Exclusive - After Midterm Elections: 6 Areas of Foreign Policy for Trump

Exclusive - After Midterm Elections: 6 Areas of Foreign Policy for Trump

Thursday, 8 November, 2018 - 08:45
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, in Washington. AP
London - Amir Taheri
With the US midterm election now over, one question is: What will the effect be on President Donald Trump’s foreign policy?

One answer given by analysts is that with Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, Trump may soon find himself entangled in a procedural guerrilla war that would leave little time and energy for the pursuit of a grand foreign policy strategy.

The Democrats, as indicated by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, their leader in the House of Representatives, will not try to launch an impeachment procedure against Trump so ardently desired by their most radical support base. They know that there is little chance of such a move destroying the incumbent if only because Republicans control the Senate where the final decision on the issue rests.

However, the House can still be used as an instrument for harassing the president by issuing subpoenas on a range of issues from the president’s tax returns and business interests to charges of conflict of interest about his family members and close aides.

Nevertheless, while such shenanigans could be a time-consuming diversion, they may also encourage the president to focus more on foreign policy where he can operate with a free hand while accusing his Democrat detractors of parochialism if not of harming national interest. If that happens, Trump would not be the first president to devote more time and energy to foreign policy in his second term, provided he is re-elected in 2020.

In a sense, Trump’s second term may have already started with the president in campaign mode. Even Trump’s harshest critics admit that he is an effective campaigner; where he campaigned the Republicans won and where he stayed away they lost.

The best bet at this time is that foreign policy will move higher up on Trump’s agenda as he prepares for the 2020 presidential campaign.

The first session of the new Congress will have to consider a new Trump nominee for the post of Permanent Representative at the United Nations, becoming vacant with Nikki Haley’s announced departure. Trump may also have to name a new Defense Secretary if, as some observers expect, General James Mattis steps aside.

With Republicans in a firmer control of the Senate, both new nominees are likely to sail through without much difficulty.

Over the past two years Trump has been active in six areas of foreign policy with varying degrees of success. In the next two years, he is likely to try and build on his successes while intensifying efforts in areas where he has hit hurdles on the road.

The first area of interest has been a redefinition of the United States' role within a complex network of international institutions including the United Nations and its many agencies.

So far, all that Trump has offered in that regard is a change of attitude not a fully shaped alternative to America's traditional role. He has publicly criticized the “international system” and reduced American financial contribution to some projects, notably UNWRA. Last year, he also withdrew the US from UNESCO, an organization heavily dependent on American financial contribution. In the next two years, he may move into higher gear by developing a comprehensive strategy for re-thinking the “international system.” His National Security Advisor John Bolton, a former US Ambassador to UN, is full of interesting ideas in that domain.

The second area of Trump’s interest concerns a radical review of ties with traditional allies especially within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Having started with a possibly rash claim that NATO has become “irrelevant’, Trump is now pursuing “fair burden-sharing” as his objective.

The crux of the burden sharing scheme is his demand that all NATO members should fulfill their collective decision to devote at least two percent of their Gross Domestic Product (DGP) to defense. When Trump entered the White House, only two NATO members, the United Kingdom and Greece, were doing so along with the US.

Since then, four other members have made the required move. In the next two years, Trump will aim at cajoling and/or pressuring the remaining 22 members to do the same.

At the same time, Trump has partially revived plans, shelved under President Barack Obama, for expanding NATO’s network of contacts through such schemes as the “Arab NATO” and tighter military cooperation with a number of African and Asian nations.

The third area of interest is a re-visiting of trade agreements that have vastly contributed to the emergence and consolidation of the so-called “global economic system”.

Trump believes that those agreements have pushed the pendulum too far away from national interests and that a readjustment is needed. He has already worked out the outlines of a reformed version of the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) treaty and the trade deals with South Korea and the European Union. A revised trade deal with China is also being negotiated. A batch of all such new agreements will have little difficulty passing through the new Senate as even Democrats would not wish to appear to be jeopardizing American interests in favor of foreign trading partners.

Linked to that issue is Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Change Treaty which now has almost no chance of being submitted to the Senate let alone be ratified. However, having dramatically rejected such grand international schemes, Trump would have to offer an alternative method of cooperation by nations on such issues as climate control.

The fourth area of interest is the Middle East, currently the most unstable and potentially troublesome part of the world. So far Trump has kept the US involved with a minimum investment of diplomatic energy and military presence. He has not withdrawn from either Afghanistan or Iraq and has built a base in Syria in alliance with a panoply of local forces.

That presence gives the US a say in shaping Syria’s future while letting Russia bleed by the cost of keeping Bashar al-Assad in power in parts of the war-torn country.

At the same time, the US has engaged in direct or indirect contacts with a variety of active or potential hostile forces ranging from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Shiite militias in Iraq. At the other end of the spectrum, the Trump administration has restored and strengthened ties with traditional US allies that were weakened or not fully tended to under Obama. The latest “initiative” launched by the US on Yemen also signals a desire for a more active role by Washington in conflict-ridden Middle East.

Trump has also made some mood music on his so-called “Deal of the Century” designed to solve the perennial “Palestine issue.” In the next two years, he may yet offer something more tangible than mood music.

All that, however, does not amount to a coherent strategy which Trump would need to think of developing in the next two years.

The fifth area of interest concerns Iran which is seen in Washington as the region’s troublemaker in chief. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that Trump’s aim, as reflected in the re-activation of a set of sanctions suspended by Obama, is to “prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal”. That aim is not hard to achieve during the Trump term even if he is re-elected. Iran already has the technical know-how for such a move but lacks the financial resources and military-diplomatic contexts for doing so at least in the near future.

Some observers believe the Trump administration’s secret agenda is focused on regime change in Iran. That is hard to determine. However, the present Tehran regime is potentially vulnerable thanks to its own errors and corruption that have led to a massive loss of popular support inside Iran.

The sixth area of foreign policy interest for Trump concerns relations with virtually every country in the world. The US remains by far the largest donor of international aid and is a guarantor of security and/or mediator for peace in three dozen countries. And, yet, it is often vilified if not subjected to hostile action by many of those who benefit from its material and political support. A case by case review of ties with many nations may be on the cards.

What some commentators are already calling the Trump Doctrine, that is to say formulating policies based on enlightened national interest, may reflect an international trend, the most recent example of which is the surprise election of President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

The latest midterm election in the US confirms the abiding appeal of that doctrine which, nevertheless, faces crucial tests in the next two years.

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