FPI Bulletin: The World Awaiting President Trump

November 10, 2016

It is already cliché to observe that Donald Trump’s victory in Tuesday’s presidential election has shocked and surprised the entire world.  But when he takes office in January, the President-elect may be the one who is surprised by the seemingly intractable global challenges confronting him.  Dealing with these threats and securing U.S. interests will require America’s global leadership, and, frankly stated, dramatic departures from some positions and the tone that Mr. Trump adopted during the campaign. He should use the period leading to his inauguration to inform and reassure the American people as to how he will handle these many challenges.

Iran: Donald Trump’s “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March. As he correctly noted, “The deal doesn't even require Iran to dismantle its military nuclear capability,” and when its provisions expire, “Iran will have an industrial-sized military nuclear capability ready to go and with zero provision for delay no matter how bad Iran's behavior is.”

The United States is in this position because the agreement is far less stringent than the Obama administration once promised.  Meanwhile, Tehran has expanded its aggression in the region over the past year.  While Trump has pledged to “enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable,” he will face with an Iran that continues to destabilize the Middle East, support international terrorism, and challenge America’s will at every juncture. He should work to hold Tehran accountable for its aggression by imposing unilateral sanctions and working to strengthen the deal’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.

Iraq: Although coalition forces are now freeing Mosul from the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), U.S. military leaders believe that ISIS is not done with Iraq yet.  Rather, they expect the extremist group to return to the terrorist tactics that it is well-versed in. If the United States is to ensure that Iraq never again becomes a safe-haven for ISIS and other extremist groups, then Trump may have to engage in the painstaking work of helping Baghdad rebuild its political, economic, and security institutions—despite his convention pledge to “abandon the failed policy of nation-building.” Although Trump criticized the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 for helping create ISIS, it is now time for him to demonstrate that he will not repeat it.

Syria: In his second debate with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the President-elect voiced his support for the creation of humanitarian safe zones to protect the Syrian people from attack.  Minutes later, however, Trump said, “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS,” and then rejected supporting the mainstream armed opposition in Syria. Although Trump has said that “We should work with any country that shares our goal of destroying ISIS,” the Assad regime and its allies do not meet this criterion.

As former Obama administration official Frederic Hof recently wrote in the Washington Post, “The Assad regime is a cause and enabler of the Islamic State.” This is because Assad, Russia, and Syria are conducting a campaign of mass slaughter that is driving support for ISIS and other terror groups.  So far, Trump appears not to realize that Assad and ISIS are “two sides of the same terrorist coin,” as Hof notes.  Before he takes office, he should acknowledge that cooperation with Russia and Iran in Syria will be no more successful during his administration than it has been under President Obama’s.

Afghanistan: The Taliban now holds more than a third of Afghan territory—the most it has controlled since 2001—and only 8,400 U.S. troops remain in the country. In addition to the Taliban, Afghanistan is infested by ISIS and many more competing terror groups. Defeating these threats requires greater American involvement, not less.  As Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) recently wrote, “We cannot effectively defeat Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS without training our allies and engaging with them in the fight against these barbaric terrorists.  To do this requires building up the capacity of the Afghan Police and Security Forces to defeat these extremist groups.” Will President Trump continue to support the Afghan government in the face of a resurgent Taliban?

Russia: In the past eight years, Russia has invaded and dismembered two countries along its borders, violated its arms control agreements, enabled Assad’s crimes in Syria, and begun to export new weapons systems to Iran.  Throughout the campaign, Trump has praised the leadership of Vladimir Putin and falsely suggested that the United States has no better a human rights record than today’s Russia. He has even publically disputed the intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion that Moscow has interfered in the election.

In response to Trump’s election, Putin has offered to restore full relations with the United States, while his advisors hope that Trump will lift sanctions and recognize Russia’s occupation of Crimea. The only thing that is clear about Putin’s suggestion is that it would involve U.S. acquiesce to Russia’s ambitions in Europe and the Middle East.  It is essential that Mr. Trump reject Putin’s demands and instead work to strengthen relations with our NATO allies.

East Asia: Even as Beijing works to redraw the map of the Asia-Pacific, Donald Trump has upended America’s long-standing alliances with Japan and South Korea by threatening to remove U.S. forces from their territory.  His stated rationale for doing so is that “We cannot afford to be losing vast amounts of billions of dollars on all of this.” However, this view is ignorant of America’s basing agreements with these two key allies.  As the American Action Forum recently detailed, “The United States spends $10 billion annually on its permanent overseas military presence—just 2 percent of the total U.S. defense budget.” Furthermore, “U.S. burden-sharing agreements with Japan and South Korea….involve not only in-kind contributions but also direct support cash payments.” The truth is that these facilities actually save money compared to basing our forces in the continental United States to accomplish the same mission.

Trump advisors Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro tried to portray Trump’s approach in the best possible light Monday in an op-ed for Foreign Policy: “There is no question of Trump’s commitment to America’s Asian alliances as bedrocks of stability in the region. Trump will simply, pragmatically, and respectfully discuss with Tokyo and Seoul additional ways for those governments to support a presence all involved agree is vital.”  Mr. Trump should clearly explain why he believes that present arrangements are insufficient, and how he expects to uphold America’s economic leadership in the region if he carries through on his campaign promise to scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership.


To be fair, some parts of President-elect Trump’s national security strategy are commendable, including a proposal to repeal sequestration limits on the military and increase the defense budget, rebuilding America’s conventional and strategic forces, and upgrading and expanding America’s missile defense systems.  Unfortunately, the incoming President has also proposed changes to America’s foreign policy that will be deeply harmful to U.S. and international security unless they are carefully revised in the transition period.  Foremost of these is Trump’s rejection of America’s long-standing global leadership role. “This is not 40 years ago,” he told The New York Times in July. “We are not the same country and the world is not the same world.” U.S. global leadership is not a “luxury,” as Mr. Trump said. It is the prerequisite of peace.

The American people do not know how Trump would handle many pressing foreign policy issues—and it is likely that he does not know either.  Mr. Trump has been given an enormous responsibility by the electorate: the leadership of the free world.  It remains to be seen if the President-elect will be able to meet that task with grace, humility, thoughtfulness, and resolve.  If he does not, the global threats to America’s interests will only continue to grow and our allies will be increasingly reluctant to give the United States the support that Trump seeks.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More