Washington’s relations with Moscow are likely to be the key foreign policy issue facing President-elect Donald Trump during the transition period and the first several months of his administration. The past two years have been a period of growing tension between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the administration of President Barack Obama.
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Russian military aggression and subversion in eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula were met with condemnation and sanctions by the United States and the countries of the European Union. At the same time, Moscow stepped up its threats against Poland and the Baltic countries over their relations with NATO and the stationing of NATO antiballistic missile systems in Eastern Europe.
Tensions also escalated in Syria, where Russia has shifted to active and brutal involvement in support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad since September 2015.
For the most part, the Obama administration, which in the past eight years has had more success in its ambitious domestic policies than in foreign policy, responded with passivity and confusion to the Russian aggression, particularly in Syria. Despite its collapsing economy and other severe domestic problems, Russia was successful in challenging the White House again and again.
Currently, it appears that the Russians are planning to renew their merciless aerial bombing campaign over Aleppo in support of the Syrian dictator, and one can assume that Putin would be happy to also rile the leaders of Russia’s neighbors in Eastern Europe with new threats.
So how will the new U.S. president react? When it comes to his foreign policy, Trump is still a riddle wrapped in an enigma. He has sent conflicting messages, promising to demonstrate firmness in his promised effort to make America great again. But he has also expressed isolationist sentiments.
Obama had hoped to walk away from the Middle East, but wasn’t really successful in that regard because the United States got sucked back in, if only in a limited fashion, due to the turmoil in the region.
Trump can be more daring than his predecessors in disengaging from the Middle East. But would he be willing to endanger the lives of American soldiers to stop the ongoing slaughter that Assad is committing against Syrian citizens with Russian assistance? And how concerned will President Trump be over the distress of millions of Syrian civilians?
With regard to the Baltic states, Trump said during the election campaign that the countries in the region would have to fend for themselves in the event of an entanglement with Russia.
Trump has not concealed his admiration for Putin, even if up to now it has been a one-sided relationship. There were a number of media reports of covert economic ties between Moscow and Trump and his associates during the election campaign, and there have also been solid reports recently of Russian involvement in the hacking of the Democratic Party’s computers, which could have indirectly helped Trump win the election. Foreign Policy magazine reported this week that Putin had worked to sow chaos in the American political system and deprive it of its legitimacy.
The news of Trump’s election was greeted with applause by Russian members of parliament. Putin himself, at a gathering of ambassadors in Moscow, read from a written statement expressing the hope that Trump’s election would make it possible to improve relations with Washington, which he said had deteriorated “through no fault of our own.”
The Middle East concoction
Another major challenge facing American foreign policy involves Iran. Since the signing of the Iranian nuclear agreement in July 2015, Tehran has improved its ties with Russia and the countries of the European Union. It has also begun to stimulate its economy, with the gradual lifting of international sanctions. At the same time, it has continued to intervene in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, positioning itself as the leading force countering Saudi influence.
In Syria, the Obama administration has been largely apathetic to the assistance that Iran and Hezbollah have been providing to Assad and the Russians in their efforts to crush rebel groups – efforts that have included the continuing and deliberate slaughter of civilians. In Iraq, Iran is a legitimate partner, however modest, in the American-Iraqi offensive against ISIS in the city of Mosul by virtue of the Iraqi Shi’ite militias that are under Iranian influence. These militias could well commit ethnic cleansing of Sunni Muslims in the city after its liberation from the Islamic State (they have done so in the past,) providing Obama with one of his final crises before turning the Oval Office over to Trump.
Like critics of the Iranian nuclear agreement in the United States, Israel is concerned by growing Iranian subversive activity and by continued Iranian testing of long-range ballistic missiles, which could presage future progress in its nuclear program while the West isn’t watching. In Obama’s view, the Vienna nuclear accord with Tehran was his major achievement in the region, making it hard for his administration to take criticism over his attitude toward Iran since the agreement was signed.
It is doubtful that Trump has even bothered reading the agreement, but he has accused Obama of abandoning Israel and threatened to rip it up once elected. As with many of Trump’s statements on the hustings, this should be viewed with skepticism, but with the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, such a step cannot be entirely ruled out.
On the Palestinian issue, Trump and several of his Jewish advisers expressed unequivocal support for the positions of the Netanyahu government and the Israeli right wing throughout the campaign. Based on statements from his advisers in recent weeks, Trump will be the first U.S. president who does not view West Bank settlements as an obstacle to peace and who will not condemn Israeli construction plans in the settlements and in East Jerusalem.
That’s a worrying development for the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Since succeeding Yasser Arafat about 12 years ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has consistently opposed terrorism and has chosen a diplomatic path vis-à-vis Israel, while placing a priority on the support of the international community. When he despaired of Netanyahu, Abbas resorted to unilateral international moves. He recently appeared to be hoping to enlist American support, as well, but that is unlikely to be on the cards under a Trump administration.
