After his early overseas visits as President of the United States, Donald Trump has sought to cement the policy approaches he adopted in his campaign for the office of President.
For a new President, with no prior experience of national or international politics, no experience of high office and seemingly little regard for establishment politics, Mr Trump is, unsurprisingly, an instinctive politician. For the political and diplomatic establishments in other countries the task is still to understand how the new President will translate his populist approach into foreign policies and international relationships.
Mr Trump’s first visits overseas as president, including his participation in NATO and G7 summits, his visit to Saudi Arabia and to Israel, provided some insight into his approach. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s overseas visits, including meetings with the UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, have underlined a key aspect of what we can expect from the evolving approach of the new administration to foreign policy.
President Trump will seek to stabilise long-standing international partnerships in Europe, the Middle-East and South East Asia. At the same time, his approach to events as they unfold – such as interventions in Syria, warning North Korea of America’s willingness to use military action should the North seriously threaten South Korea or Japan, and his unflinching approach to relations with Russia and China – support the analysis that President Trump’s foreign policy will be, in large part, unpredictable.
There are certain contradictions in Mr Trump’s stated foreign policy aims. He seeks to strike a balance between his isolationist approach on issues such as climate change, and his reluctant support for NATO countries perceived to be contributing less than they should to the NATO budget, with a strengthening of the US military-industrial complex.
He has also stated his concern that Russia is pushing ahead in technological advancement in its military hardware, including nuclear weapons.
Equally, the U.S. and China have experienced a complex relationship over many decades. The economies of China and the US are intertwined, symbolised most prominently during the presidential election campaign in the exchanges between Clinton and Trump on the steel industry.
In many ways, the difficulties in the relationship between the US and China over recent years has been associated with trade and foreign policy.
For example, China has been slow to condemn the aggressive posturing of the North Korea regime despite hopes in Washington that China would fervently rebuke North Korea publicly, or at least advise Kim Jong-Un to refrain from continuing with threatening pronouncements and missile tests.
China is one of the biggest holders of American debt and financial markets across the globe take as much interest in the growth or retraction rates of the Chinese economy as they do for the US economy.
President Obama was instrumental in encouraging China to sign up to the climate change commitments developed at the Copenhagen summit and, ultimately, the Paris climate agreement. The new President has stated clearly that he will no longer commit to the budget contributions of the United Nations for climate change programmes if the money can be diverted to domestic infrastructure projects including transport infrastructure.
There can be little doubt about Mr Trump’s views on the European Union. He has described Brussels as a hell-hole, associating his perception of everything that he considers to be flawed in the structure of the EU with an increase in terrorism and a lack of control for borders and citizens.
The prospects of a successful conclusion of EU-US trade agreements under TTIP have certainly been reduced under the new president and possibly curtailed completely – at least in the form proposed prior to Mr Trump’s election. Conversely, Trump stated during his time in the UK, the day after the EU referendum, that the UK would not be at the back of the queue in negotiating a new trade agreement with America. It is possible that the president’s attendance at the NATO summit in Brussels and the G7 summit in Italy has exposed him to the realities of US-European diplomacy. It is also possible that these meetings reinforced his view of the EU and NATO’s European members.
The conflicts in Syria, Iraq and the failed state of Libya are a priority for President Trump. Syria provides an example of how Donald Trump’s election promises directed at domestic policy are intrinsically bound together with his approach to foreign affairs.
The President-elect has committed to halting the programme of welcoming a defined number of refugees seeking to escape from the conflict in Syria into the United States and is seeking agreement in the Senate and Congress for significant increases in defence spending.
In looking for clues to how President Trump’s foreign policy will develop, as his administration settles into office, one key strand of his policy approach is evident.
Above all, foreign policy analysts should remember that Trump is a businessman. It is clear that he views bilateral and multilateral foreign relations as first and foremost business and trading relationships, underpinned by the need for a common approach on security and defence.
As a bargaining tool, a threat to revisit America’s entire portfolio of trading relationships could place the new President in a strong position in the short-term.
In the longer-term it risks alienating America’s key allies and strategic partners around the world. This strategy, if adopted in the way Mr Trump described his approach during the presidential election, may lead to a break-down of trust in international diplomacy. It could also lead to instability in international trade, a slowing of global economic growth and new divisions in the international community.