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Mainstream, VOL LV No 11 New Delhi March 4, 2017

Trump’s Foreign Policy of Confusion

Sunday 5 March 2017

by Sanjal Shastri

When Donald Trump was elected as the US President in November 2016, foreign policy observers predicted an era of uncertainty. If the first few weeks of President Trump are anything to go by, we will have to expect the unexpected. What do the first few weeks of the Trump Administration have the say about his foreign policy over the next four years? What impact would these have on the US’ allies? These are questions many around the world have been asking since November 2016.

Trump’s election campaign had given glimpses into his potential foreign policy stance. He was clearly up in arms against trade deals like the NAFTA and TPP. He openly welcomed the UK’s vote to leave the EU. He wanted Mexico to pay for the wall across the US-Mexico border. He also termed the NATO as an obsolete agency and threatened to relook at the US’ engagement in the NATO. Most significantly, he openly praised Vladmir Putin, sparking debates of how a Trump-led USA would seek closer ties with Russia. As the President-elect, he broke from tradition, openly criticising President Obama’s stance on the UN Resolution against Israel.

Post-January 20, 2017, many expected to see a radical shift in the way US foreign policy is conducted. These predictions have come out to be true so far. Over the past three weeks, we have seen it all. There has been a heated exchange with the Australian Prime Minister over the phone. Trump’s tweet, calling for Mexico to pay for the border wall, resulted in the Mexican President cancelling a state visit to the US. His executive order barring citizens from seven Muslim majority countries has sparked angry responses from leaders across the world. A verbal and twitter battle with Iran has led to new sanctions being imposed.

Going by what we have seen so far, is it possible to come up with a rough picture of how US foreign policy under Trump would shape up? Will there be a sift in the way foreign policy is conducted? The answer to the latter question would be more straightforward. As far as the way foreign policy is conducted, Trump has made it clear he does not care much for diplomatic language or protocol. When questioned on the renewed sanctions on Iran, he responded by stating: “They aren’t behaving themselves.” One would not expect such language to be used when engaging in foreign policy. Trump’s use of twitter to express his views on foreign policy is a clear break from tradition. As a presidential candidate, the use of twitter and the undiplomatic language could have been acceptable. However, Trump has shown his inclination to use twitter to express his opinions even after taking over as the President. A harshly worded tweet resulted in the Mexican President cancelling a planned state visit. Trump has also engaged in a twitter war with the Foreign Minister of Iran. The use of twitter and the harsh language Trump has often used is a clear break from diplomatic tradition and protocol. While this is a very hazardous precedent, we should expect more of it during Trump’s presidency.

The more challenging question is: what can we say about Trump’s overall foreign policy direction? His handling of the NAFTA and TPP has gone on expected lines. Considering his position on the border wall, one expected differences to crop up with Mexico. The cancelled state visit is a sign of growing differences between the US and Mexico. Over the next few years, one can expect more differences to crop up as Trump goes ahead with his plan to build the wall.

Trump’s opposition to the TPP during his election campaign raised quite a few eyebrows in Australia. While some friction was expected between Trump and the Australian Prime Minister, no one would have predicted the showdown Trump and Turnbull had over the phone. If news reports are to be believed, then this would mean significant tensions would emerge between the US and one of its closest allies, Australia.

There is a great degree of uncertainty regarding Trump’s approach towards Russia. Though his election campaign hinted at a possible US-Russia détente, the US ambassador’s speech in the UN criticising Russia’s actions in Ukraine has put question-marks over Trump’s Russia policy. After taking over as the President, Trump has not given any hints on how he would approach the Russian question. While his election campaign hinted at close ties with Putin, the UN speech sends a different signal.

With regard to Israel, Trump’s election campaign promised to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As the President-elect, he broke all protocol by pushing the Obama Administration to veto the resolution against Israel. When the outcome was not in Israel’s favour, in another first, Trump took to twitter openly criticising the US’ stance. After taking over as the President, there has been a growing call from lawmakers, including Republicans, asking Trump to mellow down his stance. Considering the fact that his own partymen are calling for a more watered stance, Trump’s hands may be tied with regard to Israel.

More than two weeks after taking oath, there is still no clear picture regarding Trump’s foreign policy. We can say with some amount of certainty that tensions are bound to arise with Mexico as Trump pushes ahead with his programme to build the wall. With regard to Russia and Israel, there have been mixed signals. The phone conversation between Trump and Turnbull poses serious questions regarding Trump’s strategic thinking. Australia is a vital part of the US’ security calculations in the Asia-Pacific region. His hardline approach towards Australia throws into question Trump’s security calculations.

While the overall picture of Trump’s foreign policy position is still not very clear, what is clear is the shift in the way foreign relations is conducted. Protocol and diplomatic language do not feature anywhere in Trump’s foreign policy manual. One can expect more twitter outbursts, undiplomatic language and verbal battles over the next four years.

The author is an academic associate at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He regularly comments on issues concerning foreign affairs, extremism and political developments in South Asia and the Middle East. He can be contacted at e-mail sshastri93[at]gmail.com