As was to be expected, the transition process underway in the US to put in place a government under president-elect Donald Trump is seemingly as chaotic as Trump’s election campaign. Every day brings new announcements of ousters and new inductions, giving the impression that the inner circle ensconced inside Trump Tower is either in chaos, or making good on its promise to smash the entrenched system to pieces. The biggest hurdle may be in overcoming the near total rejection of Trump’s candidacy by the core of the Republican national security brain trust in Washington, DC. Trump’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his rejection of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), calls to ban Muslims immigrants, his stated willingness to allow more countries to obtain nuclear weapons, the campaign’s winking embrace of domestic hate groups, and inability to articulate a coherent and consistent national security policy had resulted in him being repudiated by traditional Republican foreign policy and national security thinkers.
As a result, Trump’s choices are limited in favour of controversial and less experienced political allies and even then there are problems. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton, former under secretary of state and ambassador to the UN in the George W. Bush administration, were the two main contenders to lead the State Department at one point. But both face confirmation issues. Senator Rand Paul, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is opposing both men for the job, given their vocal support for the war in Iraq, calls to bomb Iran, and other hawkish views. And the front-runner for the top diplomat’s job emerged in the form of Mitt Romney, who is now being opposed by Trump’s inner circle as he was very vocal in his opposition to Trump.
Other influential members of the foreign policy realm in the Republican party have also started to position themselves. Senator John McCain has sent a shot across the president-elect’s bow on the issue of the incoming administration’s desire for closer ties with Russia, and doubts about US intervention in Syria. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said in a statement that Putin “has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbours, threatened America’s allies, and attempted to undermine America’s elections. The price of another ‘reset’ would be complicity in Putin and (Bashar al-Assad’s) butchery of the Syrian people.”
This warning came even as, after weeks of a lull, Russian and Syrian warplanes unleashed a massive assault on the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo last week, marking the first time in its history that Russia has used an aircraft carrier in combat. And these strikes in Aleppo came a day after a phone call between Trump and Putin, during which the two agreed “on the absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations”. The two also reportedly agreed “to normalize relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues”.
During the presidential campaign, Trump and Putin often praised one another, and Trump repeatedly rejected the conclusion reached by US law enforcement and intelligence agencies that Moscow was behind the theft of emails from the Democratic party and Hillary Clinton’s adviser John Podesta. At one point, Trump also called on Russia to hack Clinton’s email, an unprecedented move that invited a foreign power to become directly involved in an American election.
As Trump looks for a new relationship with Russia, Europe is on the edge. Trump had repeatedly slammed the Nato alliance on the campaign trail, demanding that Nato countries pay more to keep the US in the alliance. Alarmed by Trump’s comments, the European Union (EU) has been moving quickly in recent weeks to shore up its defence posture in case Washington pulls out of Nato, or otherwise weakens the alliance. This week EU defence and foreign ministers agreed to a plan that will allow it to send rapid response forces abroad for the first time. The EU wants to be less dependent on the US military, and now it is ready to even put some money where its mouth is. EU members have increased the 2017 budget for the European Defence Agency by 1.6% or about $33 million. The money’s still a drop in the bucket compared to what European militaries need to replicate American capabilities, but it is a signal of intent.
The Iran deal is again under the scanner. Trump campaigned on a promise to ditch the nuclear deal President Barack Obama signed with Iran and renegotiate a new one. He has issued conflicting rhetoric on the issue, promising both to dismantle and re-negotiate the agreement. It is not readily evident what form a re-negotiation would take and whether the effort alone would blow up the deal. Republican members of Congress are already working on legislation to sanction Iran’s ballistic missile industry and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which could prompt opponents of the deal in Iran to leverage as an excuse to walk away from it. Nonetheless, a bevy of national security experts are hoping to convince the as yet-unformed Trump administration to hold on to the agreement. The National Iranian American Council produced a report signed by more than 70 experts urging Trump to build on the agreement and seek cooperation with Iran in other areas, rather than blowing it up.
Asia too is gearing up for President Trump. As the guarantor of regional stability in the region, America has reassured its allies and long maintained its primacy in the region. Recognizing the high stakes for Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been first off the block to pay Trump a visit last week. China, Trump’s bête noire during the campaign, has suggested that bilateral cooperation is the only choice for Beijing and Washington.
India should not be concerned about the future of India-US ties per se but it should keep a close eye on how Trump reconfigures American foreign policy priorities. For that too will have a bearing on Indian interests. But New Delhi commentariat should also recognize that as president-elect, Trump has already changed his view on a number of his campaign promises, including his pledge to jail Clinton, the “utility” of torturing terrorism suspects and disavowing climate change. Presidency will mould Trump’s view much like it did his predecessor’s and Indian foreign policy should be nimble enough to adjust to these changing realities.
Harsh V. Pant is professor at King’s College, London, and head of strategic studies at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.