With the Trump presidency comes the prospect of the irretrievable loss of some things the strategic pundits thought would persist.
Sticking to the old narrative of the US position in the world won’t serve. To downplay the significance of the Trump victory and to maintain that once he’s in office there will be a retreat from his announced positions is perilous. That’s not to say the US won’t remain economically and militarily the strongest nation by far. But the political forces he has unleashed—the fundamental disenchantment with and distrust of the political and policy elites his campaign has revealed—cannot be put back in the box. Democratic politicians across the world will adopt some of Trump’s positions in order to shore themselves up against their own populist challenges.
Together NATO and the European Union (EU) have been enduring features of the post war global order. But the Trump victory now places enormous pressure on both those institutions. The individual countries that make up NATO are unlikely in the medium term to meet the demand by Trump that they pay their way, either by bringing all their defence budgets up to 2% of GDP or by subsiding the presence of US forces in Europe.
In turn that’ll add to the enormous divisive pressures already challenging the EU. Bolstering NATO capacity against an adventurous Russia is a crucial issue for Baltic and Balkan EU nations. Now they’ll face the potential quandary of a Washington moving closer to Moscow and imminent disarray in NATO. The immigration crisis has already given life to xenophobic, Eurosceptic and populist movements across Europe and the victory of Trump off the back of those same issues adds energy to those factions. Traditional political parties in Europe will be sorely tested as they come up for election.
The geopolitical resurgence of Russia is likely to get fresh wind in its sails. A 2016 RAND report argues that Russia, China and Iran—in Ukraine, East and South China seas, and in Iraq—have encroached successfully on the strategic interests of the US and its allies by employing ‘measures short of war’ that exploit and stretch the Washington’s thresholds for direct military response. That has ‘allowed them to broaden their geographic control, to undercut US allies, and to effectively erode US influence in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East’. The strengthening Chinese cooperation with Russia will probably see this trend continue on both sides of the Eurasian continent.
The primacy of the US in the Middle East has been a given of strategic policy. Now Russia is establishing the ground work for a geostrategic long game in the Middle East through a closer relationship with Iran and reestablishment of traditionally close ties with Egypt and Turkey—a post-Syrian war strategy. Russia is likely also to be emboldened to exploit further any emerging weakness in Europe and the Middle East as US influence declines as a result of Trump election.
The regional rivalry in the Middle East will be harder to contain as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Iran strive among themselves for influence and advantage. The proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Yemen, Lebanon and in Syria is likely to ‘intensify’ as each sees the other as having an expansionist, sectarian agenda. Turkey sees itself as having crucial strategic interests in the outcome of the Syrian civil war and has demonstrated its willingness to intervene militarily. With the ousting of Morsi and ascendency of el-Sisi in Egypt the military is firmly in control. The capacity of a Trump presidency and the willingness of NATO allies to provide stability here is to be questioned.
Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric will be another factor affecting not just the role the US could play in the Middle East but its influence in the Islamic world generally. Throughout the Islamic world both legitimate political actors and religious extremists will seek to rally support around antagonism toward a clearly anti-Muslim administration. The consequences for US influence could be exceedingly negative in nations like Indonesia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and across northern Africa. The efforts to gain cooperation in countering violent extremism from governments in Muslim countries could suffer.
The future of pivot to Asia and the leadership role of the US there will be seriously undermined if the TTP is scuttled and Trump carries through on his threat to make Japan and South Korea pay for the US troops stationed on their soil. Any doubts over US security guarantees or softening in the alliances will only encourage North Korea further. The situation in East Asia is likely to encourage China to further push against the boundaries of US influence. In the event of some form of trade war with China, the regional nations in Southeast and North Asia will be placed in a difficult position and America’s position in East Asia could suffer further.
The Trump victory comes at a time when many institutions and assumptions are under threat and the world the US and its allies created is creaking and groaning with age. Perhaps the post-war global order is at a tipping point. This isn’t necessarily a time for dark pessimism but it should be a time for serious rethinking of strategic and foreign policy options by open minded policy advisors and decision makers.