These Are the Likely Winners and Losers of Trump's Foreign Policy

Russia and Israel look like winners. International trade and security alliances are likely to take some hits.
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the University of South Florida on Feb. 12.
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the University of South Florida on Feb. 12.

Elections, as the saying goes, have consequences. As always, the presidential race will prove to be particularly impactful ― especially beyond our shores. As we embark on a brave new world of foreign policy, it is worth thinking through big themes that may emerge over the next four years. Who are the winners and losers?

Winners

1. Russian President Vladimir Putin

Trump and Putin continue to exchange admiring comments, congenial phone calls and comments about the need for a new reset for the relationship. Putin desperately wants to get out from under sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, prop up the brutal dictator Bashar Assad in Syria and disconnect the U.S. from Europe, especially in the context of security generally and NATO in particular. Compared to the chances of accomplishing those goals without a Trump administration, Russia is clearly a beneficiary in the foreign policy world.

2. Israel

The Israelis will welcome the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran by the United States. Even if the Europeans fail to come along on sanctions renewal (which appears likely), the Israelis will still welcome a policy of walking back the Iran nuclear deal, which they see as deeply flawed. They will also expect a more sympathetic ear in the White House than they have received over the past eight years given the fraught relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

3. America’s Sunni allies, particularly Turkey and Egypt

The new administration has signaled less of a concern about human rights abuses and more willingness to work directly with “strong leaders,” such as Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. Additionally, look for less strict controls on military technology and support to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, all of which also opposed the Iran nuclear deal.

4. China

Despite the calls during the campaign for tariff barriers with China, Beijing might be a winner under a Trump administration. The real plus from China’s perspective is the lack of appetite in the new administration for Obama’s so-called “pivot to Asia” and for defending allies in the region (at least without payment). This “pay to play” defense structure will be very, very welcome in Beijing as President Xi Jinping continues to push around weaker nations bordering the territorially disputed South China Sea and bumping elbows with Japan. No wonder President Shinzo Abe is rushing to New York for a face-to-face meeting with the President-elect in Trump Tower. 

Trump has signaled less of a concern about human rights abuses and more willingness to work directly with 'strong leaders.'

Losers

1. The core idea of international free trade

This is the biggest loser. The Trump administration has been more consistent on this point than any other across the realm of foreign and economic policy. Throughout the campaign, the theme has been essentially that the U.S. got suckered on free trade deals from the North American Free Trade Agreement to the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership. The new team is very clear that they will abrogate or renegotiate deals that they feel are shipping jobs overseas, and President-elect Donald Trump has been sharply critical of NAFTA and TPP in particular. The latter appears to be dead in the water, unless President Obama can throw a pretty remarkable Hail Mary pass into the end zone before Congress adjourns at the end of the year.

2. The system of security alliances the U.S. has painstakingly built up in the post-World War II era

Despite some mild qualifications of the highly negative campaign positions taken against NATO that were recently passed along by President Obama (hardly a reassuring conduit if you think about it), the rhetoric overall remains quite negative. The central thesis is that allies should be prepared to pay for services rendered in terms of their defense (both in Asia and Europe) and must contribute their fair share to mutual defense. While the push for NATO members to all pay the 2 percent of gross domestic product into defense that NATO has agreed (which many nations fail to do) is actually quite mainstream, it has come with very sharp accusations of freeloading that have jangled nerves in Europe and Asia.

Netanyahu listens to Obama during a meeting at the White House on Nov. 9, 2015.
Netanyahu listens to Obama during a meeting at the White House on Nov. 9, 2015.

3. Immigrants

Migration will be reduced, walls will be built (perhaps with some fencing included), vetting will be “extreme,” certain countries will not be permitted to send anyone and discussions of loyalty oaths and religious barriers remain part of the conversation. As a 4-star admiral, I visited over a hundred U.S. embassies all around the world, and I never failed to see lines of locals seeking visas to our nation. Under the new administration, barriers will be high indeed.

4. The Iranian nuclear agreement

Negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry, and agreed only by the executive branch, the agreement is widely derided by the new administration’s team across the spectrum of potential new actors in government. Trump often commented on the campaign trail about his desire to abrogate it and re-impose sanctions. This will cause deep concern in Iran of course and also in Europe, given that many firms there have rushed to do business with Tehran after the sanctions were dropped.

On balance, there will clearly be less emphasis on the U.S. engaging globally (especially in defense, security and trade) and more of a retrenchment toward the “America First” policies that Trump has consistently outlined. This will create more of a vacuum in the world, and nature abhors a vacuum ― even if Presidents Putin and Xi think it would be a very salutatory opportunity indeed. The names being mentioned for key foreign policy roles will bring a variety of viewpoints and experiences to the conversation, so the specifics of foreign policy ― which will not be a priority in a Trump administration ― may shift and change. But the list of winners and losers, and the general themes outlined above, will likely remain.

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