Trump’s pugnacious foreign policy agenda

United States President Donald Trump gives his first major speech to Congress on Tuesday February 28. The landmark address, after his frenzied five and a half weeks in office, will set out Trump’s pugnacious plan for 2017 and beyond with national security and foreign policy at the heart of this agenda, including the possibility of rapprochement with Russia.

The speech, which will also focus on domestic policy areas such as tax cuts, infrastructure and healthcare, will reaffirm “a new foreign policy direction” – potentially the biggest shake-up since 1945.
His approach will challenge key elements of post-war orthodoxy pursued, in different ways, by Democratic and Republican presidents based, in part, around a commitment to expanding the liberal democratic order.

On Friday, Trump reaffirmed his nationalist forward direction, asserting he will soon make a budget request to Congress for “one of the greatest military build-ups in American history” to make the country’s defences “bigger and stronger than before so that nobody is going to mess with us”.

He also confirmed on Friday that he is working on a new homeland security plan, including a fresh immigration clampdown so “foreign terrorists will not be able to strike America”, plus the hiring of up to 100 000 new border officials. He also said that work will start “ahead of schedule” on the Mexico “border wall” that could cost an estimated $21.5-billion and that he was developing a military plan to “obliterate” so-called Islamic State abroad.

Since assuming office, Trump has also announced he may bring in a border tax to try to boost US manufacturing; reiterated his view that the country has “been devastated” by trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which his team is now reviewing, following his scrapping in January of US involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership; placed new sanctions on Iran and put the country “on notice”; sought to introduce a temporary immigration ban for seven Muslim-majority countries; warned of the need for greater sharing of burdens with allies, including Europe and Japan; hinted at withdrawing from the Paris climate change deal; and indicated more combative relations with China.

In coming weeks, following Trump’s meetings with several world leaders – including the prime ministers of the United Kingdom, Israel, Japan and Canada (Theresa May, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shinzo Abe and Justin Trudeau respectively) – the president will be turning more of his attention to other great powers, including Russia and China. Already, the president has spoken on the phone with presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and face-to-face meetings will happen later this year.

On Friday, Trump called Beijing the “grand champions of currency manipulation” and it is already clear that the country could become a bête noire of the administration, with potentially significant tensions on the horizon. Underlying the president’s hawkish sentiment is a conviction that China represents the primary threat to US interests globally and this is one area of policy where Trump appears aligned with his Cabinet.

For instance, both defence secretary James Mattis and secretary of state Rex Tillerson have slammed Beijing’s behaviour. Mattis accused China earlier this month of “shredding the trust” of its neighbours and his remarks build on those of Tillerson, who said that Beijing should “not be allowed access” to its new, artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Yet, Trump has also acknowledged that China can also play a potentially constructive role in key areas such as North Korea’s continuing provocations. In this context, the business deal-maker in Trump has surfaced with his comments that “everything is under negotiation” with Beijing and it appears that he may ultimately be looking for a grand bargain extending beyond the security arena to economics too. Here, one specific measure Trump wants to see is China floating the yuan:  he asserts that the country is manipulating its currency by keeping its exchange rate artificially low in order to secure export advantage.

With Congress already looking into allegations of the Trump team’s ties with Moscow, the president’s stance toward Russia has the potential to be the single most controversial area of his foreign policy. His national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after misleading Vice-President Mike Pence over conversations he had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyev over US sanctions.

It is clear that, at heart, Trump appears to believe Russia is not a serious threat to the US and that there is scope for rapprochement – even hinting in January that he could drop economic sanctions if the country “is helpful”.  Specifically, he perceives common interests over issues such as preventing Iran from securing nuclear weapons, combating terrorism and potentially even helping contain China in a new global balance of power.

Yet, there are strongly contrasting views in his Cabinet, including from Pence, who last week called for Russia to be “accountable” for its actions. Moreover, Mattis last month said that Moscow “is raising grave concerns on several fronts” and Tillerson has also been forceful in his criticism of Russia.

How this internal administration battle pans out will be an intriguing test of the balance of power within it. And one key area, which will be most keenly watched, internationally, will be how any warming ties with Moscow may affect Nato.

Already, uncertainty over Trump’s Nato stance is spurring Europeans to seek to reverse about a decade of defence spending cuts, totalling around 10% in real terms.  To this end, a new European defence action plan was discussed at December’s European Union summit that could see greater continental military co-operation too.

Taken overall, Tuesday’s speech will reassert the “America first” vision of Trump’s presidency. In coming months, he will increasingly flesh out his stance toward Russia and China, which will help reveal not just the balance of power within the administration but also the likely scope of the potential transformation of US foreign and national security policy in coming years.

  Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics



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