Trump’s foreign policy – Key areas for transatlantic partners to watch closely

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Members of Witness Against Torture Hold a Demonstration Representing the Nine Men Killed Without Charge or Trial at Guantánamo

Donald Trump's statements on foreign policy have often been controversial, but also inconsistent.  Since his election, the world wonders in which direction U.S. foreign policy will evolve. Many commentators have pointed out that there might be a shift towards a semi-isolationist approach and a renunciation of the liberal, multilateral, and rules-based international order put in place by the U.S. since 1945. Although Trump’s nominations and their hearings in the Senate have helped indicate future U.S. foreign policies, much remains speculative and how Trump will react to international crises and threats to U.S. interests remains difficult to predict. After all, Donald Trump might backtrack, or at least water-down, some of his campaign promises. Despite this uncertainty, there are several areas of U.S. foreign and security policy that are likely to change under Trump and that will directly affect Europe and transatlantic relations. For European policy-makers, the Trump administration’s positions on NATO, the EU, Russia, Syria, human rights violations, the fight against Islamic terrorism, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the Middle East peace process will be particularly important to follow once President-elect Trump enters into office on January 20th, 2017.

Disinterest in multilateralism, NATO, and European integration

During his campaign, Donald Trump has questioned the principles shaping U.S. foreign policy since 1945, including American support for a liberal world order and international institutions that help to foster and sustain it. In his skepticism of traditional alliances and multilateralism, Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and appears not to have a high opinion of the United Nations and the European Union. The European partners have since wondered how committed the Trump administration will be to NATO and its principle of collective defense.  In particular, Trump’s statements suggest that his commitment to the alliance should not be taken for granted, especially if NATO partners do not meet their obligations under the NATO guidelines for defense spending. Some European leaders have already started to do their homework with respect to decisions to increase defense budgets. The Trump administration is likely to push for further steps in this direction. In addition, he might also call upon NATO to become a more functional organization for addressing topics that he deems urgent challenges, such as the fight against Islamic terrorism. Some commentators have pointed out that the Trump administration might push for the appointment of a NATO Inspector-General and a general audit to ensure that the organization is providing “good value for the money.”[1] Europeans should therefore be prepared for U.S. pressure on NATO’s priorities and its modus operandi.

Trump might change his skepticism of NATO once he recognizes how it allows the U.S. to remain a “European power”, gives it influence over its allies, and ensures Vladimir Putin’s respect. Cabinet nominees like General James Mattis, Trump’s pick for the position as U.S. Secretary of Defense, who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation and who, in his Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, defended long-standing U.S. alliances, might persuade Trump that the U.S. would gain nothing by retreating from NATO and allowing Vladimir Putin to gain greater freedom of action in Europe. At the same time, voices in his administration like Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobile and nominee for U.S. Secretary of State, might pressure NATO to reconvene a regular dialogue with Russia and ensure that Russia’s positions on NATO – for example the Kremlin’s opposition towards NATO expansion in Eastern Europe – will be taken seriously.

Finally, Europeans should be prepared for Trump’s lack of genuine support for European integration. His policies might even undermine the European Union by seeking relations directly with the major European countries and ignoring EU institutions. Trump has welcomed the outcome of the Brexit referendum and is likely to suggest a special relationship and bilateral trade deal with London. Not surprisingly, the first European leader that Trump will meet with is British Prime-minister Theresa May. Given his disdain for multilateral trade agreements, Trump also is likely to suspend the TTIP negotiations.

Uncertain future of U.S. sanctions on Russia

Among Donald Trump’s most controversial statements are those involving Russia and President Vladimir Putin. Trump’s rhetoric indicate that he will seek a rapprochement and more constructive working relationship with Russia, a direction that is especially unnerving to many Eastern Europeans. The Kremlin hopes that Trump will acknowledge Russia as an important player in global affairs, a recognition that Barack Obama, who once called Russia a regional power, refused to do. Most European governments fear that the Trump administration will lift the sanctions on Russia. Indeed, it is unclear if Rex Tillerson would advocate upholding the sanctions regime given his former company’s opposition toward them. However, attempts to lift the sanctions would inevitably bring the Trump and his administration in conflict with Congress, which can oppose the removal of parts of the sanctions regime. Republican senators like Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham have been skeptical of Tillerson’s view of the sanctions and have thus threatened to oppose his appointment. Also, Senator John McCain had concerns about Rex Tillerson's positions on Russia. In order to maintain good relations with Congress, Trump might decide to maintain the complete sanctions regime.  Trump could easily lift the Ukraine-related the sanctions that are based on President Obama’s executive orders, but this would raise fierce opposition from senators from both sides of the aisle. No matter what happens to the Ukraine-related U.S. sanctions on Russia, Europeans should be prepared to take the driver’s seat in upholding the sanctions regime in the future.

