By Gaurab Shumsher Thapa, Kathmamdu
25 January 2017
Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States on 20 January 2017. Two years ago, when he filed his candidacy, no one imagined that the real estate tycoon without any political experience stood a chance to win even the Republican Party’s Presidential nomination, let alone the most powerful presidency on earth.
Although very divisive, the ultra-nationalist, populist, protectionist and anti-establishment agendas he espoused and peddled during the election campaign resonated with a large number of American voters. Only few believed that he would beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Trump, however, secured a victory defying all odds. His victory will certainly go down in history as one of the most surprising and shocking events of the 21st century. Clinton’s defeat to Trump can be categorized more shocking than Thomas Dewey losing out to Harry Truman in 1948. Despite being seemingly so unpopular, radical and divisive and someone who lagged by a huge margin in all the opinion polls, he still came out on top.
From Monroe Doctrine to “America First” Policy
Until the First World War, America’s foreign policy was guided by the Monroe Doctrine of non-interference in the internal matters of other states. The involvement of US in the First World War led to the abandonment of that isolationist Doctrine. In the aftermath of War, President Woodrow Wilson envisaged the formation of the League of Nations for collective global security. Being an idealist and a strong advocate of liberalism, Wilson shaped US foreign policy into a totally new dimension. Although the League of Nations was a failure, Wilson’s vision was carried forward by President Harry Truman in the form of Truman Doctrine leading to the formation of NATO which has been a backbone for security cooperation between US and its allies in Europe till now.
The Trump era could mark a major shift in U.S. foreign policy. This is indicated by his “America First” policy which was clearly spelt out during his campaign speech as well as inaugural address. Trump has declared that US will meddle less in global affairs which is in stark contrast to the foreign policy it has espoused since the end of the Second World War. He has questioned the relevance of the NATO coalition and hinted at unilateralism. He has also vowed to reverse trade imbalance by increasing exports and creating millions of new jobs are going to be his priorities. His call to build a wall along its border with Mexico has already riled Mexico.
Taming the Dragon
Trump has already singled out China as America’s biggest rival. He has constantly accused China of stealing away American jobs and of deliberately devaluing its currency. Due to cheap production cost and low value of its currency, Chinese exports have flooded the US market as they have done the world over, thereby greatly increasing the trade deficit for the US. While Chinese President Xi Jinping has been talking of international economic cooperation in line with the trend of globalization, Trump is pitching for a protectionist policy. These divergent policies could potentially spark a trade war between the US and China. China, however, holds trillions of US treasury bills providing it a lot of leverage which will be difficult for Trump to ignore.
One of the major foreign policy decisions that Trump has taken is to opt out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). As a result, China would naturally want to fill the void being the second largest economy in the world. Japan and Australia have also shown interest in taking the lead. Although Trump backed out of the TPP thinking it would be beneficial for the US, it could very well backfire because it would provide China with a huge platform to expand its global economic influence.
Trump had already angered China even before taking the oath of office by ringing Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. His brazen overture flouted the “One China” policy that the US adopts even though it maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan. Trump’s “America First” policy, which is demanding its long-time allies like South Korea and Japan to pay for the expenses involving the protection provided by US forces must have, however, provided some solace to China because it is likely sour relations with both countries.
Also, in light of Trump’s more isolationist policy, China could be encouraged to flex its muscles in a much stronger manner in the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea.
A Divided Europe
The prospects of Trump having a bumpy relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel are high. Merkel’s liberal and immigration friendly policies have not gone down well with Trump. Although it is unlikely that Germany would go for a trade war with the US considering it exports more to US than it imports from the US, it is, however, staying open to the option of leaning towards China should Trump implement his protectionist agendas.
It is a known fact that Trump is no admirer of the EU. He has vowed to negotiate trade agreements with EU to protect American interests. The US and UK share a historical relationship. Considering their all-weather relationship, British PM Theresa May is likely to be Trump’s first foreign guest. Trump has welcomed Brexit and offered to enter into bilateral trade agreement with Britain. At the same time, May would be eager to get out of the EU as soon as possible and tilt towards the US for a better trade deal.
