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U.S. Foreign Policy under Trump: Dealmaker, Activist, or Isolationist?

The Dahrendorf Forum recently invited members of our extended network of academics and policy-makers to submit blogs in which they reflect on the implications of a Trump presidency on Europe and the wider world. Lars Miethke, a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics working on foreign and security policy, is the first of our guest bloggers in this series.

Uncertainty among partners

Foreign policy analysts across Europe and beyond are scratching their heads on what to make of the future President’s foreign policy approach. Throughout the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump proposed to break with decades of established foreign policy positions. Some of his suggestions continue to appear counter-intuitive, for example his insistence on raising the defence budget while simultaneously announcing to withdraw U.S. troops from Asia as well as disengaging the U.S. from foreign conflicts.

Among this array of – often disparate – foreign policy remarks, the most disconcerting for European policy-makers are Trump’s campaign statements to make hitherto undefined ‘deals’ with Putin, withdraw from long-standing alliances in Europe, and renegotiate the Iran nuclear agreement. While his initial debrief with President Barack Obama and his post-election statements have selectively signalled less rigid positions, much uncertainty remains surrounding his foreign policy approach. How should the Continent’s foreign policy actors in Berlin, Brussels, London, and Paris prepare for it?

Diplomatic resiliency

Whether or not Trump’s campaign suggestions will be acted upon, Europe will have to brace itself for unexpected changes, likely without prior warning. Investing early on in diplomatic resiliency will be Europe’s best bet to counter the expected ambiguity of US foreign policy in 2017. How does Europe react when Trump withdraws from NATO? Do the British, French, and German anti-ISIS missions continue if the US enters an alliance with Assad and Putin to ‘destroy ISIS’?

Few would describe the European Union as an agile and dynamic foreign policy actor. Therefore, even more rapid coordination between member states’ foreign ministries will be as important as expedient EU decision-making processes.

Europe needs to prepare itself to make difficult policy decisions quickly, and continental capitals should welcome continued coordination with the British foreign office in spite of ongoing Brexit discussions. Can Europe uphold the Iran nuclear agreement without the participation of the United States? Is it able to convincingly continue the push for human rights in China, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia on its own? Sadly, the current answer to these questions is ‘barely’ at best. Europe needs to prepare its policy processes and citizens to act autonomously and, if necessary, without its transatlantic partner.

These recommendations should not be misread as a Gaullist-call for disengagement from the transatlantic relationship. In fact, the opposite is true. Europe will need to engage the Trump administration more than any previous U.S. administration, if only to ensure that potential adversaries do not capitalise on the ambiguity of his foreign policy statements.

Internal problems are an unwelcome distraction

So what does this path to more agility and faster decision-making look like and what stands in its way? The first major fork in the road will be the upcoming French elections in May 2017. The results will largely determine whether the Continent can hope for determined Franco-German leadership. Secondly, close cooperation with the United Kingdom will be essential. Therefore, a speedy agreement on the British exit from the European Union can only be in the best interests of all participants. As the recent EU ministerial meeting has shown, the process itself is an ongoing distraction from the determined foreign policy stance that the transatlantic relationship will require in 2017.

Trump might pursue an activist policy in discord with Europe’s values, an isolationist agenda, or engage in selected ‘deals’ with friends and foes alike. Either way, Europe must prepare itself to shoulder autonomous foreign policy decisions, financially, militarily, and politically. Regardless, at all times, it should strive to keep the new U.S. administration engaged in coordinated diplomatic efforts.

About the author: Lars Miethke is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics working on European foreign and security policy, and a former Next Generation Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Lars’ broader research interests focus on the transatlantic relationship and Germany’s foreign, security, and defence policies.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.