Besides the sanctions regime on Russia, many Europeans are concerned that Trump will make concessions to the Kremlin with regard to Ukraine. Trump had said earlier that he would be looking into whether to recognize Crimea as Russian territory. Trump will face opposition in Congress, where a bipartisan group of 27 senators in December urged Trump to increase the political, economic and military support for Ukraine. But it is unlikely that Trump will show much interest in the future of Ukraine, which he apparently does not consider an important U.S. partner.  It is also unlikely that the Trump administration will follow the senators’ call to provide defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine. The Europeans probably have to accept that the Trump administration will leave the resolution of the Ukraine conflict to the European, Ukrainian, and Russian governments.

Tacit acceptance of the al-Assad regime in Syria

Donald Trump has argued that he picked Rex Tillerson due to his experience with international deal-making. While improved bilateral U.S.-Russia relations might indeed result in better business opportunities for U.S. companies in Russia, Trump’s primary interest seems to be the prospect of closer U.S.-Russia coordination in international affairs. As a first tactical step, and in an effort to accommodate Vladimir Putin, the Trump administration might offer closer U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria. This would probably include the suspension of – already limited – U.S. support for the Syrian opposition. Trump might hope that cooperation with the Kremlin will extend to areas beyond Syria, for example closer U.S.-Russia coordination on counterterrorism efforts, or on containing China’s expanding influence in the world.

Trump has oftentimes criticized American military and political involvement in the Middle East and is likely to reduce U.S. engagement in the region. Regarding Syria, Trump’s primary objective will be the containment and defeat of ISIS. He apparently expects that the Kremlin, in cooperation with the al-Assad regime and other allies, will step up their efforts to fight ISIS in Syria once the U.S. abandons its support for the Syrian opposition. Besides the containment of ISIS, Trump does not appear to be overly interested in getting involved in conflict resolution in Syria but may leave conflict resolution and the oversight of a potential political transition to the neighboring states and Russia. The Europeans should be prepared that the Trump administration is likely to tacitly accept the al-Assad regime as the legitimate Syrian government.

Reluctance to speak up against human rights violations

In contrast to many Republican Senators and Congressmen, Donald Trump appears not to embrace the role of the U.S. as key promoter of democratic values. He has often made clear that he does not believe in foreign interventions as well as regime change and nation-building policies. Given his aversion to “globalism”, he is also unlikely to support democracy promotion. Trump’s earlier professions of sympathy for several autocratic leaders as well as Rex Tillerson’s statements during his Senate hearing do not indicate that the U.S. will play an active role in condemning autocratic regimes’ violations of human right or civil liberties. For example, unlike Hillary Clinton, who in 2011 as Secretary of State cited serious concerns about the fairness of Duma elections, neither Donald Trump nor Rex Tillerson are likely to criticize the violation of civil liberties in Russia. As a result, Europeans may have to fly solo in speaking up against human rights violations in the world and in defending democratic principles and civil liberties.

A top foreign policy priority for the Trump administration will be the fight against Islamic terrorism wherever it threatens U.S. interests. The primary target will be ISIS. But knowing that ISIS is not a conventional enemy whose ideology can be entirely eliminated, Trump will likely tolerate authoritarian regimes in the Middle East as long as they officially commit themselves to the fight against terrorism (with whatever means). It is not unlikely that the Trump administration will seek good working relations with the Turkish government, which has recently improved its relations with the Kremlin, if the Erdogan government steps up its efforts in the fight against Islamic terrorism. As a result, the Europeans are unlikely to have a partner in the U.S. that shares their concerns about the state of democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Turkey.

More aggressive counterterrorism measures

Trump has consistently advocated a more aggressive approach in counterterrorism measures, especially with regards to radical Islam. He will likely request the Europeans to become more engaged in this field, too, for example in the framework of NATO. Commentators fear that Trump’s policies will lead to a more general conflict with Muslim nations. Indeed, some of Trump’s nominees like the designated National Security Advisors Mike Flynn and K.T. McFarland consider Islam as a political ideology and are openly islamophobic.

Many commentators fear that the Trump administration will also enable U.S. intelligence services to reinstate measures like water-boarding and further expand targeted killing of suspected Islamic terrorists abroad. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s candidate for the post as CIA director, is considered a hardliner in the fight against Islamic terrorism and has in the past defended what is referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques” (although Pompeo argued in his Senate hearing that the CIA would not restart the use of these techniques if he is approved for the position). Pompeo is also in favor of maintaining the prison in Guantanamo and wants to expand NSA surveillance activities to fight Islamic terrorism. Given Trump’s picks for important national security position, it cannot be ruled out that his administration might revert to extreme counterterrorism methods that Europeans deem illegal, which would be a serious obstacle for close transatlantic coordination in counterterrorism policies. In its fight against radical Islam, it also cannot be ruled out that U.S. intelligence agencies will expand its surveillance activities in Europe. 

