World Politics in the Next 4-8 Years

I’ve had several people ask me what international politics might look like under our next president. What follows are some jumbled and mostly impressionistic thoughts. For now, we don’t know too much about what the Trump foreign policy team will look like. Throughout the campaign the dearth of foreign policy professionals on his team has been striking. I suspect, and hope, that will change soon. But until then I will primarily focus on how I see the world reacting to a Trump administration.

So what are international politics likely to look like under a Trump presidency? I think we can break this down into roughly two arenas.

First, we can envision the next four or eight years of political developments in both Europe and the Middle East as fundamentally hinging on Russia. In Europe, earlier today Putin has already made movements towards normalization of relations with Poland. Trump has placed his incoming administration in a bind by generating uncertainty over how he will approach the U.S.’ foreign commitments. Because states like Poland are not clear whether the United States will honor its treaty commitments to them, they may be incentivized to hedge their bets and become friendlier with Moscow. We can see similar developments in Estonia, where the Prime Minister’s loss in a no-confidence vote means that a pro-Russian party may take power there. As the United States’ strategy for the past seventy years can attest to, it is difficult to undo these relationships once they take root. Institutions become self-reinforcing. Further west in Europe, Putin will continue supporting far-right groups like the FN in France. Without the traditional U.S. counterweight it is easy to imagine these groups taking power.

Russia is also key to unraveling political developments in the Middle East. First and most obviously, Trump’s victory probably ensures that Assad will remain in power in Syria and that the opposition groups fighting him there will be wiped out. In Iran, Trump’s promised repudiation of the nuclear deal is likely to benefit hard-liners within the Iranian government who see development of a nuclear weapon as the only guarantee for their regime’s security.

One point of serious concern in this area of the world comes from Trump’s fundamentally mercantilist worldview. Specifically, it’s not clear to me that he understands geopolitical influence as useful other than as an avenue of enrichment. It’s easy to imagine, then, a Trump administration cutting a deal with Russia that allows them to take a heavy hand in finishing the Syrian conflict and wiping out ISIS. Not having paid for this, Trump would likely see this as a “good deal,” despite it leading to a complete elimination of U.S. influence in the region. Such a deal would increase the pressure on Saudi Arabia to secure a nuclear weapon, which Trump has said he approves of.

The second major geopolitical region is China and the Pacific Rim. Trump has, at least rhetorically, made the loss of manufacturing jobs a linchpin of his campaign. It is easy to imagine that he sees the return of these jobs as key to his re-election prospects in 2020. The problem, of course, is that these jobs are not coming back to the United States: the manufacturing dilemma for the U.S., as many have noted, is that manufacturing employment has sustained a decline while manufacturing output has continued to increase. In other words, the United States manufactures more than it ever has, but employs fewer people to do so.

What, then, will Trump do when he is unable to bring these jobs back? I think that one theme of a Trump presidency will be increasing hostility with China. In fact my impressionistic read of the lay of the land is that war with China is much more likely than war with Russia. A vulnerable Trump in 2019 may find China an irresistible target.

Several people have asked me what I think the risk of a nuclear exchange is during a Trump presidency. I do not have a strong answer: I think it is low, but almost certainly higher than it has been since the end of the Cold War and perhaps since 1962. Perhaps unlike most, I see the most likely flashpoint as China and not Russia.

Here I’ll take a step back and explain why I am a little fuzzy on many of these predictions. The day-to-day political interactions we observe are strongly shaped by the underlying fabric of international politics. One metaphor I like to use is of board games: the outcome of a chess game is shaped not only by the skill of the players and the type of pieces left, but also by the shape of the board, which precludes certain move, allows others, and generally structures the end-game. Or, to borrow a more modern example, the proceedings of a game of Settlers of Catan depend on whether you’re using the expansion pack or not.

Since the end of World War II, we’ve had a pretty good idea what the board of international politics looks like: the U.S. as the most powerful and most activist state in the world. Most of international politics has unfolded in a manner accommodating to this basic fact; U.S. power has set boundary conditions for political outcomes elsewhere. A Trump presidency promises to up-end this. I say that not (necessarily) as a critique but rather as a description of what he has promised to do. So with a change in the board, the interactions of the pieces on that board become a lot less clear. This uncertainty is, as they say, a feature and not a bug of the Trump campaign. Our next president deeply values uncertainty as a strategic ploy. Whether he is right to do so remains to be seen, but it is without a doubt a radical departure from nearly a century of U.S. strategy abroad.

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