Future US Foreign Policy under Donald Trump

Donald Trump

On this evening the Diplomatic Academy offered the possibility to discover more about a highly current topic in their hallowed halls: What can be expected from the new US President, Donald Trump, and his foreign policy? What traditions will he continue? Where will new approaches be taken? Will he be as chaotic as some of his words would lead us to expect?

In his key note talk, Jan Techau from the Carnegie Institute, introduced the American Academy. It was founded 20 years ago by Richard Holbrooke in Berlin and serves the cultural and scientific exchange between Germany and the USA. It offers American authors and researchers the possibility to spend a semester in Europe.

The Person Trump

According to Techau, domestic policy will be the focus of the new President. This is why he was elected. Many Americans value his business experience. As regards foreign policy, Trump can be formed as can be seen in the diverse changes of opinion (recently as regards Israel’s settlement policy).

Europe made the mistake of showing him the cold shoulder after the election instead of using the initial indecisiveness to speak directly to Trump as Japan’s Prime Minister, Abe did.

The hearing of the long-standing Exxon CEO and designated Foreign Minister, Rex Tillerson, did not run very encouragingly. The new secret services head, Dan Coats, is, on the other hand, known to be quiet and conservative.

It is obvious that Trump is no fan of diplomacy. He prefers to work with Twitter and in this way addresses his fans directly.

The big question which many are asking are whether the USA under the new President is still trustworthy and predictable. To what extent are the security guarantees still valid for Europe and Asia? What position will be taken in free trade? And what will be the international role of the USA in the future?

Trump’s idea of policy-making comes from the business deal, which concerns business and reciprocity. Its basic principle is the conclusion of bilateral constructions. Multilateral agreements, such as TTIP, TPP or the climate agreement are too complex for him. The advantage of this is that, in almost all negotiations, the USA is automatically the stronger partner.

China is the greatest enemy of the American worker (“death by China”). Trump sees the rivalry with China in purely economic terms, not in a geo-political sense. However, his analysis falls too short – the greatest danger is automation and not the cheap Chinese labour.

Trump is stuck in the 20th century with his economic theory.

With its huge purchase of American government bonds, China can be seen rather as a stabiliser.  Because a change in leadership is happening in the middle of 2017, and due to the fact that the country is somewhat weak in economic growth, Peking is reacting extremely nervously to the statements from Washington.

Trump may not have any direct business interests in Russia but not only family ties connect him to the largest country in the world. The USA could, according to Techau, cooperate with Russia against the interests of Europe – Putin would in any case be a suitable partner in the rising conflict with China.

Free trade is a thorn in the flesh of the new President.

TPP has already been suspended – a fact which the Chinese are rejoicing about. The North American trade agreement, NAFTA should also be re-negotiated. The Iran nuclear deal should also be dissolved since, in the eyes of the new administration, it would be bad for the USA and Israel.

Trump wants to stimulate the economy via an investment programme and reduce debts with the added revenue from taxation. Should this programme be successful, the dollar will rise, whereby exports will become more expensive. Techau doubts that this is the correct path to take in order to create workplaces in the USA: the planned tax cuts for wealthy Americans are also regarded critically:

Helene von Damm notes that also Ronald Reagan implemented this plan – less tax leads to more investments and thereby, more workplaces – with the realisation that the expectations were not fulfilled.

Significance for Europe

Until now, Article 5 of the NATO Agreement, the security guarantee for Europe, was considered unconditional. In the course of the Pax Americana, Europe lived from American secure investments. This is likely to change under Donald Trump.

As a result of the USA being the dominant power in western Europe since World War II, all intra-European conflicts have been put on hold since then. With the beginning of the withdrawal of American soldiers after the end of the Cold War, the USA, long before Trump, counted on the fact that Europe had overcome its conflicts. The crisis in 2008 and the resulting nationalisation tendencies in many countries, however, raise doubts as to this.

It also appears that the USA has partially lost its standing in the world: neither Turkey nor Israel follow directives from Washington without reflection. Others could follow.

Because Article 5 can no longer be guaranteed unconditionally, Europe should open up in a geo-political sense and strive for a new order from within or, as the former German Foreign Minister said: Europe has to grow up as regards power politics. China and Russia are naturally extremely interested in an opening up – China is already heavily involved in eastern Europe. The increasing dependence of the eastern Europeans on Chinese money will lead to a further restriction of the negotiating ability of the European Union in the future.

