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Trump’s foreign policy plans signal shift in world order

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13 min

As Donald Trump prepares to take office as the 45th American president on Friday, US allies and adversaries are eager to decipher what direction US foreign policy might take under a Trump administration.


Trump has rattled both governments and markets with sweeping statements fired off from his Twitter account, often in the dead of night. The vows he made on the campaign trail have also led to fears that America’s new president might upend the international order, either by disengaging from allies, realigning with rivals or withdrawing from agreements concluded by previous US administrations.

In a joint interview with "The Times" of London and Germany’s "Bild" newspaper published on Monday, Trump offered some of his most comprehensive comments to date on what a future US foreign policy might look like. But Trump has rendered predictions difficult with his off-the-cuff and at times contradictory statements, several of which have been disputed by his own cabinet appointees.

NATO and the EU

Trump dismayed Europeans in his recent interview by saying NATO was outdated and warning that Britain might not be the last nation to leave the EU.

The president-elect said that the NATO alliance was designed “many, many years ago” and has not adapted to modern security challenges. “It’s obsolete because it wasn’t taking care of terror,” he said.

It was not the first time the president-elect has called the alliance “obsolete”, however; this was a charge he levied at the alliance repeatedly on campaign stops across America. But Trump’s comments seemed to generate more anxiety this time around, coming as they did just days before he enters the White House.

Trump went on to tell the papers it was a problem that many NATO countries were not contributing the 2 percent of GDP that the alliance sets as a goal for defence spending among its members, leaving it up to other NATO nations to foot most of the bill.

“With that being said, NATO is very important to me,” Trump concluded.

European leaders react with surprise, defiance to Trump remarks

European governments were quick to respond to his comments.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters there was “astonishment and anxiety” among European leaders following Trump’s interview.

"I've spoken today not only with EU foreign ministers but NATO foreign ministers as well and can report that the signals are that there's been no easing of tensions,” Steinmeier said.

Some European leaders responded by reasserting EU solidarity and resolve.

“I believe we Europeans have our fate in our own hands,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin on Monday. “I'm personally going to wait until the American president takes office, and then we will naturally work with him on all levels and see what kind of agreements we can reach.”

France’s Jean-Marc Ayrault told a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels that the best response to Trump’s remarks was a united Europe.

President François Hollande was more contentious in his comments, saying Europe "does not need outside advice”.

"Europe will always be willing to pursue transatlantic cooperation, but it will base its decisions on its own interests and values," he said, speaking at a ceremony in Paris for outgoing US Ambassador Jane Hartley.

Nicholas Dungan, research director at the Interdisciplinary Research and International Strategy Institute (IRIS) in Paris, told FRANCE 24 that Trump's controversial remarks should not be taken for statements on policy.

"This is a man who, clearly, cannot make the distinction between his personal opinions and public policy,” Dungan said.

"He hasn’t undertaken any sort of analysis," Dungan observed, adding that many of Trump’s remarks appear to be “made up on the fly”.

But Dungan also sounded a warning about what Europe should expect during a Trump presidency. "The Europeans are going to be responsible for their own destiny," he said.

'Trump cannot distinguish between personal opinions and public policy'


Trump told his European interviewers that the EU was essentially “a vehicle for Germany”, adding: “That’s why I thought the UK was so smart in getting out.”

He said a major factor leading up to the Brexit vote was Merkel’s decision to admit thousands of refugees into Germany and encouraging other EU nations to do the same. “I think people want, people want their own identity, so if you ask me, others, I believe others will leave.”

“[If] they hadn’t been forced to take in all of the refugees, so many, with all the problems that it, you know, entails, I think that you wouldn’t have a Brexit,” he said, adding: “This was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Trump said Britain shouldn’t be concerned about the plummeting pound because business “is unbelievable in a lot of parts in the UK”. “I think Brexit is going to end up being a great thing,” he added.

Asked whether progress could quickly be made on a US trade deal with Britain, Trump seemed enthusiastic. “Absolutely, very quickly. I’m a big fan of the UK, we’re gonna work very hard to get it done quickly and done properly. Good for both sides,” he said.

Trump will be meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May sometime in the spring.

Middle East peace

Trump’s Middle East policy may be a work in progress, but he has already hinted at two possible policies that have worried many observers: moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and appointing a hardliner as his ambassador to Israel.

Since both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their historical capital, foreign embassies in Israel have traditionally been located in Tel Aviv. EU foreign ministers and others warn that relocating the US embassy could inflame tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and potentially spark anger across the Arab world.

A bill introduced by Republicans in the Senate earlier this month called for the embassy to be relocated quickly.

Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, supports the move. Friedman is a staunch supporter of Israel who has said that Palestinian leaders never “had any intentions to observe the minimal conditions required of a two-state solution”.

He has also accused both the US State Department and US President Barack Obama of “anti-semitism”.

Trump was non-committal when asked about his views on the relocation. “Well, I don’t want to comment on that, again, but we’ll see what happens,” he told the papers.

The president-elect has also sparked concerns by saying that he wants to appoint his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a special Mideast peace envoy despite US anti-nepotism laws. “Jared is such a good lad, he will secure an Israel deal which no one else has managed to get,” he said.

Trump has previously said that Kushner, who is from an Orthodox Jewish family and is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, “knows the region, knows the people, knows the players”. But in reality Kushner, 36, is inexperienced in diplomacy and government; he was a real estate developer and the publisher of the weekly "New York Observer" before joining Team Trump.