Friends or Foes?
The end of the Second World War saw the world gradually move towards a bipolar world led by the capitalist US and the communist USSR. As the Cold War commenced, countries congregated and formed NATO and Warsaw Pact under the leadership of the US and USSR respectively. This led to a clear division into two blocs and triggered a nuclear arms race. Although the US and USSR never fought direct wars, a lot of proxy wars in different parts of the world were fought throughout the Cold War. Even after the Reagan-Gorbachev camaraderie ended the Cold War in 1990, it did not end the perception that the US and Russia were still the biggest rivals in the global politics each intending to maximize its own sphere of influence. Although Russia was turbulent and weak during the Boris Yeltsin years, the emergence of Vladimir Putin at the beginning of the new millennium changed the fate of Russia as it regained its prominent position in the international arena.
Due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the US-Russia relations have hit the lowest ebb since the Cold War. In response, Obama imposed a host of sanctions which only strained relations between Putin and Obama. By contrast, Trump and Putin appear to share a nice rapport. They both have praised each other. It has been reported that Russia hacked the US computer servers to influence the outcome of the US Presidential elections in favour of Trump. Russia is irked by the role of EU and NATO in limiting its influence in Europe and since Trump also does not have high regard for EU and NATO, it may happen that Trump and Putin could have a similar world-view. Putin must have calculated that as Sino-US relations are going to be frosty during the Trump administration, thus siding with US rather than China will be in his best interests to counter the EU and NATO and maintain the balance of power. Trump is a businessman and Putin has also got his own vast business interests. The appointment of Rex Tillerson, who is well-known to Putin, as the US Secretary of State speaks volumes of this nexus.
Looking from another perspective, it is hard to believe that former foes can remain friends for a long time. The US and Russia are used to establishing their own spheres of influence and not remain friends but if they can hold together, it will certainly create a new world order.
Complexity in the Middle East
The scourge of war and terrorism in the Middle East continues unabated. The situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is still volatile with a lot of ungoverned territories in both countries. The Syrian conflict has led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and resulted in unspeakable devastation. The rise of ISIS has posed the toughest challenge in the fight against terrorism. Trump has vowed to fight the radicals and terrorists till they are eradicated from the earth. However, it is in contradiction to his “America First” policy which espouses that it is not the responsibility of the US to protect the world by spending the US taxpayers’ money. Without forming military alliances and funding the respective governments, the fight against terrorism cannot generate desired results. Therefore, it is still unclear how Trump plans to tackle terrorism by reversing the current modus operandi.
The situation in the Middle East is complex due to the never-ending rivalry between the Shias led by Iran and the Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia. They are fighting proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. To the great consternation of Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration had struck a nuclear deal with Iran. The durability of the deal under the Trump administration is uncertain given that Trump may not want to jeopardize relations with its oil-rich ally Saudi Arabia.
The relationship between long-time allies US and Israel suffered heavily during Obama’s last months of presidency. Israel was greatly irked after US abstained and allowed for a UN Security Council resolution to condemn the Israeli settlement plan in the occupied West Bank. Trump appears to want better ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the role of Israel will be pivotal in the balance of power in the Middle East. Additionally, Trump has indicated his desire to be the man to bring peace in the Middle East. He even mentioned that he would be using his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is an orthodox Jew, in mending ties with Israel and ushering peace in the region.
As Trump begins his term as the oldest first-time-elected President in US history, a lot of uncertainty looms large in the US domestic and international politics. Although the US President cannot act unilaterally due to the checks and balances from the Congress and Senate, it is the President who dictates foreign policy.While he has vowed to adopt an “America First” policy through which he aspires to “Make America Great Again,” the world is slowly coming to grips with a new world order that is in the offing.
Thapa is pursuing his master’s in International Relations at Tribhuvan University.