A second Trump term and US foreign policy - Hindustan Times
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A second Trump term and US foreign policy

Mar 26, 2024 08:00 AM IST

Allies and rivals both have reason to worry. But a re-energisation of isolationism as the US’s preferred stand doesn't really depend on the election's outcome

What if Donald Trump wins the United States (US) presidential elections later this year? That’s the question governments around the world are now asking themselves. The former president has at least even odds of winning back the White House. But even if Trump is the same charismatic, impulsive, abrasive, transactional person he was four years ago, the world around him has become a more obviously dangerous place.

Former President Donald Trump speaks after hearing at New York Criminal Court, Monday, March 25, 2024, in New York. New York Judge Juan M. Merchan has scheduled an April 15 trial date in Trump's hush money case.(AP) PREMIUM
Former President Donald Trump speaks after hearing at New York Criminal Court, Monday, March 25, 2024, in New York. New York Judge Juan M. Merchan has scheduled an April 15 trial date in Trump's hush money case.(AP)

As president from 2017-2021, Trump scored some notable foreign-policy successes--a revitalised North American free trade agreement, the Abraham Accords, fairer North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) cost-sharing, new and stronger security alliances in Asia--but two wars, a slowing China, a sluggish global economy, and the startlingly fast (and accelerating) development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will make entirely new demands on his leadership.

On China, a second Trump presidency would mean a turn towards a more confrontational US approach to the rivalry. Begin with the return of Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s hawkish trade czar, and a new push against US allies like Japan and South Korea to renegotiate trade and security terms with his administration. The success of Trump’s approach will depend almost entirely on how Beijing responds. President Xi Jinping might decide his strategy of greater (though still limited) engagement has failed, and that the US can never be a predictably reliable bargaining partner. Or he could decide that China’s worsening long-term economic prospects demand a more conciliatory approach, presenting Trump with some notable policy victories. Whatever happens, a second Trump presidency would create both bigger risks in relations with China and bigger opportunities than a second Biden term would.

On NATO, Trump will weaken the transatlantic alliance. His conviction that all European members keep the promises they made decades ago to spend a minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product on their own defence is deeply held--and not unreasonable. Why, he asks, if Russia poses such a grave security threat to Europe’s security, did European leaders need the invasion of Ukraine to make a more serious commitment to defend their continent?

Most NATO countries won’t be willing or able to meet the conditions for higher spending Trump sets. Trump is unlikely to try to withdraw the US from the alliance, whatever threats he makes, but allies in Europe and enemies in the Kremlin will each have cause to doubt the Trump administration’s commitment to defend alliance partners under attack. And European leaders won’t have time or the political will to construct the “strategic autonomy” that French President Emmanuel Macron has urged to bolster Ukraine’s self-defence--a major win for Russia's Vladimir Putin. The NATO States closest to Russia’s borders are right to worry.

In the Middle East, Trump might play a more stabilising role. The Abraham Accords, probably the biggest foreign policy achievement of his first term, normalised relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbours, setting conditions for a more stable and prosperous region. (It also exposed the near-total indifference that wealthy Arab governments feel toward the Palestinians.) Last fall’s Hamas terrorist attacks and the crushing Israeli response to them have put this hope--and the prospect that even Saudi Arabia might cut a deal with Israel--on indefinite hold. In a second Trump term, his transactional instincts and strong relationships with Gulf Arab leaders could revive this possibility.

Trump’s lack of inhibition about directly striking Iran--remember his administration’s targeted assassination of Iranian defence chief Qasem Soleimani--could also create wildcard risks. But Iran has no interest in a dangerous direct confrontation with either the US or Israel that it can’t win, particularly when a loss might create a crisis at home. Even here, the Trump approach is more likely than the Biden administration half-measures to yield a breakthrough in the form of new concessions that’s mainly positive for the Middle East and its stability.

A second Trump administration would also attempt to cut new deals, on both border security and trade policy, with the likely next Mexican President, Claudia Sheinbaum, outgoing President Lopez Obrador’s preferred successor. The scheduled review of the US-Mexico-Canada trade deal in 2026 might get relations off to a contentious start, but both sides know the US has all the negotiating leverage here, and Mexico’s manufacturing economy will benefit from Trump’s more aggressive approach to China. Few predicted Trump could build a mutually beneficial pragmatic relationship with Lopez Obrador, who could help Sheinbaum and Trump build trust.

Finally, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un would certainly be happy to welcome Trump back, the only US president willing to bargain with him, and Trump remains intrigued by the continuing opportunity to cut the one deal he believes no other US president can get--over the North Korean nuclear programme. That’s bad news, of course, for South Korea and its hawkish President Yoon Suk-Yeol, who might have little say in what Trump offers Kim in exchange for a deal.

But the larger worry for US allies facing America’s November elections is uncertainty about the long-term reliability of the world’s most powerful government. Win or lose, Trump has changed the debate within American politics to re-energise an isolationism that hadn’t gained traction in Washington since before World War II. That’s a frightening new reality that doesn’t depend on the election’s outcome.

Ian Bremmer is the founder and board president of Eurasia Group Foundation. The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World. He tweets as @ianbremmer.

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