Hold on to your hats

Trump

Photo: Michael Vadon

President Trump’s foreign policy means we’re in for a bumpy ride, folks.

By Niclas Hvalgren

The Donald Trump victory was a shocker. Not just for us in liberal Sweden, either. No polling firm, political analyst, election guru or otherwise predicted it (save for a Chinese fortune-telling monkey). For many the first instinct may be despair and worry: a sexist, racist man with neither dignity nor respect for the truth, will soon assume the position as the leader of the free world. The image of democracy has been tarnished the world over.

With Clinton, world leaders knew what to expect. American commitments to supporting democracy and the rule of law from Ukraine to the South China Sea would have been steadfast, and American dominance (and the ‘Pax americana’ that comes with it) intact.Now it is hard to expect anything. Mr. Trump’s defining characteristic is his unpredictability and preparedness to break all conventions, and there is nothing pointing towards President Trump being any different.

The first change in the way America acts on the international stage is likely to be in Syria, where Trump wants to cooperate with Russia in combating Daesh. It would most likely involve dropping vital air support for what remains of the moderate Syrian opposition, and refocusing strikes against Raqqa and other Daesh strongholds. Without support, the opposition will crumble in a long, drawn out battle to the death, forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee the country and quenching any hope for democracy in Syria. Without any allies against Turkey and Assad’s regime, kurdish forces also face a similar fate. Putin and Assad will likely win in Syria, holding theatrical elections to legitimize the regime there and leaving Russia’s naval base secure.

In Ukraine change will probably take more time. Trump has indicated that he could recognize the annexation of Crimea, and Putin has been swift to call for ‘normalization’ of Russian-American relations after the Trump victory – in effect, a call for the US to lower its sanctions and end the critique of Russia’s ‘democracy’ and the state of human rights in the country. Sanctions, however, are under the control of the Senate and not the Presidency; and Trump has little support among mainstream Republicans, despite the current show of unity. If he does manage to convince the party to back removing sanctions, Ukraine will be relegated to becoming a buffer state, divided between democratic and illiberal parties and held back by Russian control.

Trump’s most alarming comments on foreign policy are regarding NATO. From suggesting that the US would not aid allies under attack unless they pay up to encouraging Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons, on security policy he seems to be coming not just from outside the political establishment but from a completely different world. Baltic leaders, fearing Russia will do to them what it did in Georgia and Ukraine without NATO support, are likely terrified. South Koreans are probably not too excited about the election outcome either.

Trump has acknowledged that his policies might even lead to the break-up of NATO, and that “that’s OK”. Whatever happens, a weaker NATO means that Russia and China will move their diplomatic positions forward. If that happens, expect Russia to expand its sphere of influence, especially in Serbia and Hungary, and to interfere more in European elections (like it has done hacking the democratic party in the US, or supporting the Front National financially in France). China may end up in control of the South China Sea after all, despite international law ruling it as international waters.

The coming Trump presidency will throw everything that used to be certain, from the integrity of NATO to American support of democracy abroad, up into the air. We do not know how he will handle an international crisis like North Korea developing a nuclear missile capable of reaching the American west coast. But the final outcome, what the world will look like after Trump, depends entirely on how other world leaders act in and react to this new reality. It might push EU nations to band together in the face of waning American clout; Brexit is also looking increasingly foolish against a backdrop of increasing uncertainty. Perhaps voters will decide that populism is not that great after all. Maybe China will seek to maintain global stability instead of exploiting the power vacuum left by an increasingly isolationist America. However, republicans, traditional supporters of American influence, will still make up much of Trump’s cabinet and advisers. They will try to tone down their president’s worst instincts. Most likely, things will not change much at all despite his rhetoric.

These prospects are all deeply troubling. But this is not the end of western democracy: it has seen through far, far worse, from the Great Depression and the rise of fascism and Nazism to the ideological might of the Soviet Union working against it. At worst western defence will splinter and some countries will slip farther into ‘illiberal democracy’, like Turkey. At best, democratic nations may reorganize, and end the rather one-sided reliance on American hard power.

Whatever happens, we are in for twists and turns on the international stage like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

By Niclas Hvalgren