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President Trump and International Relations

Americas new president has the potential to thoroughly shake up international


relations. Volker Perthes lays out five theses that researchers and policymakers will need
to address.
The election of Donald Trump raises justifiable concerns over how he will handle the crises and
conflicts he inherits: war in Syria, conflict in Ukraine, tensions in the South China Sea, North
Korean provocations and the fight against terrorism. Yet Germany and Europe and policy-
relevant research must also examine the broader repercussions for international relations. The
following five initial theses require deeper analysis.

A Defeat for Liberalism


Donald Trumps victory represents a hard knock for the Wests normative bedrock of liberalism.
Liberal values of the kind Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised in her congratulatory message
to the president-elect are on the defensive first and foremost within the United States.
Autocrats and supporters of various strands of illiberal democracy, like Putin, Erdogan or
Orban, may feel vindicated and energised, while the EU will have to work harder to champion
liberal democratic values. European states will inevitably see impacts on their external
relations. Although Europe has shown little enthusiasm for talk of the end of history, both
Europe and the United States have tacitly or explicitly assumed that the liberal democratic
models will gradually win the day. Internationally, the EU member states must expect to hear
increasing arguments that their form of liberal democracy is only one of several acceptable
governance models. This could also have effects on international efforts to stabilise and rebuild
fragile and failed states.

Personalised Politics
Change at the top of the worlds most powerful country will transform political conventions
internationally too. Personalised, charismatic and populist forms will be boosted, to the
detriment of the analytical, fact-based style represented not least by Chancellor Angela Merkel
and President Barack Obama. One could speak of a Berlusconisation of politics except that
the US President shapes international trends much more strongly than an Italian prime minister
ever could. Such an extreme personalisation of politics could further amplify the already
elevated significance of the G7 and G20 summit meetings, along with an even stronger
tendency to stage international relations as the business of strong leaders of powerful states.
Donald Trump will attend his first G20 summit in Hamburg next summer.

Bilateral Deals versus Multilateralism


Internationally, a US Administration led by Donald Trump will lean more towards
transactionalism (bilateral deals based on a quid pro quo rationale) than towards
multilateralism. In the case of certain crises, this may even bring temporary relief. For example,
it would not be inconceivable for Trump to quickly reach an understanding with Russian
President Vladimir Putin on how to move forward in Syria. But policies based on a direct quid
pro quo are detrimental to long-term legal commitments, and thus counterproductive for
multilateral regimes in fields as diverse as trade, environment, climate, sustainability and arms
control, and for the UN system as a whole.

American Pull-back?
Overall, the signs are that the president-elect may lean towards partially or completely
renouncing Americas role as liberal hegemon, its leadership in guarding an open world order
based on free trade and free choice of external alliances. Donald Trump appears ready to call
into question American-led alliances and accept a division of the world into spheres of
influence a proposal not seen since the Yalta Conference in 1945. This would mean fewer
American interventions in other parts of the world, but also less influence on states that have to
date been dissuaded from dangerous unilateral moves, not least by US security assurances.
Potential troublemakers will quickly seek to test how firmly the United States and other powers
are willing to defend central elements of the existing order. The responses of states in
geopolitical fracture zones that have to date relied on US security guarantees a span
encompassing Japan, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine springs to mind is not easily predictable.
They might strengthen their own deterrence capacities, or equally conceivably adopt a policy of
appeasement towards larger regional powers.

Europes Capacities
Perhaps, despite his America first sloganeering, President Trump will ultimately recognise
the advantages of a solid transatlantic alliance. Along with American generals and diplomats,
his European allies will seek to show him that Americas greatness, which is so close to his
heart, is also reflected in the number of friends the country has. He will need to acknowledge
that alliances create influence. The states of the EU have an important task before them, both in
order to persuade President Trump of the value of their alliance and if they fail to convince
him, for the sake of the Union itself: They need to strengthen their own security capabilities,
define their own strategic interests and agree shared foreign policy priorities. This applies not
only with respect to the United States, but at least to the same degree towards their own
citizens. Only if it is clear to Europeans that Europe is there for them, that it creates added value
in such central issues as external and internal security, will it be possible to prevent similar
election outcomes in the EU. Like it or not, Germany will have to play a much larger role
internationally than it has to date. This was already the case after the Brexit vote, and is even
more so following the US presidential election.

