New Statesman: John Bew considers the foreign policy implications of Trump’s election

Nov 13, 2016

No doubt sales of Alexis de Tocque­ville’s Democracy in America will be going through the roof. Much energy will now go into the post-mortem of the US presidential election and the analysis of the social frustrations and anti-establishment forces that it has unleashed. But what happens next in the rest of the world?

The markets will go crazy and apocalyptic memes will flood Twitter. In Britain, there will be much hand-wringing and expressions of deep angst. Yet the government will have to get used to holding its nose very quickly. We may be stuck with a partner whose flaws and temper make us want to leave, but on whom we depend and from whom divorce is unthinkable.

Since 1945, the US has taken on the mantle of the “leader of the free world”. Many in America never reconciled themselves to this idea and the costs that it imposed on a nation with many problems at home. Some of this exasperation explains Donald Trump’s support, and his disparaging comments about Nato were part of an established theme. This is unsettling, and for good reason. The foundational principles of British foreign policy rest upon certain assumptions about US power. Since the Second World War, the whole national security architecture of the UK has been intimately tied to that of the US. The “norms” that Britain has sought to embed in international law have been based on a set of common values shared with America. In Europe, we have grown complacent under the US security umbrella. That umbrella will not be withdrawn overnight, but we may grow more conscious of the chilly wind.

Some inconvenient truths cannot be wished away. Foremost among them is the reality that the foreign policy course taken by the US remains of greater importance to the national security and national interest of the UK than that of any other state. As the pace of global change quickens and the centre of geopolitical gravity shifts to Asia, alliance systems and existing partnerships will be more important than ever. Our relationship with Washington, DC is arguably more crucial to our security and prosperity than at any point since the 1940s – even more so in the wake of the Brexit vote.

In our recent courting of China, we have followed the money and been prepared to recognise power when we see it. Those cold calculations now apply to the West as well as the East. During the EU referendum campaign, Barack Obama warned that the UK might find itself at the “back of the queue” for a bilateral trade agreement with the US if it voted Leave. The government has a clear and pressing interest in being at the front of the queue for any negotiations. As such, it will have no choice but to adjust its feet to the prospect of President Trump. And it may be that a Trump administration will be more instinctively receptive to such a deal than a Clinton one.

The structures of the international system will not change immediately but, when it comes to tone and tenor, we are in uncharted territory. The age of niceties is over. The bluntness and bombast of some of Trump’s foreign policy statements have caused understandable discomfort. The world-view that he articulates has historical roots in US political discourse – often but inaccurately called “isolationism” but more accurately understood as “nativism”.

Still, we are a long away from working out what a “Trump doctrine” will look like in practice. Expect senior roles for the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, and Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York. A return for the strong-minded John Bolton, formerly the ambassador to the UN under George W Bush, might also be on the cards. Beyond that, much will depend on the team that Trump builds during the transition. Over the course of his campaign, there has been an unprecedented revolt among the Republican foreign policy establishment, including a long list of potential office holders who have pledged not to take office under him. While there will be many people happy to fill these posts, there will be question marks over their calibre, and experience will be cause for concern.

President Obama talked about his rejection of the “Washington playbook”. That playbook may be dog-eared but it should not be discounted yet. Ironically for an anti-establishment candidate, the lack of a high-profile team – with a clearly articulated foreign policy agenda – might give the permanent professional staff at the state department or Pentagon a greater sway than otherwise expected.

Another final variable here remains the role of the vice-president, which has also taken on increased significance since the 1970s. Notably, those presidents who have styled themselves as “outsiders” have often fallen back on their vice-presidents. During the vice-presidential debates, Mike Pence offered a notable contrast to Trump in taking a tough line on Russia. Such inconsistencies will have to be ironed out.

In the short term, Vladimir Putin will seize the last months of the Obama administration to cement gains in Syria and perhaps also Ukraine. Under Trump, there will be no expanded US strategy for dealing with the Syrian crisis – as many expected under Hillary Clinton – beyond overseeing an emphatic defeat for Islamic State (and accepting Russia’s and Bashar al-Assad’s role in that). The idea of a US “pivot” to Asia now takes on a different prospect and the likelihood of confrontation with China increases, though initially in terms of economic competition, rather than in the military space. The queue to be the first pilgrim to Pennsylvania Avenue in early 2017 may be a little shorter than it would have been in the event of a Clinton victory. Yet Theresa May will be making that congratulatory phone call as I write. The brave new world may take some getting used to, but there is no other choice.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman

Related Staff

Professor John Bew

John Bew
Head of Britain in the World Read Full Bio

Related Publications

Stay Up To Date

Latest Tweets

RT @UKenergywonk .@claireperrymp: 'We need to put consumers back at the heart of energy policy'. Sounds like this report I wrote at @Policy_Exchange:… #AuroraForum…