Lost in Transition? US Foreign Policy from Obama to Trump

Written by | Friday, January 13th, 2017
European Values

Giovanni Grevi (European Policy Centre)

The election of Donald Trump as the new American President has shaken the foreign policy establishment and raised questions about the future direction of the US foreign policy. Trump’s opinions go beyond the classical lines and it is impossible to assign them to one particular school of thought. Nonetheless, one can expect a fundamental shift away from the policy of outgoing President Barack Obama, whose two terms in the White House have so far been viewed with some unease.

Obama’s supporters argue that the President professed a realistic approach in promoting American interests based on the cooperation with partners and engagement only when absolutely necessary. Obama distinguished between the principal matters of national security and did not succumb to the voices calling for an immediate response to the issues not entirely crucial to the US interests. His critics argue that through the strategy of unilateral concessions, Obama has weakened the United States in the eyes of its rivals and partners. Thus, a power vacuum has emerged, which encouraged rivals and challenged the US position as a security guarantor. For example, the Middle East is unstable and Russia, China and Iran are extending their spheres of influence.

In any case, Obama did not depart from the traditional elements of American foreign policy. Trump’s philosophy could, however, mean the end of this practice. His approach to foreign policy is based on the opposition to the international liberal order and also on the nationalist and protectionist agenda. Trump’s vision – “America First” – draws on the assumption that American interests are not supposed to be anchored in alliances, partnerships and multilateral institutions, whose establishment the United States had supported. This is, for example, reflected in Trump’s plans to withdraw from the TPP or the Paris climate agreement.

According to Trump, American foreign policy should work on a “transactional” basis, whereby mutual relations between countries are considered based on their profitability for the United States. This view would have a major impact on the transatlantic relations. The cooperation of the United States with Europe would be more selective because the key US interests are elsewhere. This is further exacerbated by the inability of European countries to meet to a greater degree their financial obligations within NATO, which Trump repeatedly criticized in his campaign. The prospects of progress in the TTIP negotiations are similarly negative.

Trump’s campaign created a clear picture of his worldview. How these views will be transferred to the concrete real day-to-day foreign policy depends on how big a role the new president will play in this area. The formulation of the US foreign policy is usually a result of conflicts, negotiations and compromises between relevant authorities as well as between the executive and the Congress.
(The study can be downloaded here)

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