In the wake of the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in November, the World Politics
Review (WPR) team and our expert contributors have been working overtime to make sense of
what a Trump presidency will mean for U.S. foreign policy and the world at large.
In the weeks since the election, weve already published a number of articles on the
implications of the election (our Trump coverage is and will continue to be aggregated on the
WPR website), and one word keeps popping up over and over again: uncertainty.
Because Trumps specific foreign policy proposals in the campaign tended toward the vague;
because he has displayed a willingness to change his views, often erratically; and because we
do not yet know what his team and governing style will look like, uncertainty is the order of the
day. Such uncertainty can have costs for international relations if it is allowed to linger, World
Politics Review Editor-in-Chief Judah Grunstein wrote about this issue the morning after the
election.
"Although Trump has vaunted unpredictability in the context of conflict and hostile
negotiations, the U.S. position is often a key determinant for third parties even in negotiations
where the U.S. is not necessarily at the table. Having relatively clear parameters for
understanding Washingtons preferences and red lines informs decision-making in foreign
capitals not only in times of crisis, but on a day-to-day basis. Removing that benchmark
reference means everyone is flying blindly, using instruments they can no longer be sure are
calibrated correctly.
Think of it as the geopolitical equivalent of a currency that, after years of being pegged, is
suddenly allowed to float. Everyone knows that, after the initial turbulence and volatility, its
value will settle. The crux of the matter is where. In this case, given Americas central role in
backstopping the global order, the analogy would be to a reserve currency whose value is
suddenly upended. There is not a country in the world whose accounting ledgers are not
affected. All are wondering what a Trump presidency meansfor their country, their region and
the world. And the truth is, no one really knows."
That no one yet knows for sure what a Trump presidency means, however, does not mean
informed analyses of the possibilities and probabilities cannot be made. Last week, for
example, World Politics Review columnist Ellen Laipson looked at the big picture, examining
how a Trump administration will deal with what she considers to be the top three threats to
international security: climate change, nuclear proliferation and terrorism. On terrorism and
preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, the changes may be more rhetorical than real,
Laipson wrote. However, on climate change, Laipson sees the possibility of significant
consequences:
"Judging from early indications, Trump will be advised by climate change skeptics, and there is
reason to believe he will be cavalier about the value and importance of international
cooperation to set standards for emissions, and skeptical about the need for measurable changes
in human activity that have contributed to global warming. Many worry about the various ways
he can do damage, whether by executive orders canceling Obamas commitments, or by new
measures ratcheting up traditional energy industries that would put the U.S. out of compliance
with the Paris agreement.
A more relaxed American attitude to climate change could lead to other countries assuming a
more prominent leadership role. While there may be some advantages to having other countries
take more responsibility for advancing international cooperation, its more likely that absent
American leadership, there will simply be less political focus and less political will to tackle
this existential issue. An unraveling of the carefully built consensus on climate action could
well be the most dangerous long-term outcome of the Trump presidency."
In another article we published in November, Tom Kutsch agreed that a Trump presidency
will constitute a major roadblock to the international process to fight climate change.
In addition to taking in the 30,000-foot view, WPR analysts are also getting down in the weeds,
looking at the very specific ways a Trump administration may affect particular areas of the
world. Matthew Rojansky looked at what was a hot-button issue during the campaign: Trumps
likely posture toward Russia. Rojansky sees Trump bringing to Washington a new enthusiasm
for direct dialogue and possible cooperation with Russia, but sees considerable structural and
political constraints to major breakthroughs on disputes over Syria, Ukraine, NATO and other
issues.
Weve also looked at the implications of a Trump presidency for Egypt, Cuba and the United
Nations. Other big-picture issues that weve covered in the context of the elections outcome
include U.S. national security policy, the rise of global populism, the fate of the liberal
international order, and what the recent history of Latin Americacould teach us about the United
States under Trump.
World Politics Review is committed to helping our readers make sense of the international
implications of the next presidential administration, and our extensive coverage since the
election demonstrates the value of our approach, which is a wide and deep examination of all of
the myriad issues at play.
If you think your faculty and students could benefit from the kind of coverage World Politics
Review provides, I invite you to request a free trial by clicking the button below.