Will Trump stick to ‘America first’ or build bridges with Nato, Europe and G7?

United States President Donald Trump’s foreign foray enters its second phase this week when he moves from the Middle East to Europe. In so doing Trump will be entering into the top table of global security and economic diplomacy with leaders from Nato and the G7 countries.

Some four months after taking office, European and wider Western allies are still very nervous about what his presidency means for US international policy. The European leg of the visit will thus see the Trump team intensify a campaign of diplomatic reassurance amid calls for him to move further away from his “America first” rhetoric.

A third of a year into office, Trump’s international approach remains undefined. He promised “a new foreign policy direction” in what was seen, in some quarters earlier this year, as perhaps the biggest potential shake-up of US foreign relations since 1945.

It is already clear that the new administration will challenge some key elements of post-war orthodoxy pursued, in different ways, by Democratic and Republican presidents, including over international trade.But his period in office so far has been much clearer for his reversing of previous campaign rhetoric and pledges, rather than fulfilling them.

Take the example of Syria where his “America first” rhetoric indicated that he would not seek to deepen US involvement in that country. Yet a few weeks ago he authorized US missile strikes targeted at the Shayrat air base after an earlier poison gas attack on citizens in a rebel-held town allegedly committed by the Damascus regime. Moreover, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has asserted that the Trump administration is ready to take further military steps in the country if needed.

This is just one example of why key Nato and G7 allies are nervous of the unpredictability of Trump’s presidency. This problem will have been made worse by the furore surrounding the president’s disclosure earlier this month of sensitive intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which has been strongly criticised even by many members of Trump’s Republican Party.

While much remains uncertain about Trump, what is clear as he prepares for the Nato and G7 summits is the host of major foreign policy challenges he has inherited in a world full of potential danger. This ranges from the Middle East, where there are bleak prospects facing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and where significant offensives are still underway in Syria and Iraq against Islamic State, to Europe, where there is considerable uncertainty in the continent over the future of the European Union post-Brexit.

Trump will discover at the Nato and G7 summits, the conundrums confronting him internationally aren’t limited to these issues. There are indicators 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, instability in Afghanistan and Libya, international terrorism remains an international concern more than a decade and a half after 9/11, unstable countries (including North Korea) have acquired nuclear weapons, continuing hostilities in Ukraine, and tensions over Syria. Washington’s relations with Moscow are at a strained point, which makes Trump’s disclosure of such sensitive intelligence to Lavrov all the more perplexing.

Some critics of former president Barack Obama, including Trump himself, see this troubled international picture as a result of weak leadership in Washington during the last eight years. This is too simplified.

The US remains the most powerful country in the world – certainly in a military sense. It can, for instance, still project and deploy overwhelming force.

Despite some of his rhetoric, Trump hopefully recognises Washington is not 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 also most recently in Ukraine and Syria.

What this underlines  is that the success of Washington in helping manage the complexity of international relations will, far from Trump’s “America first” philosophy suggests, increasingly depend on the co-operation of others, including the G7 and Nato. And it includes the EU too, which Trump has become the first US president to show outright public hostility, given his call for more countries to follow the United Kingdom’s lead in voting to leave the bloc.

In terms of this international co-operation agenda, a key uncertainty for Trump’s presidency is the direction of bilateral relations with China, which could be a force for greater global tension or deeper strategic partnership. Earlier this year, it had appeared Beijing could become the new administration’s bête noire as part of his “America first” outlook.

But Trump’s stance toward Beijing appears to have undergone a significant change and this partially reflects the importance of North Korea in his foreign policy. The president has acknowledged that China could potentially play a constructive role in curbing Pyongyang’s continuing provocations, which could provoke his first foreign policy crisis.

It remains to be seen exactly how US-China relations will pan out during the next four years. 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.

Growing bilateral co-operation is also realistic if the two powers can increasingly find ways to resolve harder power disagreements, including South China Sea territorial claims, while co-operating on soft issues such as climate change. 

As Trump will rapidly discover, including at the Nato and G7 summits, the success of Washington in helping manage the complexity of global affairs will increasingly depend upon such partnerships and alliance building.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond works from Oxford/Istanbul. PhD researcher: Islamic history and thought Turkey, Egypt, Gulf. Mideast politics. @StAntsCollege, Oxford. Previous @PembrokeOxford, BBC Arabic, @ECFR, Reuters Andrew Hammond has over 6420 followers on Twitter.

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