General James Mattis, who has opposed torture, could become a counterbalance to extreme positions on counterterrorism methods within Trump’s cabinet. Given his appreciation for the transatlantic relationship, the Europeans might hope that Mattis will become a “voice of reason” within Trump’s cabinet and a key contact for the Europeans. Donald Trump has oftentimes pointed out his admiration for General Mattis, but it remains to be seen how much he can assert himself as leading voice within the administration’s national security team.

Uncertain support for Iran nuclear deal and Middle East peace process

Almost all of Trump’s nominations share his critical stance on the nuclear deal with Tehran and regard Iran as a major threat to U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. They also have strong allies in the Congress, where many Republicans have doubts that Iran will continue to comply with the deal. Several of Trump’s nominees have warned that the deal encourages Iran to expand throughout the Middle East and to pursue intercontinental ballistic missiles. A suspension of the nuclear deal from the U.S. side is not complicated: Trump would simply not sign a waiver for lifting the U.S. sanctions on Iran that were in place before the deal entered into force, and U.S. sanctions would be re-imposed. Tehran’s influence in the Middle East will further expand if the Trump administration remains on the sidelines of the political transition in Syria. In addition, the Iranian government is likely to benefit from the weakening or even defeat of ISIS.  Trump will therefore seek ways to push back on Iran in other areas such as the nuclear deal. This would not only lead to increasing U.S.-Iran tensions but also diplomatic disputes with the other nations that have co-signed the deal. Most Europeans are in favor of complying with the deal unless the Iranian government violates the terms of the agreement. Also the Kremlin has a strong interest in maintaining the nuclear deal and Vladimir Putin might put pressure on Donald Trump to preserve it.

According to his campaign rhetoric, one of Trump’s priorities in the Middle East is ensuring Israel’s security. This view is shared by many Republicans who would regard the dismantling of the nuclear deal as positive step to reach this objective. Israel’s government would certainly welcome U.S. suspension of the Iran agreement. Trump has promised to improve relations with the Netanyahu government, and his nomination as ambassador to Israel, the lawyer David Friedman, has already announced that he would re-locate the U.S. embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Friedman also questions the need for a two-state solution and supports new settlements in the West Bank. If these positions become official U.S. foreign policy, it would break with the past administrations’ – and European –approach to seek a peace deal that leads to a two-state solution. Europeans should anticipate the Trump administration’s withdrawal from a two-state solution, making a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine rather unlikely during the Trump presidency.

The potential withdrawal of U.S. support for the Iran nuclear deal and from principles of the Middle East peace process would reflect Trump’s aversion to multilateral approaches to conflict resolution. Europeans should be prepared that the Trump administration will not share its views on the effectiveness of the Iran nuclear deal and the Middle East peace process, and that its interest in multilateral efforts to address these issues will at best be lukewarm.

Realist approach to foreign policy

Based on his statements on foreign policy issues during and after the campaign, historian Walter Russell Mead and other commentators have placed Donald Trump within a “Jacksonian” tradition in U.S. foreign policy.[2] Named after 19th century U.S. President Andrew Jackson, this foreign policy school of thought is characterized by a suspiciousness of the outside world and tendency toward isolationism. However, Jacksonian tradition dictates that when U.S. interests are attacked, the U.S. response must be overwhelming and fierce, with few to no limits on the use of force in a war of self-defense. Donald Trump indeed does not appear to believe in the U.S. role as leader of the free world and the benefits of the U.S. entanglement in traditional alliances and multilateral trade regimes. His likely disinterest in the future of Syria or in supporting democracy are examples that illustrate that he might get less engaged in international affairs than previous administrations. It is also not difficult to imagine that Donald Trump would alter his semi-isolationist approach once he feels that U.S. interests are threatened, for example by Iranian actions in the Persian Gulf or by Chinese advances in the South China Sea.

On the other hand, Trump’s likely efforts to improve relations with Russia, to intensify the fight against Islamic terrorism, and to contain the influence of countries like Iran or China, indicate that U.S. foreign policy under President Trump might be less isolationist than sometimes assumed. Indeed, the U.S. will probably pursue its interests more narrowly and more unilaterally than in the past eight years. Trump’s focus on “America first” indicates a realist approach to foreign policy that is less considerate of the interests and preferences of allies and partners. Europe should be prepared for such pivotal changes in U.S. foreign policy.


[1] James Stavridis, “It’s time to audit NATO”, Foreign Policy, 10 November 2016, see:

[2] Walter Russell Mead, “Donald Trump’s Jacksonian Revolt”, Wall Street Journal, 11 November 2016, see: