- Blog Post
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Donald J. Trump’s election as U.S. president could have seismic consequences for international cooperation. During the campaign, the candidate signaled his intent to shake up established U.S. foreign and national security policies. Among other pronouncements, he questioned U.S. alliances and commitments to international institutions, vowed to repudiate the Paris climate agreement, attacked the Iran nuclear deal, swore to dismantle trade agreements, lauded dictators who oppress their citizens, promised to suspend U.S. refugee admissions, endorsed torture to defend U.S. national security, and advocated counterterrorism tactics that violate international humanitarian law.
Taken at face value, Trump’s ambitions portend a rupture with more than seven decades of U.S. global engagement dating from the end of World War II—as well as a break with older American values. They signal a new U.S. global role that is more insular, transactional, and narrowly interest-driven. Gone is any mention of U.S. global leadership, the promotion of universal values, or the defense of a “free world.” The pursuit of world order will be replaced by the art of the deal.
At this stage of the presidential transition, it is impossible to know whether Trump will actually govern as he campaigned. Perhaps his campaign pronouncements were just red meat tossed to his populist, isolationist base and should not be taken literally as a guide to policy.
Perhaps. But for now, let’s assume that he meant what he said.
Today The Internationalist blog kicks off a new series we’re calling “Global Agenda.” Over the next two months through Inauguration Day, several CFR colleagues will join me in identifying the major global challenges Mr. Trump will face when he enters the White House. We’ll identify the major choices the new president will confront, the options available to him, and what is at stake for the United States, its partners, and the planet. Finally, we’ll examine how Trump’s decisions are likely to shape prospects for a stable, peaceful, and rule-bound international order under effective multilateral institutions.
By way of an appetizer, here are some of the issues we have our eye on—and the questions they raise:
The U.S. Alliance System: Candidate Trump rattled U.S. allies by suggesting that U.S. treaty commitments should be treated as contingent arrangements rather than as solemn obligations. Under his watch, he suggested, the United States would come to the aid of NATO and other allies like South Korea and Japan only if they were willing to “pay up.” Such statements have alarmed the Baltic republics and other nations anxious about Russian aggression and destabilization. To be sure, burden-sharing debates have been a perennial feature of U.S. alliance politics since the early Cold War. But Trump’s provocative suggestion that allies make direct contributions to the U.S. federal budget risked turning a collective defense arrangement into a protection racket. How should we expect the U.S. alliance system, which has maintained global stability for seventy years, to change under Trump? Are there ways to encourage more burden-sharing without casting doubt on U.S. commitments and upending regional stability? Finally, what openings does Trump’s approach provide to China and others to craft alternative structures of regional security?
Climate Change: At their summit this month in Marrakech, the United States and other parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) celebrated the entry into force of the Paris agreement, which Trump has promised to “cancel.” The President-elect, who has called global warming a Chinese hoax, has appointed a leading climate science denier to lead his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team. He has also promised to dismantle EPA regulations on carbon emissions from power plants, as well as defund UNFCCC efforts to finance global mitigation and adaptation efforts. Is the U.S. climate agenda therefore dead? Are other major emitters like China, India, and the European Union (EU) likely to respond in kind to the U.S. defection? And what does all this mean for the future of global warming?
Nonproliferation and Arms Control: Trump has described the July 2015 nuclear agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear weapons program as the “stupidest deal of all time.” He promises to tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and negotiate a much tougher agreement. If the United States renounces JCPOA, how will Iran react? How much support will the United States get from its negotiating partners (France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, China, and the EU) on the contours of a new deal? Trump has also suggested that Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia should have their own nuclear weapons. Would this allow them to take more care of their own security? Or would it drive a regional arms race? What message does walking away from the JCPOA send to the regime in North Korea? What implications might such policy choices have for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?
International Trade: The election of Donald Trump presumably sounds the death knell for the Obama administration’s two signature mega-regional trade deals: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Candidate Trump has also pledged to dismantle existing trade arrangements that he claims unfairly disadvantage American companies and workers. This includes withdrawing from NAFTA, the world’s second largest trading bloc (after the EU). He also proposes declaring China a currency manipulator—and thus subject to U.S. trade sanctions—as well as imposing 45 percent tariffs on Chinese exports. How might the rest of the world react to such a protectionist turn, and what does it suggest for the future of the WTO-governed multilateral trade regime? More positively, does Trump’s election create opportunities to forge multilateral trade agreements that are more worker-friendly?
Migration and Refugees: During the campaign candidate Trump took hardline positions on both migrants and refugees that were controversial both domestically and internationally. He has of course pledged to crack down on illegal immigration, including by deporting up to eleven million undocumented individuals and building a wall along the entire southern U.S. border. Trump has also proposed temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States, suspending “immigration from terror-prone regions,” requiring that all “those who are admitted to our country support our people and our values,” and overturning President Obama’s decision to admit modest numbers of Syrian refugees (whom he described as “a Trojan Horse” for Islamic terrorists). Trump’s election, in other words, suggests a United States that will be less open to immigration (both legal and illegal) and no longer inclined to lead the world in refugee admissions. What are the implications of such policies? What do they bode for U.S. international commitments, including efforts to address the global humanitarian crisis?
Counterterrorism and International Law: Among Trump’s most effective campaign promises was his pledge to defeating the Islamic State and other terrorists. He promised to take off the gloves in this fight. He endorsed the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture against suspected terrorists, as well as targeting and killing their relatives. He also advocated indiscriminate force against countries and communities harboring terrorist groups. Were Trump to pursue such policies as president, he could put the United States on a collision course with international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict, including the Geneva Conventions, as well as the UN Convention against Torture. What would be the legal ramifications of such steps? What would be the balance of benefits and costs for the United States, both practical and ethical, of a no-holds barred, militarized response to jihadist terrorists?
The United Nations: Finally, Trump’s election is likely to place U.S. relations with the United Nations on a much rockier footing. The U.S.-UN relationship is always fraught, of course. But what makes the coming moment particularly precarious is the simultaneous presence of a unilaterally-inclined Republican president and a GOP-dominated Congress that, like Trump’s political base, is deeply suspicious of the world body. A leitmotif of Trump’s candidacy was the reassertion of U.S. sovereignty, and he will find many receptive ears on Capitol Hill. We should anticipate greater confrontation, including ramped up use of U.S. financial leverage to try to force management and other reforms on United Nations—as Republican legislators did in the 1990s and others have been agitating to do in more recent years. Indeed, it is possible that the Trump administration and GOP lawmakers will resurrect a bill, introduced in 2015 by Congresswoman Illeana Ros-Lehtinen and endorsed today by John Bolton, to make the entire U.S. contribution to the UN’s regular budget—which is currently assessed annually—no longer a legally binding obligation but a “voluntary” decision. What would be the costs and benefits of such an approach for U.S. national interests, for UN effectiveness, and the reputation of the United States?
For answers to these and other questions, please stay tuned for future installments of Global Agenda.