Growing Palestinian despair over the peace process could help reignite terrorist activity, as well as less organized violence, among the population in the West Bank, as occurred in October last year. Palestinian strategy will be on the agenda of Abbas’ Fatah movement, which is convening at the end of the month in the shadow of an increasing bitter fight between Abbas and his rival Mohammed Dahlan.
Trump’s surprising electoral success has been cheered by Israeli conservatives, with right-wing Knesset members and journalists taking understandable satisfaction at the failure of most analysts to accurately predict the outcome of the election. Precisely the same thing happened in Israel’s Knesset elections in March 2015.
People are already getting swept away by the implications of this week’s vote. It’s still not clear if Trump will in fact move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a commitment that none of his Republican predecessors followed through on. In any event, it would only be a gesture, even if it is bringing Yair Lapid, the determined head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, close to tears.
For his part, Naftali Bennett, the education minister and head of the Habayit Hayehudi party, was quick to say that Trump’s election has created a historic opportunity for Netanyahu to retreat from his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state. Instead, he advised, the prime minister should take unilateral steps in the territories.
Other politicians, from Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog to backbenchers from Netanyahu’s own Likud party and on to right-wing extremist Bentzi Gopstein, have spoken of the inspiration they derived from Trump’s election, even going so far as identifying themselves with the new Trump brand.
But their rejoicing seems to be premature. Trump’s attitude toward Israel is not yet fully apparent, despite family ties with Jews and his open revulsion of Muslims. Over the course of the campaign, some of his supporters made comments with anti-Semitic overtones the likes of which had been absent from American political discourse for decades.
And what will Trump do if, in two years, his economic plans lead to another financial crisis? Will he still be committed to providing Israel with huge sums in military assistance? How will he respond if Israel encounters security problems that require the the use of emergency military supplies that are stored in Israel? Or an airlift of weapons to Israel or a concerted effort by the White House to intervene and broker a cease-fire on terms good for Israel? The answers to such questions are still a lot more of a mystery than they were at the beginning of a Bush or Obama administration – or than they would have been at the beginning of a Hillary Clinton administration.
When the worst happens
Carried by a popular protest vote that morphed into a political revolution, a vulgar and volatile populist will be entering the White House on January 20. Investigative reports in the media about Donald Trump’s past have painted a portrait of a dubious businessman with a history of business failures, allegations of fraud and complaints of sexual assault. In public statements throughout the campaign, Trump regularly encouraged violence, racist aggression and misogyny.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel released her official statement of congratulations to the president-elect and stressed the basic values shared by the two countries – like respect for the law and for other people, regardless of their gender, religion, skin color or sexual orientation – she sounded as if she was talking about a different America, not the one that elected Trump. His victory, like his behavior throughout the presidential race, looks like a possible source of inspiration for every racist, bully, and woman-hater throughout the land, whether in junior high school cafeterias, military bases or corporate conference rooms. It’s hard to overestimate the potential negative fallout from his election.
In one episode of that great TV series “The Sopranos,” one of the minor characters, an immigrant from Russia, explains to gangster Tony Soprano the difference between the two countries. Americans, she said, are unable to imagine the worst happening, while Russians grow up knowing for certain that it will. The U.S. Declaration of Independence indeed speaks of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights that governments must defend, but opinion polls over the past decade have consistently showed that, for the first time in over a generation, most Americans no longer believe that their children will have it better than them.
It’s doubtful that America’s democracy is in imminent danger because of Trump’s victory. It’s a strong system that has already emerged intact from serious constitutional and economic crises. But Trump’s election could in the long term increase the risk of economic recession, the escalation of local conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the polarization of race relations within the United States. As it is, the liberal values championed by the West have been put at risk by the loss of millions of jobs due to technology and globalization.
The wars in the Middle East are accelerating these dangerous processes in the West. They play on many Westerners’ fears of immigrants, mostly Muslims, taking their jobs, imposing cultural and religious changes in their cities and, in extreme cases, carrying out terror attacks. This is fertile ground for racism and xenophobia, as has become increasingly evident.
The stubborn refusal of the Obama administration to recognize the true background of radical Islamic terror operations was an aggravating mistake. It would have been better to call a spade a spade, rather than invent an alternative narrative to the terror attack in San Bernadino (and to some degree in Orlando as well).
The principles that could be generally described as Western values, leaving aside the debates between left and right, overwhelming triumphed in World War II (thanks to the temporary alliance with the Soviet Union) and remain intact, even after the collapse of the communist system more than 40 years later. But they are now significantly threatened by a combination of new trends that culminates in a yearning for a strong leader – even if so far he’s only played a strongman in a semi-reality TV show – and could lead to the rise of fascist movements. No one can safely predict that this phenomenon will not repeat itself next year, when France and Germany hold elections.
The year 2016, with the horrors of the civil war in Syria, the terror attacks in Europe and the United States, Brexit and now Trump’s victory, was a year of surprises, most of them frightening. One imagines that many parents were asking themselves a troubling question on Wednesday morning: How can we prepare our children properly for the tougher, more extreme and more sinister world that seems to be emerging now before our eyes?