The weight of the world on Trump′s shoulders | News | DW | 27.11.2016
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The weight of the world on Trump's shoulders

As Donald Trump prepares to take office and name a new secretary of state, both America's allies and enemies are facing the unknown. Will the Trump era be a tectonic shift or a minor bump for US foreign policy?

The US election has sent out shock waves far beyond American borders, with many world leaders concerned about Trump's stance on free trade, NATO, and Russia's Vladimir Putin. Other politicians, including the outgoing US president Barack Obama, have sought to reassure the world that the US will honor its commitments.

A central pillar of America's foreign policy agenda is its support for its NATO allies and promoting democracy and human rights. As former US ambassador to Georgia and Belarus, Kenneth Yalowitz, told DW, America has so far stuck to this agenda, regardless of which administration was in power.

While Trump has made "very contradictory statements" during the campaign, Yalowitz said that he was relying on the "majesty of office" and foreign policy advisors to pull Trump towards a more traditionalist approach.

"There are going to be bumps and some changes personality-wise, but I do believe that the basics of foreign policy will remain pretty much the same, because our interests are not going to change," Yalowitz added.

USA Mitt Romney Donald Trump Treffen (Picture-Alliance/AP Photo/C. Kaster)

Republican moderate Mitt Romney is among top contenders for Secretary of State

However, another retired US ambassador and State Department veteran, Carey Cavanaugh, points out that there may be a "dramatic" change in the way those US interests are interpreted.

US presidents "can and do set" major foreign policy approaches, he told DW, citing the American relationship with Moscow or trade agreements such as TTIP with Europe and TPP with Asia.

"Trump is expected to try to work with Putin to find common ground, an approach that I support. But he has said he will scrap the TPP on his first day in office," Cavanaugh said. "The president can also set the degree to which the country will be internally focused (more isolationist), or externally involved; or whether the top US priority will be terrorism or trade; the Pacific, Europe or the Middle East."

Words and wars

Both Cavanaugh and Yalowitz decried Trump during the campaign, signing an open letter that called the future president "ignorant" on foreign policy. Trump has "insulted our allies and comforted our enemies" and expressed "most ignorant stereotypes" of foreign countries, according to the letter signed by over 220 US diplomats.

As the new president takes office, foreign countries will pay "very close attention to everything that Trump says," Cavanaugh told DW."Using the wrong words or making insufficiently-informed and hasty decisions can risk harming important relationships or even starting wars."

Carey Cavanaugh has worked for the US State Department for 22 years

Cavanaugh served in the US State Department for 22 years

Since winning the vote, Trump seems to be backing away from his most extreme positions, such as the use of torture, building a wall on the Mexican border or deporting all illegal immigrants. At the same time, there have been reports of Trump refusing briefings on global developments and security threats. These briefings carry key information to deal with complex international issues, which cannot be handled on "gut instinct" alone, Cavanaugh said.

No love from Russia

Although America's traditional allies have voiced concern about the rise of Trump, he has been lauded by controversial rulers such as Russia's Vladimir Putin, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary's Viktor Orban. The North Korean propaganda machine has also praised the President-elect as "wise" and "far-sighted."

However, foreign policy experts do not believe that this positive sentiment will materialize into better relations with the US.

"I think you may see some more talk, some more openness to discussion early on, but the differences between the US and Russia and the concerns about Erdogan's foreign policy in Turkey are not about personalities," US foreign policy scholar Jeremi Suri told DW. "They are about the nature of an aggressive, revitalized Russia and an aggressive, revitalized Turkey acting in areas that undermine American interests."

A researcher for the reputable Levada-Centre in Russia, sociologist Stepan Goncharov, also believes that the Russian elite have no "illusions" of a sudden shift in the US foreign policy.

"I don't think that Russian politicians really think that Trump will be pro-Russian. I think it's just words, rhetoric for internal use, to portray America as a weak and divided country," he told DW. "They want to point out that there are elites in the US that are pro-Russian and do not support the current American policy."

Europeans to build up their armies

Even under Trump, the US will continue to support security in Europe and Germany, according to Suri. However, the new president's reluctance to use the US military muscle abroad is likely to have a big effect on the European allies.

Many countries, particularly those bordering Russia, "will be less secure about his commitment" and respond by boosting defense, Suri told DW.

"I believe you will see countries like the ones in the Baltic, Poland, maybe even Germany, doing more to prepare their own, national capabilities," said Suri, an author and professor at the University of Texas.

Another worrisome issue for the Europeans could be Trump's disregard for European integration and the importance of US-EU ties, he added. "I do not think it would necessarily change US policy as a whole, but it will create some very important tensions," he said, citing the EU and Germany's policies on human rights, refugees, or free trade.

During the first months of Trump's term, the new president will need to take advice and control his "shoot-from-the-hip" tendencies, said former ambassador Yalowitz.

"He is going to be tested, there is no question about that," Yalowitz added. "What I am counting on is that, when he sits behind that desk in the Oval Office, he will realize that the weight of the world on his shoulders and act accordingly."

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