Reasons for Optimism: Initial Thoughts on a Trump Administration
Much of the coverage of Donald Trump’s foreign policy views have focused on areas of concern. Here are some reasons for optimism:
The incoming Trump Administration faces complex issues related to security and basic international norms in Europe, Asia and the Pacific, and the Middle East, among other major challenges. Russia must be a top priority—the Trump team contains people who have a solid understanding of Russia and will not roll over for Vladimir Putin, contrary to impressions gained during the campaign. They will seek an understanding with Putin, while also ensuring he understands that red lines mean something. They will seek to establish a working relationship with the Kremlin that is based on national interests and realism. Putin will respond positively. After the initial honeymoon, how the relationship shakes out long term will depend on numerous factors that are difficult to predict. Vladimir Putin, however, will do everything he can in order to make the relationship work. That will provide Washington with some leverage—it had none under Obama, whom Putin viewed as a feckless and undependable partner—that the Trump Administration can use to bolster European security and advance other key American interests.
China is largely cheering the Trump victory. Despite the rising tensions in the South China Sea, there are numerous areas of potential cooperation and overlapping national interests between the US and China. Beijing will likely give the Trump team a period of calm in order to see what initiatives he will propose and how he will approach the relationship now that the campaign rhetoric is over. China has a pattern of challenging new US presidents shortly after their inauguration. Beijing is likely to be more cautious with this one, however. This is particularly the case because aside from campaign references to currency manipulation and trade concerns, Trump has said virtually nothing about the South China Sea, North Korea, the overall balance in the Asia-Pacific, etc, and Beijing is in a “wait and see” mode and won’t want to alienate the new president right out of the blocks.
Contrary to popular perceptions, Trump realizes the importance of our Asian partners. Both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park were two of the first foreign leaders with whom Trump spoke after his election. South Korean diplomats have confided to me that their government was very encouraged by the conversation and that some of their concerns were assuaged. Similarly, Trump is scheduled to meet Thursday with Abe, another sign of the importance Trump recognizes Japan to hold as the most important American partner in Asia—and of the importance Japan places on the relationship. Contrary to concerns expressed in some quarters, Trump is not going to cut a deal with China dividing the Asia-Pacific into spheres of influence, or pull out of Asia and cede it to China.
With regards to India, another key American strategic partner in Asia, Trump has stated a desire for very close relations. His focus on defeating radical Islam and concern about extremist elements in Pakistan are likely to cause him to be sympathetic to India’s views on that score, as well.
In relation to radical Islam, the incoming Administration will make a priority of identifying where groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and whom the United Arab Emirates, itself a funder of Islamist groups, labeled a terrorist organization in 2014), have influenced our governmental institutions under the Obama Administration. The Trump team believes that this penetration has dramatically weakened our government’s ability to protect against terrorist threats and, relatedly, that a misguided sense of political correctness has hamstrung counter-terror efforts. Look for quick action in this area.
Trump has also pledged to rebuild the US military, which is vital to the credibility of US security commitments. The pledge to do so is not the sign of an isolationist. It is a good sign for those concerned about the US ability to defend its interests and the international order against the increasingly vigorous challenges both have faced under eight years of an Obama Administration that has pursued American retrenchment.
Lastly, Trump and his team have indicated that they believe returning growth and dynamism to the US economy is a top priority. Several of Ronald Reagan’s top economic advisors have been advising the Trump campaign. Given that economic strength underpins the US global position, to the extent that the incoming Trump Administration succeeds in spurring economic growth American influence and ability to shape strategic outcomes will be reinforced.
Paul Coyer is a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies and a research professor at the Institute of World Politics. He is a regular contributor on foreign policy for Forbes. After earning his MA in theology from Yale Divinity School, he studied at the London School of Economics & Political Science, where he completed an MA in the international history of East Asia and a PhD, which focused on the role played by Congress and US domestic politics in shaping the opening to China under President Nixon and its development under Presidents Ford and Carter.
Photo Credit: Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Fountain Hills, Arizona. By Gage Skidmore, via Flickr.