President-elect Donald Trump said on Saturday that he will not “rip up” the Iranian nuclear deal, despite his scepticism over the agreement.
With many United States allies nervous about what Trump’s win will mean for US foreign policy, he has both to begin a major campaign of re-assurance from Israel to Ireland and to prepare for a host of major foreign policy challenges.
He will now start to receive enhanced intelligence briefings and his “in-tray” will be vast. This will include the Middle East, where big offensives are under way against the Islamic State in Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa; political tensions in South Korea, where the president faces pressure to resign at the same time as the nuclear stand-off with North Korea has intensified; and Europe, where the migration crisis is adding to uncertainty in the continent over the future of the European Union post-Brexit.
The conundrums confronting Trump aren’t limited to these issues. There are some indications that international political risks are now at their highest level since the end of the Cold War.
Other geopolitical fault lines include tensions with China over the latter’s territorial claims in the South China Sea; continuing instability in Afghanistan and Libya; and the bleak prospects facing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Meanwhile, continuing hostilities in Ukraine means that Washington’s relations with Moscow are perhaps more strained than at any point since Soviet communism’s collapse.
The bilateral relationship with Moscow under Trump will be a source of scrutiny for many internationally. His relationship with President Vladimir Putin has been warm, rhetorically, and Trump has been criticised for calling Nato “obsolete”.
This world of dangers facing him underlines how much the optimistic hopes of how the post-Cold War world might look have been dashed. The vision of a universal order of liberal, capitalist, democratic states living in peace and contentment, as painted by American political economist Francis Fukuyama and others, has been replaced by a reality in which authoritarian states such as Russia appear to many to be a growing force on the world stage; international terror remains a concern 15 years after 9/11; and unstable countries, including North Korea, have acquired nuclear weapons.
Some critics of presidential contender Hillary Clinton and US President Barack Obama, including Trump, see this international picture as a result of weak leadership in Washington over almost eight years. But this view is too simplistic.
The US remains the most powerful country in the world – certainly in a military sense. It can still project and deploy overwhelming force. Despite some of his rhetoric during the campaign, Trump hopefully recognises Washington is not, to use some jargon from international relations, an all-powerful, hegemonic power. This core fact has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout the post-Cold War period, from Somalia in 1993, Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, and most recently in Ukraine and Syria.
Trump and other unalloyed critics of Clinton and Obama also often fail to acknowledge that, although 2016 may be a year of high political risk, the international landscape also contains opportunities for greater stability with careful international leadership by Trump in 2017 and beyond.
One example is last year’s nuclear deal with Iran and six world powers – the US, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. The agreement, which Trump criticised during the campaign, opens up the possibility of warmer ties between Tehran and the West, and could also enhance global nuclear security.
A lasting nuclear settlement with Iran, which remains possible under Trump, who has said he would be able to secure a better deal, will constitute an important win for long-standing efforts to combat nuclear nonproliferation. This is crucial at a time when, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, more than 40 countries have expressed interest in joining the “club” of 30 states with nuclear energy.
Meanwhile, the rise of China, which has now surpassed the US as the world’s largest economy on purchasing parity terms, is one of the biggest game-changers in global affairs in recent years. This has the potential to be either a growing source of tension with Washington under Trump, or develop into a fruitful partnership.
Growing bilateral co-operation is possible if the two powers can increasingly find ways to resolve harder power disagreements, including South China Sea territorial claims, and co-operating on soft issues such as climate change. By contrast, bilateral rivalry is possible if Beijing’s military power continues to grow rapidly and the country embraces a more assertive foreign policy toward its neighbours in Asia.
The success of Washington in helping to manage the complexity of global affairs will increasingly depend on the co-operation of others, both competitors and allies. A key uncertainty here for the Trump presidency is the direction of bilateral relations with China in the next four years, which could be a force for greater global tension or a deeper strategic partnership.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics