While there is great uncertainty about America’s foreign policy after 20 January 2017, the environment in which Trump takes office is more concrete. This provides some boundaries to his policy options. As was the case for his predecessors, Trump will face domestic as well as international constraints, from the role of Congress to the actions of other states. He will face the additional challenge that his character and operating style might not easily translate from the private sector into government.
This report consists principally of 10 chapters that address the most significant axes of foreign policy for the new administration: defence, economic policy, trade, energy and climate change, China, Russia, the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, Afghanistan and Latin America. It considers the international context for each of these policy areas, outlines the specific constraints under which Trump’s administration will operate, and hypothesizes the likely paths that the administration will take. While the report deliberately reflects a diversity of perspectives – it is the work of 11 authors, with each chapter representing the views of its individual author(s) alone – some common themes stand out:
- Trump has long shown a lack of interest in supporting the liberal international order, a position reinforced by his campaign rhetoric. While he may not reject America’s long-standing alliances and associated organizations, such as the US–Japan relationship and NATO, he is likely to offer them significantly less support than did previous presidents. At a minimum, he will leave their members, and America’s partners, uncertain about US reliability.
- Trump’s outlook is more nationalist than isolationist. He is not proposing US withdrawal from the world per se, but he has a narrower interpretation of vital American interests than his predecessors did and will likely assess international engagements in more transactional terms. His ‘America first’ campaign posture implies limited recognition of the global common good, or appetite for intervention to uphold it. The US will continue to participate in the international system, but only to achieve direct, vital national interests rather than to support allies. Thus, while Trump has suggested withdrawing the remaining US troops from Europe, he also promotes a stronger military and, if the US were directly threatened, would use it.
- Trump’s foreign policy will be driven principally by the pursuit of American economic advantage, for which he will likely sacrifice some of the security concerns of his allies. He may be more willing to overlook Chinese or Russian transgression of international norms, or challenges to the sovereign independence and stability of other states, for example, if he feels he can trade it for direct gains on the economy. This subordination of a traditional US foreign policy priority – security – to a mercantilist agenda with little appreciation for longer-term geopolitical dynamics or the continuity of the US’s relationships with key partners would mark a pivotal change, with potentially profound negative implications for international stability.
- Trump’s personality and style – brash, unpredictable, contradictory and thin-skinned – promises to have a meaningful impact on his engagement in foreign affairs. In addition to leaving foreign leaders uncertain about US policy, this could impair cooperation in international organizations such as the G7 and APEC, where the US president plays an important personal role. As a result, these institutions would be less effective.
About the authors
Xenia Wickett (ed.), Head, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House; Dean, Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs; Julianne Smith, Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House; Rachel Rizzo, Research Associate, Strategy and Statecraft Program, CNAS; Adam Twardowski, Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Research Intern, Strategy and Statecraft Program, CNAS; Dr Christopher Smart, Whitehead Senior Fellow, Chatham House; Miriam Sapiro, Partner and Head of Washington Office, Finsbury; Sarah O. Ladislaw, Director and Senior Fellow, Energy and National Security Program, CSIS; Dr Jacob Parakilas, Assistant Head, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House; Flynt Leverett, Professor of International Affairs, Penn State; Visiting Scholar, Peking University; Senior Fellow, Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies; Hans Kundnani, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, GMF’s Europe Programme; Seth G. Jones, Director, International Security and Defense Policy Center, RAND Corporation; Adjunct Professor, Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS).