Experts point to uncertainty and inconsistencies in Donald Trump's stated foreign policy plans
NEW YORK, United States – In many ways, US President-elect Donald Trump is an open book.
His torrent of missives to his 18.7 million Twitter followers covers everything from crushing terrorists to a scandal over Kremlin-backed hackers helping him score a shock election win in November.
Yet despite these 140-character nuggets – together with press releases, interviews and inferences from the characters he has chosen to help run the White House – analysts are scratching their heads over Trump’s plans for overseas.
He talks of putting “America First” by scrapping free trade deals that have shuttered US factories, getting out of Middle Eastern quagmires, letting Russia and China play bigger roles in their backyards and making allies foot the bill for US military muscle.
To fans, it sounds like common sense. For Washington’s foreign policy veterans – including members of Trump’s own Republican Party – the celebrity tycoon represents a worrying departure from decades of cross-party continuity.
"Like it or not, Trump’s instincts will guide Trump’s decisions."
-Andrew Bacevich, history scholar
“This is the most uncertain transition since World War II,” said Michael Mandelbaum, an academic and author of Mission Failure, one of several experts contacted by Middle East Eye who viewed Trump’s foreign policy plans with concern.
“Trump says he likes to be unpredictable. He has certainly achieved that with his foreign policy, because it’s impossible to say, based on his campaign proclamations and his nominees for senior foreign policy jobs, just what he’s going to do.”
The bits we can guess at are worrying, added Mandelbaum.
US-led free trade is the “linchpin of an open, global economy,” he said, adding that US alliances are the “anchor of the global security order”.
Enacting Trump’s campaign-trail rhetoric would be a risky and “radical break from the American foreign policy of the last 75 years,” Mandelbaum said.
The chosen secretary of state, Exxon Mobil boss Rex Tillerson, shares Trump’s desire to play nice with Russia, but is also a committed free trader. So is Steven Mnuchin, the former hedge fund manager and Hollywood financier who is set to be treasury secretary.
Defence secretary nominee James Mattis has spent his career fostering ties with US allies in NATO, the Middle East and beyond. Like other military men assisting the 45th president, he will be loath to jeopardise the US-led global security architecture.
Trump makes his views plain, but not all his ducks are lined up in a row and his re-routing of US foreign policy will draw “fierce push-back” from many Republican standard bearers in Congress, added Mandelbaum.
This has started even before Trump gets his keys to the Oval Office. On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is chaired by Republican Senator John McCain, heard evidence that Russia staged cyber attacks on Democrats in the 2016 election campaign.
The president-elect has been persistently sceptical about Russian chicanery and vowed to repair US-Russia relations. Lawmakers from both parties, however, are wary of Moscow and distrust Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Their caution is warranted, Jonathan Cristol, a fellow at the World Policy Institute, a think-tank, told MEE.
“Trump’s guiding principles are putting the homeland first and protectionism. But he lacks the capacity to see that foreign and domestic policy are linked, and that pursuing his stated goals overseas will make us less safe at home,” Cristol said.
Nevertheless, Trump’s inauguration on 20 January draws ever closer.
On Friday, Congress will formally receive the Electoral College vote tallies confirming his election as US president, one of the final stages in a rise to power that upset the conventional wisdom of both Republicans and Democrats.
“In Trump’s first 100 days, the world will have to adjust to dealing with a US president unlike any before,” Cristol said. “That they cannot trust what he says; that it’s useless to parse every word of a tweet for a signal of a policy adjustment.”
Policy wonks question whether Trump’s overtures to Putin are part of a clever plan to align the two heavyweight nations against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, end Syria’s civil war and halt refugee flows into Europe.
'He’s not an idealist, he’s not a realist, there’s no intellectual structure or design. He’s a bully, and believes in his ability to display prowess, dominate and intimidate'
- Michael Brenner, scholar
Others ask whether it is an even cannier scheme to drive a wedge between Russia and China, and strong-arm Beijing, perhaps into tackling North Korea’s nuclear threat, or stopping Chinese manufacturers from undercutting US production.
Others still ask whether there is any method to Trump’s policy-making.
“He’s not an idealist, he’s not a realist, there’s no intellectual structure or design. He’s a bully, and believes in his ability to display prowess, dominate and intimidate,” Michael Brenner, a scholar and former US State Department consultant, told MEE.
“Of course, this won’t work internationally, because he’ll discover that other people are just as willful as he and that they can see through his bluster and bullying.”
Critics point to contradictions in Trump’s stated diplomatic goals.
He talks of scrapping or renegotiating the 2015 deal with Iran and other world powers, in which Tehran traded its nuclear project for sanctions relief, but Trump may not be able to get as tough on the ruling mullahs as he may like.
Iranian-backed Shia militias are one of the key forces fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, and Trump may need them on his side to achieve his declared target of destroying the zealots, and extricating the US from the Middle East.
According to Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University history scholar, inconsistency will be a hallmark of the next commander-in-chief.
“Our president will be someone unschooled in statecraft, with little patience for precedent, and buoyed by a certainty that he can intuit the solution to just about any problem – so he sees no need to listen to so-called experts,” Bacevich told MEE.
“Like it or not, Trump’s instincts will guide Trump’s decisions. Those instincts tend to focus on the concrete – gains and losses – and on the very near term. He will care about what is happening today more than what may happen next year or 10 years from now.”