the European states on Russia's hinterland feeling even more vulnerable than they do already, particularly given Moscow's recent posturing. Mr Wright also notes that Mr Trump has a record of opposing deals on free trade.

On the president-elect's fondness for authoritarianism, Mr Wright recalls how he considered former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev weak, praised the Chinese authorities' brutal snuffing out of the Tiananmen Square protests, and spoke positively about figures like Kim Jong Un and Saddam Hussein. Mr Wright argues that Mr Trump's position on Mr Putin's Russia - which has caused deep unease in foreign policy circles - speaks volumes. Russian officials this week confirmed they had contacts with mr Trump's team during his campaign for the White House.

"That willingness to keep talking about [Russia uncritically] even though he's paying something of a political cost for doing so shows that this is a real belief," Mr Wright told 'The Atlantic'. "He seems to think he's a strong man [and] he wants to deal with other strong men- to essentially cut deals and run the world...He prefers that to the messiness of an international order, or democracies."

It is little surprise then that the first world leader to contact Mr Trump to offer congratulations was Egyptian president and former army officer Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power after a military coup ousted the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Next door in Libya, the allies of Khalifa Hiftar, a former Gaddafi-era general with Sisi pretensions who receives military support from Cairo despite a UN arms embargo, have also welcomed Mr Trump's victory. Mr Hiftar has been courting Moscow in recent months, hoping for military assistance from Mr Putin.

Wright also makes the point that the much-vaunted "checks and balances" in the US system of governance - which some have clung to in the belief they will help curb Mr Trump's excesses - mostly apply to domestic policy. "In general the president has much freer scope of action on foreign policy," he said. "[Mr Trump] may become frustrated with domestic policy and may focus on foreign policy, because it's something he actually does care about and also he has more freedom of manoeuvre."

The question of how much of Mr Trump's campaign remarks on foreign policy issues were bluster and how much they indicate how he might engage with the world as president remains unanswered for now. But already there is much to suggest his way of doing things will be very different to what has gone before. And not in a good way.

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