15 November 2016
Across a range of critical security issues, the president-elect will break from his predecessors.
Patricia Lewis

Dr Patricia Lewis

Research Director, International Security


Photo by Getty Images.
Photo by Getty Images.


In his '100-day action plan to Make America Great Again', President-elect Donald Trump promised a National Security Act that would eliminate the defence sequester, expand military investment and protect vital infrastructure from cyber-attack. Nowhere in this document does he pledge to question collective security with US allies, withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal or begin negotiations with North Korea, issues so pronounced during his campaign. So, on key security issues, which Trump will we see in the White House?


Earlier in his campaign, Trump called into question the very need for NATO and appeared to suggest that member states that pay less than the agreed 2% of GDP on their defences might not be able to count on US protection. Such statements have been characterized as undermining the collective defence fundamentals of the NATO Treaty, specifically Article 5, whereby an attack against one NATO ally is considered an attack against all.

Trump’s questioning of NATO determination and capabilities would have been helpful 20 years ago, but now is not the right time to be reducing collective confidence among US allies.  It is true, as he has said, that NATO did not undergo the transformation required of it at the end of the cold war. However, in response to Vladimir Putin’s hostility to the West and Russia’s increased military activities, NATO is rediscovering an old energy in the face of a new threat.

A new relationship between the US and Russia is sorely needed.  The problem will be how to achieve that without the West finding itself further compromised in terms of values such as human rights and the rule of law. Tacit deals like accepting the annexation of Crimea and lifting sanctions in return for Russia ceasing its threatening stance towards the Baltic States would not appear to meet this threshold.


At a controversial campaign speech at AIPAC, Trump named the dismantlement of the Iran nuclear deal as the ‘number-one priority’ for his presidency.  However, later in the same speech he spoke of holding Iran totally accountable and enforcing the deal ‘like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before’.  Indeed, he was the only GOP candidate who expressed nuanced views towards the deal.

Several of Mr Trump’s senior advisors are encouraging him to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal as soon as possible but it is hard to see how he could do that without negotiating a replacement. If the US walks away from the deal, not only would the spectre of Iran’s nuclear programme again rise along with the risk of military action  – and perhaps speedily – but the EU, Russia and China would not support a new approach.

He may be persuaded that the US can introduce extra verification measures and satisfy Congress that any attempts by Iran to cheat or renege on its commitments would be caught with more certainty and more time for reaction than contained in the present agreement. This would have to be a unilateral measure – and there is plenty of precedent for such an approach within the US system.

Nuclear weapons

Perhaps Trump is at his most interesting when he addresses the issue of nuclear weapons. On the one hand, he is on record with some fairly typical stances – saying that he would do everything within his power to never be in a position to use nuclear weapons, and that he supports the premise of nuclear disarmament ‘if nobody else has them’.

However, he broke from the status quo when he asked two fundamental questions: Why can’t nuclear weapons be used? And why shouldn’t other countries – such as Japan and South Korea – have nuclear weapons?

These questions sent political shockwaves around the world. US policy has been so rooted in the legally-binding commitments of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – in which only five countries are have been allowed to (temporarily) retain nuclear weapons – that to ask why others should not was seen as an attempt to undermine the international order. And the second question cuts to the heart of the deterrence doctrine: if nuclear weapons cannot be used – because of their overwhelming devastating effects – then how can they deter?

This debate is very alive and recently led to a UN General Assembly decision to begin negotiations next year for a global prohibition of nuclear weapons. Under President Obama, the US was not in favour of these negotiations; President Trump may take a different view and participate, although perhaps not in a constructive fashion.

North Korea

It seems likely that Trump will open up a new track of negotiations with North Korea based on remarks made at a campaign event in June. If the Trump administration is able to formulate a deal that includes a peace treaty with the US, regional security measures and more than adequate funds to support the DPRK regime, ignores human rights atrocities and incorporates a pivotal role for China, then it may be possible to achieve a sustainable deal for denuclearization of the peninsula. But at what price? Giving up on the human rights of people in North Korea in exchange for regional peace and stability may be a negotiation that could succeed but it would be a bitter pill for Western allies to swallow.

Cyber security

Cyber vulnerabilities were a continuing theme throughout the presidential election, with accusations ranging from social media manipulation to hacking candidates’ servers and interference with the voting machinery, but Trump has shown little grasp of the issues.

The US and global internet industry relies heavily on openness, access, security and privacy for the internet to work nationally and internationally. Despite deep difficulties, the United States and China forged a cyber agreement in 2015 as part of a wider set of measures aimed at building trust and confidence between the two countries. Whether this cooperation, along with new developments in internet governance, can be extended to include other countries, particularly Russia, remains to be seen but the rewards of cooperation in cyberspace would certainly be worth the effort.


Trump is on record as saying that ‘we have to get rid of ISIS before we get rid of Assad’ and is indeed prepared to shore up Assad’s presidency. The pitfalls of this approach are there for all to see. In the short run, such a deal might restore some stability to Syria but it is more likely to transform the conflict into an insurgency instead. The US would be capitulating to the Russian view of the Middle East and how to solve the Syrian conflict without any guarantee of a long-term peace. Fighters against the Assad regime, the Kurds and other peoples of the region would feel betrayed by the US. US allies – including the UK – are already working to prevent such an outcome.

Climate change

The US Department of Defense has identified climate change as a driver of instability and conflict and a major security threat - posing ‘an immediate risk to national security’. US federal agencies are now required to incorporate climate change impacts in their approaches to national security. But in his 100-day action plan, Trump outlined a number of measures that would seek to reverse the gains made in addressing climate change including lifting the restrictions on the production of shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal, allowing energy infrastructure projects, like the Keystone XL pipeline, to move forward and cancelling payments to UN climate change programmes.

If the US withdraws from the Paris Agreement on climate change, other countries will feel less pressure to honour their commitments, and the risks of conflict and war initiated by environmental stresses look set to grow. Rather than relying on US leadership on these issues, the rest of the world will need to look elsewhere.

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