What will American foreign policy will look like in a Donald Trump administration? There is anxiety in the U.S. and abroad because Mr. Trump did not lay out a comprehensive vision during the campaign. Instead, he gave us unconnected pieces of his mind on subjects ranging from ISIS, Putin and trade agreements to our obligations to our allies. And some of those pieces of mind threatened to unravel years of established thinking and institution-building.
So everyone is wondering, and for good reason: How will the Trump administration approach the modern world, with its many complex and interconnected challenges? Will a President Trump respect longstanding alliances and structures? Will he act rashly? Will he be prone to isolation, confrontation or cooperation? Allies will look for reassurance, and adversaries can be expected to probe for the limits of cooperation and confrontation.
American foreign policy may change from one administration to another, but our interests remain the same, and that keeps shifts in foreign policy within a narrow band—more emphasis on military strength in one administration or morality in another, for example, but no seismic shifts. And that won’t change. We still have an interest in working with other nations to combat radical Islamic terrorism. We still have an interest in the security of Europe. And we still have an interest in building and maintaining a robust global economy. Those interests and others will drive policies and test assumptions and pieces of anyone’s mind. Trump has said he thinks our allies should share more of the burden of our mutual defense, but he hasn’t questioned the alliances or the reasons for them.
That means we will still work with Japan and South Korea—and China—to contain North Korean threats. It means we will keep our commitment to Europe, including the Baltic States and the nations that once formed the Warsaw Pact. Trump will want to try to develop a more cooperative relationship with Russia, as the Obama administration did, but that effort will have to confront Putin’s desire to reclaim Russian greatness, which he does not believe he can do as a junior partner to the U.S. What we can’t know is how far Putin will go in testing Trump.
In Syria, Trump has said that he wants to defeat ISIS first, then worry about the Assad regime—basically, kill the wolf that’s on the sled first. That fits nicely with Russian policy, except that the Russians don’t seem to be interested in removing Assad. It sheds light on the complicated nature of these relationships: We may conflict with Russia or China in some areas, but we need their cooperation in others. The Middle East is a tangle of conflicting interests involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Iraq and others, and there are no easy answers.
So the new president will put his instincts to the test with his foreign-policy team, as other presidents have, and the names mentioned so far include people who understand these complexities and the institutions, alliances and priorities that help us navigate them. I don’t expect Donald Trump to say “never mind” about anything, but we should expect him to temper, alter or even reverse some of the positions he has taken even while he goes full-steam ahead with others. The facts on the ground, the actions of our adversaries, and the enduring nature of our national interests will require the conviction to be reinforced by an open mind and pragmatism.
Rhetorical bombs and harsh generalities spoken in the heat of a campaign are one thing, but there are nearly 200 national governments in the world, each taking actions in their own interests, and dangerous non-state actors like ISIS and other terror groups. From now on, every word out of Trump’s mouth, and even what he doesn’t say at times, will matter—to friends, to adversaries, and to global markets. And we can expect them to act accordingly, for better or for worse.
Gregory Lagana is an Executive Vice President at Qorvis MSLGROUP based in Washington, DC.