If Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican U.S. presidential nominee, is elected in November, what would that mean for the rest of the world?
Trump's proposals on foreign policy -- including banning Muslims from entering the U.S., torturing terror suspects, building a wall on the Mexican border, and threatening to abandon long-held alliances -- have caused alarm in Washington, D.C., and in foreign capitals around the world.
Foreign policy experts from across the U.S. political spectrum have lined up to slam Trump's view of international relations as incoherent and dangerous. Some analysts suggest that Trump does in fact offer a coherent vision of America's role in the world -- one that is "realist, transactional, and Machiavellian” -- and caution that this may play well among middle-class American voters, whether the Washington-centered foreign policy establishment likes it or not.
President Barack Obama says world leaders are "rattled” by the possibility of Trump becoming president, and don't know how seriously to take his ever-shifting rhetoric. Meanwhile, leaders of countries at odds with Obama's America, including Russia and North Korea, can barely contain their glee about Trump.
The WorldPost spoke to global political risk expert Ian Bremmer about what foreign policy under a possible President Trump might look like. Bremmer, founder and president of risk consultancy Eurasia Group, last month wrote the Politico essay "Trump and the World: What Could Actually Go Wrong," and recently authored the book Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.
Has Trump's reaction to the Orlando shooting revealed anything new about his foreign policy views, or about his ideas on counterterrorism?
No, it doesn’t reveal anything new. It’s a double down on existing strategy. He now says the U.S. should ban anyone who comes from a country with "a proven history of terrorism." That’s a bid to skirt the issue that a religious ban is unconstitutional; surely suggested by his advisors. He had recently tried to walk back the idea of a ban, calling it a suggestion. There is no way he can walk it back now.
But this is less a serious foreign policy counterterrorism proposal. It’s pure (and effective) political demagoguery.
Trump revels in being unpredictable. What is safe to predict about how Trump would conduct foreign policy?
It’s safe to assume that his "America First” attitude will lead him to look at all U.S. relationships, including with allies, as zero-sum. He wants a foreign policy that gets more for less.
Particularly on defense issues, allies have to do more and pay more or the U.S. will step back. He’ll kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals under discussion and drive hard-enough bargains on future deals to make the United States a much more protectionist and commercially isolated country. Relations with Muslim governments, including those with whom we coordinate most closely on counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing, will become much more contentious.
In general, Trump’s populist bent will force governments around the world, including those of U.S. allies, to adopt a more confrontational approach to the United States in response to a surge in anti-American feeling from their citizens.
Establishment Republicans seem to be betting on the idea that he'll moderate his policies over time. How risky is this bet? And even if Trump does moderate his policies, what is the risk of having these extreme positions already out there?
A Trump presidency will be less risky if Republican foreign policy hands make it less risky — by joining his government. Trump will need experienced advisers who know what they’re doing. But Trump would still be the “decider,” and we’ve seen enough of his responses to pressure by now to wonder how wisely he might respond to the "bolt from the blue" crisis that all presidents eventually face. A terrorist attack, a major cyberattack, a sharp recession or something else could create new crises within government as he tries to play on public fears to exert pressure to get what he wants from Congress and the courts, threatening the integrity of U.S. institutions in the process.
“Trump’s populist bent will force governments around the world, including those of U.S. allies, to adopt a more confrontational approach to the United States in response to a surge in anti-American feeling from their citizens.”
Has Trump’s "America First" philosophy already impacted politics in other countries, either by emulation or counterreaction?
Trump’s approach exacerbates concerns that governments already have about the degree of U.S. commitment. That’s especially true for those worried about China and North Korea (especially Japan and South Korea) and those worried about Iran (especially Saudi Arabia and Israel). There are also pre-existing fears of U.S. unilateralism based on both former President George W. Bush’s “wars of choice” and President Barack Obama’s willingness to weaponize drones and financial markets to advance U.S. interests. But I don’t believe that other governments have changed policy in response to Trump, because none of them has decided yet whether he has a real shot to win or whether a landslide loss is inevitable.
