So today, the impossible happened: Donald Trump has officially been elected president of the United States. The campaign has been much more about the candidates’ style than their actual policies, partly due to Trump being more vague than any presidential candidate that I can remember during my lifetime. Time to make broad assumptions: How will he behave?
Trump, that should be noted beforehand, is probably the least predictable of all candidates being discussed this year. He has never held office. He flirted with Democrats, Republicans and even the Reform Party of the 90s. And during the campaign, he was quite likely to contradict himself, or adjust statements when they hurt his chances with constituents. Due to all this, we don’t know nearly enough about what he will do during his first years in office.
Part of being a hegemonic power is being predictable
This is the first obstacle the US and its allies will face in the near future: Policy decisions are usually done with longterm strategies in mind, and that requires a certain degree of predictability. If you don’t know whether Trump will remain neutral in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, or a close friend of Israels, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders will have a hard time deciding if they want to publicly tie negotiations to the US. Similarly, if you don’t know the extent of a possible American-Russian realignment, then, as an American ally in the region, you would be careful with supporting or opposing the Assad regime, as its alliance with Russia could cause more of a backlash than under Obama. And if Trump will demand more engagement with allies, it is hard to tell who will have to deliver in which field, so investing now in your aircraft could cause additional costs when Trump decides to pull out ground forces and you have to replace those as well.
Perhaps that explains why Middle Eastern leaders were among the first to congratulate, and in some cases, even praise Trump – get him on board quickly and hope that he keeps up what you expect of him. Netanyahu, after all, has aligned himself with the Republican party for a while, so it was not too surprising when Trump, whom he called a true friend, invited him for talks. Still, even if Trump has policy advisors considered far to the right of even the Israeli prime minister, even if he has promised support to Tel Aviv at an unprecedented level, there remain enough reasons to be wary – his underlying antisemitism, for starters, and the possible outcomes of his unpredictable policies (Haaretz even talks about a Trump-Intifada).
How to build trust for negotiations, if you align yourself too much with one side and incite hatred against the other? And how to maintain a strong reputation amongst regional leaders, if you go back on your word at the first chance? Trump has definitely not set himself up for an easy path here.
A little bit easier will be his stance on allied authoritarian leaders in the region; the likes of Sisi and Erdogan are unlikely to hear criticism for undemocratic behaviour from Trump. While this may be good news for them, they, too, should be worried – an escalation in the Palestinian territories or in Syria, especially if mishandled, would likely destabilize them as well. Trump already seems to become a poster boy for anti-Americanism, making it hard for leaders already struggling with unhappy populations to work too closely with Trump. And don’t even start with the Iran-Deal – not doing anything will upset both Trumps domestic allies and the Israeli right-wing, that is betting on him going back on the deal; but simply cancelling the deal would likely isolate America from its European allies, who strongly support the deal. If international deals were only worth their paper after an election, then American leaders will have a hard time in the future to gain concessions.
Pivot to the Heartland?
Obama (and Clinton) quite famously introduced the “pivot to the pacific”, driven by the Obama administration’s belief that the Middle East is getting disproportionate attention from US-leaders. Trumps statement on Japan and Korea being allowed to gain nuclear weapons for deterrence and his more general statements of allies having to contribute more in terms of defense spending will likely upset these developments.
However, why would allies contribute more if they do not know Trumps longterm priorities, or whether he would ditch alliances at the earliest point of convenience? His “America First” approach, as Iain Bremmer calls it, would result in more of a short-term agenda setting for American politics: Why invest in a partner to stabilize them and prevent possible mayhem, when it has no direct value? Why not focus on spending that directly benefits the US?
While isolationism has gained ground ever since Bush’s Iraq-disaster, Trump is unique even among most who advocate less international involvement of the US. It is possible that he would not only refrain from interventions, but cut ties with allies he does not consider relevant enough (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have named as such). This may work in some cases while the US does not need these allies; but when a crisis emerges, those strained relations will inhibit his ability to react. Supporting regimes financially and militarily has been a core mechanism of American involvement until this point; without it, it will be hard to predict what a reaction to international crisis would look like.
Will this change geostrategy? Will it result in increased European, Chinese or Russian influence? Probably not; their capacity has not been limited solely by American opposition, but also by an unwillingness or incapability to get involved globally. With two conflicts in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, Russia seems busy enough, and Chinese influence in regions such as Africa has been gradually increasing, but is mainly economically motivated, similar the European countries that do not act very unified. But if Pacific allies come to the conclusion that they can rely less on the US, then containment of Chinese influence will become as obsolete as American involvement in Syria. And regional actors that act independently of the US are less predictable than ones depending on US resources.