DONALD TRUMP won the election after a tough and divisive campaign. While running for president, he did not shy away from questioning some accepted precepts of recent U.S. foreign policy or from making a number of flamboyant policy pronouncements. Consequently, the “morning after” was replete with speculation—and not inconsiderable trepidation in some quarters—about the sort of leadership the world could expect from the forty-fifth American commander in chief. Predictions have covered the gamut. Friends and foes alike are anxiously waiting to see what the new president will do in office, studying what he has said, and preparing their own options and possible responses.
Trump has the opportunity to “think big,” as he writes in his book The Art of the Deal and elsewhere, and recast American and Republican foreign policy for decades to come. As he does that, he will be constrained by the world as he finds it and by America’s domestic circumstances. Given these limitations, and the core beliefs he explicated during the campaign, a prudent foreign policy is possible and can find bipartisan support. The opportunity is there. I hope he seizes it.
THERE’S NO sugarcoating it: the world is in the most dangerous period since the end of the Cold War. What’s more, the very structures of the post–World War II international order are in question.
There is growing global chaos, across multiple regions. Crises and threats from even remote places today can have international impact. Major powers, first and foremost Russia and China, are challenging the current rules of the game to advance their agendas and visions. As a result, for the first time in decades, there is a real risk of war among the major powers.
Russia is taking advantage of power vacuums created by U.S. retrenchment and using modernized elements of its military power to hammer home the message that the United States and the West cannot solve world problems without Moscow’s assistance. That posture reflects Russia’s deep-seated resentment against the West based on the belief that since the end of the Cold War it has been slighted, its interests ignored, and that it has not been given the international stature and respect it covets.
China, meanwhile, is a power clearly on the rise, self-confident and convinced that time is on its side. The country’s dramatically increased economic and military power is permitting leaders in Beijing to pursue an ambitious vision, which they believe they are entitled to because of China’s size, huge population and five-thousand-year history, including long periods of preeminence. Against a backdrop of cultural and historic differences in which China classically did not regard other nations as equal, Beijing seems intent on working toward a Chinese-led international order, a vision that is quite different from the liberal international order created by the West after World War II. These are the motivations behind the maritime territorial grabs in the South China Sea and the efforts for increased influence in Central Asia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. U.S.-China relations are a key factor in shaping the future of the international order. This relationship has the potential for conflict, because as history indicates, rising powers and status-quo powers often come into military conflict.
Significant changes are underway in several regions. Asia is becoming a rising center in the global economy, due not just to major economic powers such as China, Japan South Korea, India and Indonesia. The future of Europe, America’s most important partner for so many decades, has become uncertain as it grapples with a trifold crisis: the threat from Russia; the pressure of massive population movements from Africa and the Middle East, with all the ensuing domestic political stressors strengthening support for nationalism and opposition to multiculturalism and globalism; and the widely perceived internal flaws of the European Union that led to Brexit.
Across a significant part of the broader Middle East, state structures have been weakening and even collapsing. There are several contributing factors, including the failure of governments and the current state system to meet the needs of their peoples, and because of Iran’s disruptive policies to strengthen its influence by supporting substate actors. A visible consequence is retribalization, the resurgence of alternative identities—sects, ethnicities and tribes. The national borders devised by Western powers for Iraq and Syria, in particular, are not standing up well to the test of time. These factors, and the absence of national compacts among the major communities of key states, have led to internal instability and civil wars and have fostered conditions for the rise of extremist parties and terrorist groups.
Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing various mixtures of civil wars, terrorism and extremism, further fueled by regional-power interference. Among these, the threat of terrorism is the most important. Iran is supporting extremist political groups and fielding militias in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond in order to pursue regional hegemony—to which it believes itself entitled because of its size, population, culture and history. Iran’s policies are undermining the state system in the region. As it did after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Tehran is now also using the rollback of ISIS to expand its influence in Iraq and Syria. Rival powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which see Iranian actions as the principal threat to the region, are supporting groups opposed to Tehran. Their relations with the United States suffered during the Obama administration because Washington downplayed the Iranian threat.