Following the election of far-right populist Donald Trump to the US presidency, the international community has begun to anxiously shuffle its feet. Traditional U.S allies including Angela Merkel, François Hollande, and Enrique Peña Nieto as well as the European Union sent Trump mixed messages of congratulations and concern, seeking distinctions between his campaign rhetoric and actual policy views. Typically more distanced states such as Russia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Egypt expressed their joy in tune with reactionary populists throughout the world. In this apparent paradox, even China — recent convert to the climate change fight — and Iran — whose compliance with international agreements is generally most questionable — have warned Trump against abandoning the United States’ multilateral commitments to the Paris Agreement and Iran nuclear deal, respectively.
International order is shifting. Combined with his direct uprooting of US moral authority and soft power, Trump’s selectively isolationist foreign policy will not only confuse allies — as it already has Germany, France, and Mexico, among (many) others — but also open up regional power vacuums as he withdraws US commitments from pockets across the world.
With Trump’s guarantee to block it, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an American-Asia-Pacific trade pact that would have served as a collective refusal of growing Chinese regional authority, has effectively died, and Australia has since expressed intent to become the eighth TPP member to join the deal’s Chinese counterpart, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The president-elect’s close association with other rising ethno-nationalist populists throughout Europe also hints that he may enable a breakup of the European Union, which would see a new power structure — one assumedly less inclusive and more isolationist — form from the ashes. From his anticipated retraction of support for Ukraine and the Baltics to the suggestion of his indifference towards Israeli settlement to his still uncertain views on US military bases in South Korea and Japan, a Trump administration even seems to beg irredentist conflict.
Simultaneously, Trump offers a “bomb the hell out of them” approach to counterterrorism in Iraq and Syria and even an obscure proposition to take control of Iraqi oil fields, which would necessitate American troops on the ground, so to cut off a source of Islamic State funds and “reimburse” the US for its poorly played investments in the country. Lieutenant General Michael Flynn — ousted Defense Intelligence Agency head, self-defined Islamophobe, and now Trump’s national security advisor — also advocates for a substantial US military presence in the Middle East. Expectations for Asia are that the US will attempt to assert its naval strength in the South China Sea, and promises of extremely high tariffs on major US trading partners Mexico and China prompt fears of trade war despite Trump’s assurance that such a strategy would create jobs in the US.
This combination of withdrawn soft power and military deterrents with only particular, heavily politicized increases in military operations (namely against terror groups claiming ties to Islam) would open space for states and peoples to distance themselves from the US while creating more pockets of resentment-based instability — scapegoating rhetoric and rash, misguided force alienate and anger affected populations. In not only excluding itself from trade but possibly triggering trade war and a subsequent recession, the US would lose economic and political influence, only further contributing to instability throughout the world and at home. Diplomatic power goes with these tools, and the US falls — to an extent still unknown — from the pseudo-hegemon position it has held for decades. This would be the result if we held Trump to his words — which, as reflected in his appointments made and under consideration, do seem to be bearing some fruit.
So how do other actors react to this greatly different power structure? Germany and France now remain the last two great liberal powers in Europe, holding together a stressed EU and liberal order more generally. However, both face growing ethno-nationalist populism within the context of elections this coming year. Even if Angela Merkel survives in Germany, a foreseeable win for Marine Le Pen would leave Germany on its own and, depending on Trump’s decision on NATO, conceivably pondering once again the ever sensitive issue of German military buildup — this time amidst political disconnect with other European powers. China seems in many ways to be preparing to fill the soft power void, calmly advancing its series of trade pacts and development projects throughout Asia, Africa, and even the Middle East, projecting itself as a leader in the climate change battle, and potentially drawing RCEP members South Korea and/or Japan under its wing. In Latin America, there may be the first thorough lapse of US influence since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, and, given today’s continental political and economic disarray, it is unlikely that any aspiring regional power would stand to fill the gap. Even the Trump Administration’s main target — the Islamic State — might succeed in spreading its message thanks to a reckless military campaign and perceived betrayal of US-backed Syrian rebels by expected joint US-Russia efforts. If driven from Iraq and Syria by joint US-Russian efforts, ISIS might still find refuge in North Africa or any number of other areas — including increasingly tense Israel-Palestine should conflict arise.
Despite the situation’s gravity, it must be remembered that Trump not only habitually exaggerates but until now has felt little real political pressure. He will be forced — both by the American electorate and international community — to assume more moderate positions; the question is: how moderate? His short time as president-elect suggests “not very,” but he still has several appointments to make, policies to develop and implement, and foreign relations to begin. Indeed, some of his ideas may even be necessary and beneficial. More balanced commitments and better communication between allies — the explicit goal of Trump’s threats to step away from international organizations and security partnerships — would certainly not be the end of the world. However, an over-calculation on the abilities of US partners to fend for themselves or an impulsive attack on a highly strategic and volatile state like Iran might be.