Currently it seems that the costs of retaining stability in Europe are too high for many national politicians. If this stability should break up, it will, according to Techau, be much more expensive for all Europeans. The omnipresent national narrative will hardly solve the anticipated problems.

The lesson for Europe, according to the former ambassador to the US, Lanz, has to be more European integration which does not correspond with the current trend. The majority principle has to be finally introduced in the European Council. On an international level, small countries are dependent on multilateralism – their individual votes do not carry enough weight. Even Great Britain and Germany have no influence over the White House; change will only be effected through unity.

If commitment is shown in resolving global or national conflicts, Washington is prepared to talk. If one flees from responsibility, like Austria on the Golan Heights, the doors shut. The question has to be posed of how valuable such commitment is to us.

The current opinion of the majority of Austrians is that it is time to break free from the USA and to turn to Russia. A reasonable foreign policy debate on this is, however, lacking both in Austria as well as in Europe.
from left to right: Jan Surotchak, Jan Techau, Hanno Settele, Helene von Damm, Hans Peter ManzDamm, Manz

The Pacific instead of Europe

Multilateral diplomacy is not for those with weak nerves, according to Hans Peter Manz. Trump is a unilateralist and not particularly able to reach a consensus. In relation to NATO, there are top militarists in Trump’s team who will not readily allow changes to be made within the organisation.

The main interest of the USA in terms of security and the economy, according to Manz, has moved towards the Pacific where the markets and the challenges of the future can be found. In Europe, most problems have already been solved: the Soviet Union has been defeated economically, many eastern European states have joined the EU. The inner-European problem, which led to two world wars, has also been solved in the opinion of the USA.

Europe missed the foreseeable reorientation and appears to have no energy at the moment to close the emerging security gaps.

Clinton and Obama were already of the opinion that money should be received from the Europeans for their protection, e.g. in 2012 at the Chicago summit.

Manz sees the long term goals of US foreign policy as unchanged: free trade as well as the objective of spreading democracy in the world are still on the long-term agenda.

Jan Surotchak describes the milestones of the last 20 years which have brought America to where it is today: Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation that the end of the story would be reached with the fall of the Soviet Union and the dominance of the USA as the only remaining super power did not come true. The Americans were not prepared for this outcome.

Then 9/11 happened and the resulting wars are, from the perspective of the citizens, a series of defeats: everyone knows someone who was injured or killed in the wars without having reached the objective of defeating terror.

Red lines were also defined which were subsequently not complied with (e.g. the use of chemical weapons in Syria). Because of this, foreign policy is defined as unimportant in the minds of many Americans or there is a desire for at least a change in the strategy. Incidentally, domestic policy has also been at the centre of every American election campaign.

Nobody really knows what Trump intends to do. Which of the long-term trends of American foreign policy, which are named after former presidents, will he turn to? According to Surotchak, that of Jackson: the military has to be strong enough to defeat America’s opponents or at least to extensively intimidate them. One will look in vain for the Hamilton (free trade) or the Wilson (the establishment of peace in the world by an expansion of democracy) approaches from him.

According to Surotchak, the Tweet on Taiwan was definitely planned: regarding the approaching  confrontation with China, the working class in the USA are on Trump’s side. The domestic audience (in this case the working class) is not discerptible from the foreign one. Taiwan’s hopes for a close and clear connection to the USA will, with a high probability, not be fullfilled.

Jan Techau considers the hope that Trump will be stopped by Congress to be illusionary: especially at the beginning, the Republicans will strengthen their candidate. Foreign policy is admittedly significantly decided also by Congress but it is and will remain the domain of the White House.

It remains to be seen how the relationship to Russia will develop. Techau assumes that Putin will execute some form of test (escalation in the Ukraine or similar) in order to test the boundaries of the negotiating possibilities. Putin will in no way rely on blackmail – if such material even exists – for this he thinks too strategically.

The former ambassador, Manz, expects that there will be no great changes in the relationship to Russia: Obama/Clinton already  brought the Russians on board in Iran and partially in Syria, despite sanctions. Trump uses the carrot and stick method. Manz regards the advances to Russia as a plan to win the country as a partner against China.

A final question concerned Melania Trump: Jan Surotchak still has no opinion about her. Until now, however, no First Lady was ready for her role. He recommends that more attention be paid to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband. Here he sees great potential.

In summary, nothing much more than speculation can be said about the future direction of American foreign policy. Certainty about the programme will only be gained when the, at times highly divergent, words are transformed into deeds.


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Panel Panel Christian Janisch CC BY-SA 4.0
Donald Trump Donald Trump Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0