Trump faces five fateful foreign policy choices

Mr Donald Trump seems to have brought the techniques of Twitter to the construction of his government. "Trolling" on Twitter is defined as "making a deliberately offensive online posting with the aim of upsetting someone". In this spirit, Mr Trump has placed a climate-change denier in charge of environmental protection, an opponent of the minimum wage as labour secretary, a conspiracy theorist in charge of the National Security Council and a protectionist at the commerce department. The piece de resistance could be the likely appointment of Mr Rex Tillerson, a recipient of the Kremlin's Order of Friendship, as secretary of state.

The incredulity and alarm that Mr Trump's appointments have caused in Washington are compounded by his disdain for the government's experts. Mr Trump took a controversial phone call from Taiwan's President without consulting the State Department. Now he has ridiculed the CIA for suggesting that Russia meddled in the US presidential election.

However, Mr Trump's appointments, tweets and phone calls cannot yet do more than hint at future changes in the United States' approach to the world. The real shifts can only happen after the new president is actually sworn into office on Jan 20. For now, it is much easier to identify five big choices that face him than to predict eventual outcomes.

RUSSIA The President-elect's rhetoric and his early appointments indicate a strong desire for a rapprochement with Russia. The Kremlin clearly hopes the US will lift the economic sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea. Mr Trump could also make common cause with President Vladimir Putin in Syria, by dropping the US insistence on the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.

But making these changes will be very controversial. Russia's intervention on behalf of Mr Trump during the election, combined with the appointment of Mr Tillerson, has excited lurid speculation about the real nature of Mr Trump's relationship with Russia. Even without conspiracy theories, there will be considerable resistance by influential members of Congress - including prominent Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham - to a Trump-Putin love-in.

EUROPE While Mr Trump has been extravagant in his praise of Mr Putin, he has been open in his contempt for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling her refugee policies "insane". There is now fear in the French and German governments that Mr Trump may seek to help the European far-right by supporting National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election in May, or the Alternative for Germany in the country's elections in September. In that case, both the Kremlin and the White House would be working towards Dr Merkel's defeat. Such a scenario sounds unthinkable. But Mr Trump has also described the Nato alliance as "obsolete". Any genuine attempt to weaken Nato, or to undermine the governments of European allies would, however, encounter fierce resistance in Congress and the media, and could undermine his presidency.

IRAN Reversing US policy on Iran would be much easier for Mr Trump. Republicans in Congress share his disdain for President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. Some of Mr Trump's key appointees - including General Michael Flynn, his national security adviser - are particularly noted for their hostility towards Iran. Ripping up the nuclear deal could put the US on the road to a war with Iran. Some of Mr Trump's advisers may want precisely that outcome. But it is less clear that Mr Trump, who claims to have opposed the Iraq war, really has an appetite for another conflict in the Middle East.


Beyond Iran, the new president will face a series of conflicts, from Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Trump has consistently advocated a much more ferocious approach to the war on "radical Islamist terrorism". But his advisers disagree about what that might mean. Some advocate much deeper American military and political involvement in the Middle East. Others argue that such a policy would be counterproduc- tive and are urging a much narrower focus on counterterrorism.

CHINA Over the long run, the most important international issue facing the US is how to handle the rise of China. Mr Trump's early moves have signalled the possibility of a radical change in the US approach - and a sharp rise in tensions with Beijing. He has talked of imposing punitive tariffs on Chinese exports. His phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan reversed decades of US foreign policy - and was a direct affront to Beijing.

Mr Trump has also endorsed significant expansion of the US Navy, which could signal a more aggressive American rejection of Beijing's ambitions in the South China Sea. If there is a broader strategic thrust to his thinking, it could be to split the informal alliance between Russia and China and instead form a Washington-Moscow axis.

Mr Trump's attitude to foreign policy smacks more of chaotic improvisation than strategic thinking. The biggest questions about his approach to the world may have more to do with process than policy. In a normal US administration, foreign policy shifts are debated between key departments of government and implemented after consultations with allies; under Mr Trump, they are as likely to emerge from a 3am tweet from the White House.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2016, with the headline 'Trump faces five fateful foreign policy choices'. Print Edition | Subscribe