If Trump wins the presidency, what do you think will be his first foreign policy priority?
I think it will be "make America safe" as part of "America First." He can't avoid that, because a Trump victory would rely directly on public fear and his willingness to try to keep that promise. A lot of what he has proposed — not just the ban on Muslims — will bring him into direct conflict with Congress and the courts, and he’ll probably do his best to win those early fights to show that he’s a winner. Given that a lot of these fights are un-winnable, we can expect an intense form of unusually hostile paralysis in Washington — which might not sound new until you see Trump’s much more openly confrontational version of it.
Where do you think he is going to start running into constraints on his foreign policy?
Everywhere. Many of his better-known promises are unworkable (ejecting 11 million undocumented immigrants), unconstitutional (banning Muslims from entering the country), impractical (building a wall with Mexico), or obviously destructive (massive trade tariffs on Japan and China) that they are non-starters for anyone who knows anything about how government actually works. But we shouldn’t underestimate Trump’s ability to divert attention by changing the subject to something else that makes headlines.
Over 100 well-known foreign policy experts and former government staffers signed a letter vowing to do whatever they can to keep Trump out of office. Obviously there are other bright foreign policy minds out there, but considering a large chunk of that group has already alienated themselves from Trump, what might his foreign policy team look like?
There are probably plenty of people who signed that letter who would work for Trump, and that’s a good thing. There are also others with deep expertise that could help steer a Trump administration in a constructive direction. Take Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, ambassador to China, and a centrist presidential candidate who has urged other Republicans to rally around Trump. Huntsman would be a very strong choice for secretary of state. In addition, Sen. Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, may be a candidate for vice president or for a senior foreign policy position. If Trump had the good sense to bring these two on board, other experienced foreign policy hands would follow.
“Trump’s approach exacerbates concerns that governments already have about the degree of U.S. commitment.”
Which regions, countries or political movements are going to be happy about a Trump presidency?
Russia would be happy to see a U.S. president who will further damage the already strained transatlantic alliance. North Korea would celebrate a president who will undermine relations with South Korea and Japan. China would not welcome the uncertainty a Trump presidency would create, but Beijing would benefit from the fallout if South Korea and Japan had further doubts about the U.S. commitment to their security. Far-right populist movements in Europe would celebrate the election of a protectionist xenophobe in Washington as validation of their own views. A few right-wing Hindu activists in India would rejoice. That’s about it.
How do you expect U.S. allies that Trump has insulted, like the U.K., Germany or all of NATO, to react to a Trump presidency?
I expect they’d react with patience and caution as part of an effort to ensure working relations are maintained. U.S. relations with key allies, already damaged in many cases by the events of recent years, remain deeply institutionalized. There’s a limit to how much damage any one U.S. president can do. But U.S. allies are hoping not to see that proposition tested, and the interests of the U.S. and its allies are genuinely diverging in important ways already.
“Donald Trump didn’t invent demand for nativist, xenophobic, protectionist, policies grounded in fear and paranoia. He’s just very, very good at feeding it.”
Even if he doesn’t win, do you think Trump’s candidacy will have lasting implications on U.S. foreign policy, or on America’s international standing?
Yes, I do. Other governments have seen what’s possible, even if it remains unlikely. They’ll hedge their bets by diversifying their security and (especially) commercial partnerships, because they know that Donald Trump didn’t invent demand for nativist, xenophobic, protectionist, policies grounded in fear and paranoia. He’s just very, very good at feeding it. George W. Bush responded to the 9/11 attacks with an unapologetic unilateralism that frightened and angered other governments. Obama’s foreign policy has been improvisational, a read-and-react approach that is unilateralist in other ways. Now there’s Trump. Other governments no longer know what America stands for. Neither do Americans.
This interview was conducted by email and lightly edited for clarity.
Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.
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