Trump’s plans: The outlook for U.S. foreign policy towards Eurasia
For America’s allies and rivals alike, there is a deep sense of expectation and exasperation over the foreign policy implications of a Trump Presidency. A guest post by Richard Giragosian, founding director of the Regional Studies Center.
Despite a disciplined but disturbing record of campaign promises and threats, traditionally, most candidates leave behind the bluff and bluster of campaign rhetoric and swiftly adapt to the practical demands of presidential pragmatism once in office. Yet President-elect Trump is anything but traditional, and his unconventional convictions were at the heart of his strategy to win the election.
Moreover, the rather unpredictable, if not irresponsible, rhetoric of the Trump campaign actually served the candidate as a political asset, helping him to overcome challenges from both more mainstream Republican rivals and in the race against Hillary Clinton. Therefore, any expectation for a return to normalcy and mature governance may be misplaced. And while the pursuit of American foreign policy will undoubtedly be altered, it is clear that policy toward the former Soviet states will shift the fastest and the farthest.
Packaged in a primitive political ideology of “America First,” the Trump positions on Western security and global commitments have sparked considerable concern. In this context, the election of Trump stands out, not only for its divisive nature, but by virtue of its decisive significance, with sweeping implications for a wide range of regions and countries. It also comes at a crucial time, marked by an urgency of leadership and driven by a set of unprecedented crises and challenges, each of which will challenge an untested new American administration.
Personnel drives policy
Given President-elect Trump’s only professional experience, his corporate real estate empire, he is widely expected to retain the same style of corporate leadership. As president, he is likely to remain dependent on delegation, making the big decisions but relying on a small circle of appointees and relatives. This raises two additional concerns over foreign policy, however.
First, with his limited and narrow experience, the personal worldview of President Trump will dominate not only his own presidential global priorities but may also shape his selection of a like-minded cabinet, where loyalty is valued much more than competence, knowledge or experience.
Second, his preference for a small, close circle of advisers is especially dangerous for foreign policy. Unlike earlier such intimate presidential “kitchen cabinets,” this president lacks the experience in policy or governance held by the earlier presidents. This model only magnifies the power of personnel in driving policy and elevates the individual over the institutional for the implementation of the foreign policy of the Trump Administration.
Assessing the outlook for such looming changes in U.S. foreign policy, there are several key points that defined the likely Trump worldview, with an apparently direct impact on several strategic regions of the world. The first of these Trump foreign policy preferences concerns his view of Russia and his personal regard for its leader President Vladimir Putin. As his campaign promises revealed, Trump will likely seek to ease, if not lift U.S. sanctions on Russia, forging a new policy based not on contentious containment but rather modeled on concerted consideration of Moscow.
In practical terms, this will grant Putin a virtual free hand to both consolidate and even extend Russian power and influence over many of its neighbors. This will also, as Trump has stated, not only tend to passively endorse the Russian annexation of Crimea but will also undermine the Western commitment and resolve in supporting Ukraine. The decreased scale and scope of U.S. commitment to Ukraine is also likely to impact economic assistance. And already plagued by corruption, the course of Ukrainian reform will suffer a new blow as American financial backing will be significantly reduced.
Extending further, such a reversal of U.S. policy toward Putin will also weaken security in Central and Eastern Europe, thereby only further endangering the Baltic states. And in another related impact, both the NATO alliance and the European Union would be challenged by an abrupt vacuum of engaged leadership, leaving each stranded in assuming the mantle of Western security.
A threat to the South Caucasus
For the South Caucasus, such a new U.S. accommodation of Russia will inherently endanger the region by a new period of U.S. benign neglect, marking the region as a strategic afterthought at best. Although an obvious desire to downgrade U.S. strategic commitment and investment in the South Caucasus will effectively abandon Georgia, Trump’s personal connection to the Aliyev government in Azerbaijan and the powerful influence of the Armenian-American lobby in the Congress will combine to limit the degree of U.S. disengagement and to anchor at least a policy of minimal interest toward Azerbaijan and Armenia.
And for the region’s frozen conflicts, it seems likely that Trump’s narrower definition of American national interests will seriously degrade any U.S. involvement or engagement. It is this strategic neglect of the South Caucasus by the U.S. that will only encourage Russia to adopt a more unilateral and unopposed move to even further maximize its power and influence.
This may also be matched by a Moscow move to assert a new lead in mediation of the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh, perhaps going so far as to seek to deploy Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh. That development would not only impede any possibility for a negotiated resolution to that conflict, but will also only deepen dependence on Russia by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The South Caucasus, therefore, will be the first concession to Russian interests and, in the absence of any credible commitment from the United States, will be hard pressed to withstand a looming Russian resurgence of power and influence.
Richard Giragosian is the Founding Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent “think tank” in Yerevan, Armenia.