Trying to predict Donald Trump’s foreign policy is a complex exercise, which inevitably produces vertigo in those bold enough to undertake it.
In the past year, the president-elect has offered so many vague, simplistic and inconsistent foreign policy declarations that it’s basically impossible to pin them down to some essential common denominator, aside from their virulently nationalist tone.
During the electoral campaign, the entire Republican national security establishment basically mutinied, with its most influential members declaring Trump “utterly unfitted to the office”. This adds a further complication.
We know the work of these scholars and pundits, as well as their diagnoses on the role of the United States in the world and the ensuing policy prescriptions. But none of them have been close to Trump or influenced his worldview (though some of them now seem eager to return to the fold).
So we are still in the dark when it comes to which ideas will shape future American strategies and inform Trump’s foreign policy vision. Were Trump to realise just half of what he promised during the campaign, the US would rapidly emerge as a major destabilising agent in the international order.
Constraints on the president
But that is hardly likely. US foreign policy has certainly been increasingly centralised in the office of the president. Nevertheless, there are clear constraints, domestic and international, on the foreign policy autonomy of any administration, including Trump’s.
As his predecessor Barack Obama quickly discovered, America’s declining power and influence, a public increasingly reluctant to support onerous interventions abroad and an often obstructionist Congress and Senate can all place shackles on the policies and freedom of action of the administration.
And there are enough differences of views between Trump and Republicans, among them the vice president-elect, for Congress and the president to disagree.
Let’s focus, then, on what Trump could realistically do during his first months in office and how that could affect the relationship with Washington’s main European allies.
Five main foreign policy areas can be identified: the environment; rapprochement with Iran; trade; the Ukrainian issue and the relationship with the EU.
While in office, Obama has been able to impose a U-turn on the energy and environmental policy of the United States. His administration has invested heavily in renewables, set tough fuel standards and imposed measures aimed at drastically curtailing carbon emissions.
The administration achieved some impressive results, in line with the general trend among some of the most advanced national economies worldwide.
Most importantly, the US decisively joined the bandwagon of the international effort to tackle climate change, allowing at long last the adoption of the global, far-reaching Paris agreement in 2015.
Donald Trump, like most Republicans in Congress, is a climate change denier, eager to reverse that agreement and end a process that until a few months ago appeared virtually unstoppable.
Even without formally pulling out of the Paris deal, the new administration can basically sabotage it by strapping many of the regulations introduced by Obama and repealing investments in clean energy.
The Iran deal
Iran is another key issue. Like all Republicans, Trump has harshly denounced the July 2015 agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme signed by Tehran and the 5+1 group (the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany). Trump has said it was the “worst deal ever negotiated”.
Undoing such an agreement is not easy, not least because of the opposition of the EU and the five other countries involved in the negotiations.
While opening up to to Cuba – another landmark diplomatic achievement of Obama – is broadly supported by US public opinion, the image of Iran is still strongly negative and opposition to the nuclear deal appears widespread.
In other words, Trump has no domestic incentive to gradually reintegrate Iran in the international community or into the diplomatic dynamics of the Middle East, as Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry aimed to do.
Trade and Republican dogma
During the campaign Trump radically broke with the basic dogma of globalisation, long dominant in the Republican party.
Some of his proposals, particularly the repeal of many provisions of the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, are not feasible.
Whether cosmetic or not, Trump’s hard-nosed protectionism is bound to have a major impact on the ongoing (but basically stalled) negotiations between the United States and the European Union: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
The TTIP has been on life support for quite some time, with growing opposition to it in Europe. Trump’s election might have dealt it the final blow.
Something less comprehensive and ambitious will possibly be discussed in the coming months, if not years.
The risk of new trade conflicts on the Atlantic seems however to be higher than ever – all the more so after Brexit and a possible, troubling new “Anglo-Saxonist” axis between the United States and Britain.
Moving closer to Putin
Finally, there is the delicate question of Russia and Ukraine. Much has been made of Donald Trump’s flaunted infatuation with Vladimir Putin and his virile, no-nonsense foreign policy style.
On that, the president-elect seemed to join the chorus of the many admirers of Russia’s strongman.
According to a one-dimensional narrative, Putin’s cynical but effective grasp of the hard realities of international relations has allowed him to exploit Obama’s naïveté and inconsistency to expand Russia’s influence and strengthen its relative power.
But a simple look at basic economic fundamentals of the United States and Russia provides unequivocal indications on who, between the two, is better and worse off compared to eight years ago. (Hint: it’s not Russia).
This notwithstanding, the US-Russia-Europe relationship is at an impasse: everyone is aware that a solution to the international conundrum is needed. No one is willing (or capable) of taking the first step to alter the current state of affairs.
Mismanaged by all sides, the Ukrainian crisis has hijacked the relation between the US and Russia, so vital on many other international fronts, beginning of course with Syria.
Despite hopes and fears, it’s hard to envision rapid and radical changes. In Congress as, presumably, in the new administration, anti-Russian voices will be well represented; the depth of the problem is such that no easy, decisive solutions are in sight.
The best-case scenario is incremental progress, in a dialogue where Europe could play a decisive role, if its leaders are capable of finding a common voice (and that’s a big if).
The relationship with the EU
What can we expect then from the EU and its main members? Some countries will face intense public pressure to adopt a tougher stance with the new, remarkably unpopular American president.
There will certainly be an electoral incentive in going anti-Trump. Recent polls show how negative Europe’s image of Trump is, and we know from the days of George W Bush how that opinion can affect national politics and Euro-American relations.
A radical departure from the alliance with the US is not likely, given the lack of diplomatic alternatives. So European unity and a willingness to stand up to likely unilateralism from the US’s new administration will be vital.
Angela Merkel’s congratulatory note to President-elect Trump pointed to this possible new direction. Merkel stressed the commonality of values between the two sides of the Atlantic, while implicitly reminding Trump what those values are and should remain:
democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.
There was a certain dignified firmness in the note which, along with the above mentioned unity, will be necessary to counter, temper and if necessary oppose Trump’s actions.