A Donald Trump presidency is as unpredictable as it was unexpected. While some have welcomed the result, for many Americans, as for America’s friends and allies, there is a deep sense of unease about the future.
Yet, strange as it may sound, the outcome of this election may depend more on what we make of it than on what Trump and his advisers intend. Though daunting, the challenge is pregnant with possibilities.
Some observers have argued that the Trump victory is a reaction to economic hardship, job insecurity, casualisation and an out-of-touch political elite. But that’s only half the story.
People in the US and around the globe are feeling disconcerted by a rapidly changing world and a bewildering, often frightening, set of problems: terrorism, refugees, climate change, a global arms trade, and heightened racial tensions, to name but a few.
That opens the way for people with simple solutions. Enter Donald Trump.
For all his anti-establishment bravado, Trump’s underlying message is nevertheless rather familiar: defence of “national interests” (never defined) through strength. He offers a deeply ingrained sense of American exceptionalism, which justifies unilateral action – even when US power is in steady decline.
The Trump approach
Contrary to simplistic reports, Trump seems unlikely to ditch alliances. In a major foreign policy speech he bluntly stated: “America is going to be a reliable friend and ally.” But alliances will be approached from a position of strength. This means substantially higher US military spending and rapidly upgraded nuclear and conventional forces.
To achieve the “unquestioned military dominance” he seeks, Trump requires America’s allies to carry a greater share of the political, financial and human costs involved. To this end, he has flagged two summits after he assumes office: one with NATO allies and the other with allies in the Asia-Pacific, at which he may well read the riot act.
A similar strategy from strength is foreshadowed in relations with China and Iran. When it comes to the Middle East, he will be looking for reliable friends, notably Israel. Arab regimes will be supported if they are prepared to contribute generously to the defence effort. Human rights and reform in these countries will not be part of America’s strategic calculation.
To this dubious policy mix Trump has added his own eccentricities: abandoning climate change as a priority and giving fossil fuel industries a new lease of life; building an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful” wall on the Mexican border; imposing a ban on Muslims entering the country (later rebadged as “extreme vetting”); opposition to marriage equality; and support for waterboarding.
America’s friends and allies
Little of this agenda will find favour with America’s friends or allies, most of whom still appear committed to the Paris climate change agreement. Many Europeans are intent on strengthening it. The German government has just announced an ambitious climate change action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the driving force behind the EU’s acceptance of hundreds of thousands of refugees, has made it clear that relations with the United States have to rest on:
values of democracy, freedom, and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.
French president François Hollande has spoken of a greater need for a united Europe, able to wield influence on the international stage and promote its values and interests whenever they are challenged.
In even blunter terms, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker accused the new president-elect of ignorance and said he must be taught “what Europe is and how it works”.
The Iranian nuclear deal is enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution, and no other negotiating party proposes to abandon it. Should a Trump administration be foolish enough to reimpose sanctions on Iran, it will not be followed by any of its European allies, let alone Russia or China. All of these countries want to take advantage of the investment and energy opportunities afforded by a stable relationship with Tehran.
To make headway in Washington, Trump may need to compromise with the security, foreign policy and financial establishments, while trying to reward his backers and meet the expectations of his core constituency. Such compromises are unlikely to escape sharp reactions either at home or abroad.
A unique moment
This, then, is a unique moment for America’s friends and allies to fashion a different course, one based on their nobler ethical and humanistic traditions.
Given the rapidly diminishing utility of military power, so painfully evident in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Ukraine, there is wisdom in disengaging from costly and often ineffectual military alliances, and opposing great power military interventions.
A more promising approach is to reorganise national security forces so they can effectively support internationally mandated peacekeeping missions, and develop the skills and infrastructure for collaborative conflict resolution and peace-building initiatives. This is also an opportunity to move swiftly, as foreshadowed by the recent UN resolution, towards a legally binding treaty outlawing the use and threat of nuclear weapons. These directions have greater public appeal than is often imagined.
Growing support now exists for a better regulated international financial system and a legally binding international climate change regime based on principles of equity and effective monitoring of national commitments. Globally and regionally negotiated agreements are needed to address the unprecedented numbers of people displaced by conflict.
Devising economic policies to reduce wealth and income inequalities is no longer considered an outlandish proposition. We need for social and cultural programs that foster dialogue and cooperation across the religious and ethnic divides, domestically and internationally. Here lies the key to a constructive and enduring relationship between the West and Islam.
This ambitious but commonsense agenda clearly exceeds the capacities and inclinations of many governments. However, it is being embraced with increasing energy by social movements, educational, cultural, religious and professional actors, and by the socially aware corporate and philanthropic sectors.
A new, more imaginative politics is beckoning.
Authors: Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University