President Donald Trump takes office in a fog of foreign policy uncertainty. How presidents conduct foreign affairs often proves very different from what they promise on the campaign trail. During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush argued for reducing America’s involvement in overseas nation-building. But he soon engaged in some of the most ambitious nation-building projects, in Afghanistan and Iraq, since World War II. This is different. The American people, our allies, and our rivals still know very little about the actual policies that Trump and his national security team are likely to pursue.
In nomination hearings, the presumptive secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and now secretary of defense, retired Gen. James Mattis, reaffirmed their commitments to NATO. Tillerson criticized then-President Barack Obama for not taking a stronger stand against the Russian invasion of Ukraine; Mattis described President Vladimir Putin as “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance” and emphasized the need to “take the steps — the integrated steps, diplomatic, economic, military and the alliance steps” to work “with our allies to defend ourselves where we must.”
Yet, in interviews with Trump, European newspapers found him returning to disruptive campaign themes. Trump described NATO as “obsolete.” He threatened, in effect, a trade war with Germany over BMW and Volkswagen production in Mexico. He stressed his ability to make “good deals” with Putin, and implied that he would find a way to lift economic sanctions — perhaps in exchange for an arms-control deal related to nonexistent increases in Russia’s nuclear arsenal. And in his inaugural address Friday, Trump said, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones,” but also doubled down on the isolationist slogan “America first” while complaining that the United States has “subsidized the armies of other countries” at the expense of our own.
In fact, one of the few consistent messages emanating from the incoming Trump administration is a desire to take a hard line on China with respect to trade, disputes in the South China Sea and perhaps even the status of Taiwan.
This kind of uncertainty is inherently dangerous. Foreign leaders usually attempt to probe the intentions and commitments of new American presidents. Such mixed signals on NATO, our longest-standing alliance, and Russia invite significant risks. One frightening scenario: Trump’s actions and statements lead Moscow to believe that the United States will not forcefully respond to aggressive actions toward NATO members, but, faced with a major test of its credibility and resolve, the administration responds forcefully to defend U.S. interests. At the extreme, such miscalculations lead to shooting wars.
Only moderately less worrisome for U.S. allies is the proposition that Trump and his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, intend a geopolitical diplomatic revolution — one in which the United States leaves NATO to twist in the wind while it pursues a grand bargain with Moscow. Trump articulates a substantially different understanding of U.S. partnerships — as short-term transactions — than has dominated thinking among both mainstream Republicans and Democrats for decades. He seems to view long-standing democratic allies mostly as trade rivals, while flirting with less stable, less democratic regimes.
This possibility has made many U.S. allies understandably nervous. The Baltic states, which joined NATO to secure their political independence from Russia, are deeply concerned. Countries that underwrite America’s military presence, such as Japan, Korea, and Germany, cannot help but wonder about Trump’s criticisms. The British government, facing no easy options in implementing Brexit, likely hopes that Trump makes good on his promise to move quickly on a bilateral trade deal should the United Kingdom leave the European Union. At the same time, London has poor relations with Russia and must worry about the additional turbulence and uncertainty in world politics.
However, some partners are more optimistic. These include Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has championed illiberal democracy, praised authoritarian leaders and significantly eroded his country’s democratic institutions. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who turned to China and Russia as possible patrons after Obama criticized the wave of extrajudicial killings associated with Duterte’s war on drugs, has also been positive on Trump. Turkey is hoping for a change in U.S. policy. Despite close security cooperation between Israel and the United States during the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters are thrilled with Trump’s victory and his signals of unconditional support for their polices.
Meanwhile, the European populist and immigrant-skeptic right — the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Germany, and the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) — are heartened by developments in the United States. Since the Great Depression, the United States has been a bulwark against the populist right. No longer.
Russia is the major international actor most pleased about Trump’s victory. Moscow has adopted policies and strategies aimed at wedging apart NATO and otherwise trying to disrupt the exorbitant geostrategic privilege America obtains from its extensive network of alliances and partnerships.
Indeed, the priorities Trump articulates will, if he follows through, mean fundamental shifts in the international order. These are likely to leave the United States much less secure. But given that the incoming administration seems keen to take on China, it boggles the mind that Trump would simultaneously destabilize critical strategic relationships in Europe and Asia. Our best hope, then, is that Mattis’ testimony — rather than the new president’s interviews and tweets — provides the blueprint for Trump administration foreign policy.
Daniel Nexon is an associate professor in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University.