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Clouds of uncertainty hover over Trump’s foreign policy

US president-elect Donald Trump’s lack of experience in government or military service is bound to reflect on his politics. Initial indicators show that his approach towards Europe, Asia, West Asia and Latin America not very encouraging

columns Updated: Dec 16, 2016 15:17 IST
Donald Trump,Trans-Atlantic ties,Angela Merkel
it’s relations between Washington and Beijing that will bear closest scrutiny. Even here there is hope for improvement. Trump may press hard on trade, investment and currency issues

It’s not easy to predict what the victory of Donald Trump, the first ever United States president with no prior government or military service, will mean for the rest of the world. But a few points are already clear. Here are four.

Trans-Atlantic ties, already under serious strain in recent years, are in deep trouble. Consider German chancellor Angela Merkel’s public congratulations for Trump following his victory: “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom, and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. I offer the next president of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.” In other words, Mr Trump, renounce half of what you said as a candidate, and we’ll get along fine.

Read | Make America great again: It’s over to Donald Trump

Merkel has good reason to doubt Trump’s commitment to trans-Atlantic values, given the encouragement he has provided for xenophobic anti-EU populists in Britain, France, Italy, and nearly every other country in Europe. In addition, Trump’s consistently conciliatory comments toward Putin’s Russia frighten many in eastern and central Europe, and they leave all Nato members wondering whether Trump remains committed to the alliance and its goals.

In the Pacific, the outlook is more mixed. Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Malaysia are already more actively courting China. More broadly, US alliances with countries like Japan, South Korea, India and Australia are based at least as much on shared security and commercial interests as on democratic values. China’s expansion is their common concern. Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the composition of his White House team suggest he’ll take a harder line toward Beijing than any US president in half a century.

Read | India should cautiously welcome Trump’s views on ‘One China’ policy

Japan’s Shinzo Abe rightly sees opportunity in Trump’s triumph, and he has moved quickly to build a strong relationship. Trump’s call for allies to do more to defend themselves will generate stress in Tokyo and Seoul, but it plays well with Abe’s drive to expand Japan’s military mandate, and Trump’s friendlier approach to Putin leaves more space for Abe to engage Russia in hopes of reclaiming island territories lost during World War II. The key Asian flashpoint in coming years looks to be North Korea, which has made significant progress toward a military capacity that directly threatens the US mainland. This will also help keep US ties with Japan and South Korea strong even if Trump pressures these allies to pay higher costs for US guarantees.

Of course, it’s relations between Washington and Beijing that will bear closest scrutiny. Even here there is hope for improvement. Trump may press hard on trade, investment and currency issues. His criticisms may inflame Chinese hawks. But China’s leaders know he’s much less likely to push them on human rights questions and political reform than any of his recent predecessors, and a more transactional approach to the relationship will suit President Xi Jinping just fine.

Read | Why a Trump presidency is bad news for the US and world

In West Asia, the first impact of Trump’s commercial approach to relationships is to speed the erosion of US ties with traditional Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. The shale revolution in the US leaves the US less dependent on the region for energy, and Trump has no reason to rebuild already damaged ties with governments that supported Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and criticised his comments on Islam and terrorism. Nor will it boost Riyadh’s confidence that Trump, aware that multilateral sanctions can’t be restored, will probably edge away from promises to tear up the Iran nuclear deal. Even if Trump does shred the deal, ties with Gulf allies will still suffer, because Trump’s friendly approach to Putin, an ally of Iran and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, will only make matters worse. In this way, Trump’s victory will intensify the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry, the source of much of the region’s turmoil as the increasingly insecure Saudis become more aggressive in fighting Iran by proxy.

Finally, Trump’s effect on Latin America is less obvious for a region that was already drifting away from the dominance of the Left. There is one key exception. The main direct impact will be the boost Trump’s influence provides for Mexico’s political Left — and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in particular. Trump’s victory, his insults toward Mexican migrants, his pledge to build a border wall and force Mexico to pay for it, his threat, sincere or not, to impose high tariffs on Mexican goods entering the US and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, and his promises to expel millions of Mexicans living illegally in the United States have transformed US relations with its southern neighbour.

Read | India has a relative advantage with respect to Trump

Mexico’s current government will have to offer Trump concessions on many issues since the country sends 80% of its exports and draws 60% of its imports from the United States. Lopez Obrador, a talented populist, is already building support for a 2018 presidential run by criticising the government’s weakness in the face of pressure from an American president widely despised across Mexico.

Ian Bremmer is president, Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 16, 2016 15:17 IST