US President-elect Donald Trump has said a lot about foreign affairs, without really saying anything at all. His muddled statements offer little insight into what kind of foreign policy he will actually pursue, and there is not much reason to believe that, when his approach does become clear, it will be what the United States—or the world—needs.
Trump is a businessman, not a statesman. He thinks in terms of immediate profits and losses—a worldview that is exemplified in his declarations that US allies need to contribute more to security alliances. At a time of evolving challenges and growing threats, adhering to this narrow-minded, isolationist approach is unlikely to do anyone much good.
One region that Trump will not be able to ignore is the Middle East. The crisis in Syria, in particular, will draw the US in, though Trump’s choices there are limited. After all, America’s “moderate” jihadist allies are no more palatable than President Bashar al-Assad, and the so-called Islamic State is far from defeated.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a close Trump adviser and possible member of Trump’s cabinet, has identified defeating ISIS as the administration’s first foreign-policy priority. Trump has claimed that he knows ‘more about ISIS than the generals do.’ But that is unlikely. After all, the only way fully to defeat a movement that thrives amid chaos is to build strong and competent states, a task for which Trump lacks both the inclination and the patience.
If Trump opts for a purely military approach, he will find that every “victory” merely creates space for more violence and terror. While the conquest of Raqqa and Mosul by a US-led military campaign would improve America’s standing among its Sunni allies, it would also relieve pressure on the Russia-Iran-Hezbollah axis. Iran-backed Shia militias would unleash a killing spree against Sunni communities in Mosul after ISIS withdrew. The ensuing turmoil and pressure on Sunni populations would fuel more terrorism, whether associated with ISIS or with entirely new groups.
Whatever tack Trump takes in Syria, it will surely be influenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump must cut America’s dependence on Russia in the Syria war, in order to resist Putin’s efforts to use his influence in Syria to gain leverage with regard to Ukraine.
Of course, Trump’s willingness to challenge Putin, for whom the president-elect has voiced admiration, is uncertain. But America’s security and military establishment, together with Republican senators like John McCain, are unlikely to allow Trump to “Make Russia Great Again” by surrendering both Syria and Ukraine. The surrender of Ukraine alone would embolden Russia to reassert itself in its supposed “sphere of influence,” potentially causing NATO to come apart.
Judging by his campaign statements, Trump might not be worried about the unraveling of NATO—or of any US security alliance, at least not yet. But the results could be disastrous, not least because a lack of US security guarantees and structures could spur nuclear proliferation.
Trump’s promise to suspend the Iran nuclear deal is particularly worrying. Iran has prepared Hezbollah to be a powerful proxy for precisely those occasions when it needs to strike back at Iran’s enemies. Moreover, suspending the nuclear deal would cause Iran to become a nuclear power in no time. In a region with no collective security architecture, terrorist groups could easily acquire their own primitive nuclear devices.
Given this, America’s estranged allies in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel—would be well advised to drop their opposition to the Iran deal, and instead encourage Trump to keep it in place. Likewise, Trump’s promise to reduce funding to foreign allies, as part of a broader “America first” strategy, should be tempering their joy at his victory.
Another estranged ally that could shape Trump’s choices in the Middle East is Turkey, which has pursued something of a détente with Russia in recent months. To salvage the bilateral relationship, Trump would have to sacrifice America’s partnership with the Kurds, whose militias in Syria and Iraq have been America’s most reliable allies in the battles for Mosul and Raqqa.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may want ISIS defeated, but he wants to quell the Kurds’ ambitions of self-rule even more. Rewarding the Kurds for their help by backing their bid for statehood would be so unacceptable that, to prevent it, Erdoğan might even try to thwart the defeat of ISIS. Add to that opposition from Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and it is clear that Kurdish independence is not in the cards.
Palestinian statehood, however, should be. In his own erratic way, Trump has said as much, fueling hopes among some Palestinians that his election could end up working in their favor. But Israel’s fanatic settler movement has the opposite impression, viewing Trump’s victory as a license for the unrestrained expansion of settlements in Palestinian lands.
In the end, how Trump uses US leverage in the Israel-Palestine conflict—the only issue in the Middle East where the US enjoys such indisputable influence—might depend on events on the ground. Specifically, a settlement-building spree might end up triggering a particularly fierce third Palestinian intifada.
But Trump should not wait for a crisis to impose an agenda on him. Instead, he should recognise that now, more than at any time since 1948, America’s estranged Sunni allies have a strong incentive to make peace with Israel and collaborate with it on regional security, and that such an arrangement could be legitimate only with the creation of a Palestinian state. Given that this would also support US reconciliation with the Arab peoples, thereby serving America’s national security interests, Trump should not hesitate to seize the initiative.