This is a commentary that I hoped never to write. The reason is not just that a Trump presidency is unlikely to embrace my preferred policy options; it is also that writing about Trump’s foreign policy requires heroic feats of speculation and supposition, even by the immodest standards of punditry.
During the endless presidential campaign, Trump abhorred policy details and embraced contradiction to such an extent that we really have very little idea about how he would approach most specific issues. This means that you should not believe anyone who says they know what Trump will do — even if that person’s name is Donald Trump.
We need to begin, therefore, with a few background principles.
The first is that Donald Trump matters more than his policy. The starting point of Trump’s foreign policy is not any given pronouncement he made during the campaign or will make as president. It is, rather, his personality, his temperament, and his judgment. He has over the course of many years maintained a few consistent approaches – on opposition to multilateral trade deals, on a belief that the U.S. gets a raw deal from its allies, and on his admiration for authoritarian strongmen. But beyond these core attitudes nearly every position (including his stance on immigration that played such a large role in the campaign) seems subject to whim.
Many in the foreign policy establishment are putting forward the notion that Trump will delegate his powers to those more interested in the details of policy, or that the American system of checks and balances will constrain him from carrying out his most extravagant promises But these notions misunderstand how U.S. foreign policy is made. Particularly since 9/11, foreign policy in the United States has become extraordinarily centralized in the office of the President. The Congress and courts have become basically supine in foreign policy. In part as a result, foreign policy necessarily reflects the President. If he refuses to engage, his subordinates will wage bureaucratic warfare against each and the policy will devolve into complete confusion.
The second principle follows from the first: the essence of Trump’s foreign policy will be its unpredictability. Even governments such as those in Russia or Turkey that preferred Trump over Clinton are concerned about this. Their main concern seems to be his need for recognition and respect. He is easy to offend – even without trying – and monomaniacal in his vindictiveness, as his twitter feed has so amply demonstrated.
The Russia-Turkey dispute of 2015 is useful in imagining how this might play out in his presidency. After Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet, Putin and Erdogan engaged in an international pissing contest and brought the relationship to the brink of war, despite a previous acknowledgment that they had many shared interests. This propensity for wounded pride is a problem inherent in all strongmen leaders, as it will likely be with Trump.
Finally, we should take seriously Trump’s consistent focus on negotiations, as spelled out in The Art of the Deal (even though he didn’t actually write it). For him, deals are transactions in which you aim to get the best outcome for your side. They are about self-interest, not strategic relationships. They are about making a profit, not about shared values. They are about the rewards of the present, not about nostalgic appeals to the past. Appeals to a Trump administration based on shared history, ideals or long-term interests are therefore only likely to be seen as negotiating weakness.
Appeals to a Trump administration based on shared history, ideals or long-term interests are only likely to be seen as negotiating weakness.
Maintaining effective cooperation with the United States should be possible but it cannot be based on the old formula of solidarity, common interests, and shared values. Instead, Europe should consider a new approach based on the following pillars:
- Greater investment in defence and security – Now more than ever, the member states of Europe need to be able to take care of themselves and provide for their own security. This is not simply about burden-sharing or the reliability of American guarantees. President Trump’s approach implies he will only co-operate with those who can bring something to the negotiating table that he needs. At the moment, Europe does not bring enough in terms of defence. It needs to boost its own investment if it wants Trump’s America to continue investing in Europe.
- Unity – Like any good negotiator, Trump will look to find the weakest link on the other side and exploit it. This is hardly a new tactic for U.S. administrations, but in a Trump presidency we can expect that it will present an even greater threat to European interests. At the moment, exploiting disunity in Europe is surpassingly easy for outside powers, particularly the United States, which maintains “special relationships” with practically every member of the EU. This disunity may soon become a weakness that Europe cannot afford.
- Patience – The natural European response to a new presidency is to seek to shape the policy views of the new administration and even ingratiate themselves to the new president. They will therefore seek to reach out early to Trump and to his appointees to extend the hand of friendship and to explain their case for specific U.S. policies toward Europe. This might ordinarily be an uncontroversial impulse. But in the context of a negotiation, it will only signal to Trump that Europe is a weak supplicant. It is better to sit back and wait for Trump to come to Europe.
These are the necessary prerequisites for shaping Trump’s approach to Europe. Of course, the most essential fact about European governance is that just because something is necessary doesn’t mean it will happen. European member states have their own troubled domestic politics, their own budget constraints, and their own populist, anti-globalist movements. Their governments will find these steps difficult if not impossible to carry out.
But they should be under no illusions. If European governments do not take serious steps to secure a good deal with President Trump, they will likely end up with a bad one.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.