As for the fight against the Islamic State group, Trump has vowed to start “bombing the hell” out of the jihadists and said the Kurds, who are doing much of the fighting on the ground in Iraq, need more US support.


Trump has reserved many of his more combative comments for China, repeatedly threatening to hit Beijing with steep tariffs in an attempt to offset trade imbalances. The US trade deficit with China is “a tremendous problem”, Trump told the interviewers.

Trump’s penchant for “Twitter diplomacy” has continued to prompt concern on the issue. “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the US in totally one-sided trade, but won't help with North Korea. Nice!” he tweeted late one night in early January.

In a response the next day, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters that Beijing’s efforts with regard to North Korea were “widely recognised”, adding: “We hope all sides will avoid remarks and actions that would escalate the situation.”

China seems concerned enough about Trump’s threats of protectionist measures that President Xi Jinping warned of the dangers of a trade war in his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday.

“Pursuing protectionism is like locking yourself in a dark room, which helps protect against the wind and rain but also blocks out the sunshine and air,” Xi told the politicians and business leaders gathered in Davos. “Waging a trade war will only cause injury and loss to both sides.”

In a 2012 tweet, Trump also accused China of inventing the idea of global warning in an attempt to undermine US industry. "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive," he said.


Setting aside for the moment the continuing speculation over Trump’s ties to Russia, the president-elect has clearly intimated that he will seek a more cooperative and less adversarial relationship with Moscow.

And Russia has warmly welcomed his approach. In a speech on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Trump’s policy proposals are in perfect agreement with the priorities of President Vladimir Putin. Neither leader thinks the goal of foreign policy should be to "spread values".

Russia pursues "pragmatism and national interests understood in a sensible way, and not messianic foreign policy and the attempt to spread values across the world", Lavrov said. Trump's plan to prioritise US interests and his foreign policy focus on fighting terrorism "are exactly what Putin sees as the priorities for Russian foreign policy", he said.

Trump’s attitude towards Russia appears to have shifted dramatically since March 2014, when he told the Fox News broadcast Fox and Friends that Russia was the "biggest problem" faced by the United States in remarks made soon after Moscow seized control of Crimea.

Asked whether he supports the sanctions regime imposed by the United States and the EU over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Trump equivocated.

“Well, I think you know – people have to get together and people have to do what they have to do in terms of being fair. OK? They have sanctions on Russia – let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia.”

Trump went on to tell the European papers that he supported significant bilateral disarmament.

“I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that’s part of it. But you do have sanctions and Russia’s hurting very badly right now because of sanctions, but I think something can happen that a lot of people are gonna benefit.”

That stance appears to contradict his calls in late December for the United States to increase its nuclear capabilities until the world “comes to its senses”. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump said in a Twitter post.

His statement came just hours after Putin called for reinforcing Russia's own nuclear arsenal and ensuring Russian missiles can penetrate missile-defence systems.

"We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile-defence systems," Putin said at a December 22 meeting at the defence ministry.

When asked whether he agreed with Putin’s intervention in Syria, Trump said that he did not. But he also criticised the United States for not taking more action.

“Nah, I think it’s a very rough thing. It’s a very bad thing, we had a chance to do something when we had the line in the sand and it wasn’t – nothing happened. That was the only time – and now, it’s sort of very late. It’s too late.”

Trump has repeatedly proposed creating "safe zones" in Syria. In his latest interview, he added that he thought Gulf states should pay for establishing them.

"I think we should have built safe zones in Syria. Would have been a lot less expensive. Uh, get the Gulf states to pay for ’em who aren’t coming through. I mean they’ve got money that nobody has."


Trump has said he is deeply unhappy with the Iran nuclear deal concluded between six world powers and Iran in July 2015, calling it one of the “dumbest” deals he had ever seen. He has threatened either to withdraw from the agreement or seek better terms, once even saying that dismantling the accord was his “No. 1 priority”.

“But I’m not happy with the Iran deal, I think it’s one of the worst deals ever made, I think it’s one of the dumbest deals I’ve ever seen, one of the dumbest, in terms of a deal,” he told the European papers.

He went on to say that the money Iran received from the United States as part of the deal was not being used to fund terrorism but was probably now sitting in Switzerland.

“No, I think that money is in Swiss bank accounts – they don’t need that money, they’re using other money, I think they’ve taken that money and they’ve kept it for themselves. That’s my opinion.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded on Tuesday by dismissing Trump’s statements, saying he would not be able to annul the deal unilaterally.

"The president-elect has shown he is not happy about the nuclear deal, calling it the worst deal ever signed. This is only empty talk," Rouhani told a news conference.

"I don't think he can do much when he gets to the White House," Rouhani added.

Unpredictable future

Whether Trump is really seeking to upend the current global order or whether he lacks the international experience for a comprehensive approach to diplomacy remains to be seen. Some analysts believe he is taking a strategic approach, perhaps putting other world powers on edge on purpose. There can be benefits to being unpredictable: former US president Richard M. Nixon was reportedly a proponent of the "madman theory" who saw a tactical advantage in making his enemies think he was unstable.

Others believe Trump may simply not understand how America's longstanding alliances contribute to stabilising the world order.

"It's a sign of confusion if you're making trouble with the Chinese at the same time as you're making trouble with US allies in Asia, and it's a sign of confusion if you're trying to make up with Russia at the same [time] that you're not tending to American alliances in Europe," said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in comments to CNN.

Trump "acts like a guy who thinks he can make everybody mad at the same time and not pay a price for it", he said.

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