Never has a president-elect so roiled American foreign policy before even taking office. On a dizzying range of fronts — Russia, China, Europe, the Middle East — Donald J. Trump has dissented from longstanding United States policy, challenged the outgoing president as he has managed America’s international relations and put in doubt the future of such cornerstones of peaceful international relations as the United Nations and the North Atlantic alliance.
John F. Kennedy did not challenge (nor did he endorse) President Eisenhower’s decision to break diplomatic relations with Cuba on the eve of his inauguration in January 1961, which would lock the US into a half-century of fruitless conflict. Ronald Reagan was content to let President Carter work out whatever accord he could to end the Iranian hostage crisis without second-guessing him. Bill Clinton did not take issue with outgoing President George H.W. Bush’s dispatch of US forces to Somalia.
(The one seeming counterexample — Richard Nixon’s undermining of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s breakthrough effort to launch negotiations halting the war he had escalated in Vietnam — was clandestine rather than public and undertaken before the election, not as president-elect.)
Strikingly, the one foreign-policy arena where Trump’s post-election moves are arousing bipartisan political resistance in Washington is Russia. Republicans reflexively suspicious of Moscow since Cold War days can make common cause with Democrats inclined to blame Vladimir Putin for Hillary Clinton’s election loss on the theory that publication of her campaign chairman’s emails turned Great Lakes voters against her.
Trump’s breezy dismissal of the measures that US intelligence agencies demanded, and President Obama imposed, in retaliation for Russian hackers’ politically calibrated dissemination of the fruits of their espionage has not sat well with the security establishment in Washington. It risks strengthening the headwinds against confirmation of his idiosyncratic choice of Rex Tillerson for secretary of state.
A new “reset” of US-Russian relations, more durable than the improvement Obama fostered early in his presidency with Russia’s then-president Dmitri Medvedev, would of course be desirable. The stubborn question with Russia resets has always been, on what terms? Arguably, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman could have maintained harmonious relations with Moscow if they had turned a blind eye to Stalin’s imposition of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, which they did not have the power to prevent; but American public opinion would not be so quiescent.
Perhaps Trump would forge a cooperative relationship with Putin based on US disengagement from promoting democracy in former Soviet states, from maneuvering its favorites into their governments, or from extending NATO ties to them. Maybe US deference to Moscow’s repugnant revival of discredited notions of “spheres of influence” would do the trick. Still, it is not just Washington interventionists but Europeans across the spectrum who would resist acquiescing in Putin’s blatant ruptures of international law — such as the seizure of Crimea and creation of Russian enclaves in eastern Ukraine.
A close embrace of Putin will prove hard politically for Trump to sustain at home. Nor is it likely to translate into a successful US-Russian international condominium. Russia is, after all, an economically and demographically declining power, and Putin is notably unable to rally support in international institutions for his agenda. His one occasional ally on the UN Security Council, China, is the real rising power — with which the US president-elect chose gratuitously to pick an early fight.
Trump’s outreach to the Chinese republic on Taiwan, now governed by an independence-minded Taiwanese party, may stir nostalgia among some Republican elders but has little political traction in Washington and scant resonance with the American public. On the other hand, it upends four decades of US policy, policy that arguably opened the door to a global economic surge and ended enmities that had drawn Americans into two major wars in Asia.
Yet even as Trump has signaled indifference to China’s political relevance, he seemed to expect it should compel its North Korean ally to knuckle under to international demands for an end to its nuclear weapons program.
The incoming president will, however, resist pressure on a US ally that Chinese diplomats sometimes cite as a mirror image of theirs. During this pre-inaugural period, the president-elect has completed his metamorphosis from the one candidate in the Republican primaries who would “be a neutral guy” and “deal-maker” between Israelis and Palestinians — in fact, the candidate booed by Republican Jewish donors for not declaring Jerusalem the “undivided capital of Israel” — into a full-throated advocate of Israeli expansion into occupied Arab territories.
By the end of 2016, Trump would choose a militant advocate of the settlement enterprise as US ambassador to Israel — in fact, his own personal bankruptcy lawyer. Perhaps that is appropriate, given the widespread sense that settlement expansion is a bankrupt policy.
In his most overt transition-period challenge to President Obama, the president-elect complied with an extraordinary request by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call publicly on the president to veto a UN resolution reiterating Security Council (and US government) calls across four decades to halt Israeli settlement construction.
Bristling at yet another hostile intrusion into US politics by the redoubtable Netanyahu, Obama ordered a US abstention, and Security Council Resolution 2334 won unanimous adoption.
Shoot the messenger. “As to the U.N.,” the president-elect responded, “things will be different after Jan. 20th.” Whatever Trump might have in mind, a trio of Southern Republican senators would make concrete. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham sees the Israeli settlements as the wedge that can “create a backlash in Congress against the United Nations” and revive the hoary practice of nonpayment of US dues, which had dogged American diplomacy at the UN in the 1980s and ’90s.
Of course, it was not “the U.N.” but 14 states that voted for the resolution, and none of the 14 states — not Russia or China, not France or Britain, not Japan or Spain or any other of them — would feel any pain from US nonpayment of UN assessments.
If the point of the president-elect’s Congressional partisans is to alter these other countries’ critical views of Netanyahu’s Jewish settlements, it misses its target.
“The U.N.” may have to withdraw peacekeepers from areas of deadly conflict, but it is Senator Graham’s departing governor Nikki Haley, Trump’s designated UN ambassador, who may find herself holding the bag, isolated and discredited in both New York and Washington.
Then again, perhaps that is the point. And does Team Trump wonder why he will enter the presidency with unprecedented lack of public confidence in his ability to handle international crises?
Jeffrey Laurenti was senior fellow at the Century Foundation on international affairs for eight years. He is the author of numerous monographs on subjects such as international peace and security, terrorism, UN reform and international law and justice. He was executive director of policy studies at the United Nations Association of the United States until 2003, and then served seven years on the association’s board of directors. He also served as deputy director of the United Nations Foundation’s UN and Global Security initiative.
Laurenti is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and was candidate for the US House of Representatives from New Jersey in 1986. He has co-edited and contributed to “Breaking the Nuclear Impasse: New Prospects for Security Against Weapons Threats” and “Power and Superpower: Global Leadership and Exceptionalism in the 21st Century.”
His articles and analysis have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and on National Public Radio, the BBC, France24, Al Jazeera, Russia Today and other international media and policy journals.
Graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in government from Harvard University, he earned his master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He speaks Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese.