American Foreign Policy in Flux as Trump Takes the Helm

The night Americans were wrapping up their votes in the polling stations across the United States, a group of journalists from many countries met Daniel Serwer, a professor and director of Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, inside Washington's National Press Club to discuss the foreign policy implications of the election, which he described was “ugly.” Little was known one of the candidates, the one on the Republican ticket, would triumph to the shock of America and the world. Serwer appeared to have little doubt on the eventual raise to power of Clinton, a candidate he voted for. He was reluctant to say much about Donald Trump's world view and possible policies towards many countries and particularly Africa. Tamrat G. Giorgis, managing editor for Addis Fortune, was one of these journalists who discussed the making of foreign policy under a new administration. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The night Americans were wrapping up their votes in the polling stations across the United States, a group of journalists from many countries met Daniel Serwer, a professor and director of Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies , inside Washington’s National Press Club to discuss the foreign policy implications of the election, which he described was “ugly.” Little was known one of the candidates, the one on the Republican ticket, would triumph to the shock of America and the world.

Serwer appeared to have little doubt on the eventual raise to power of Clinton, a candidate he voted for. He was reluctant to say much about Donald Trump’s world view and possible policies towards many countries and particularly Africa. Tamrat G. Giorgis, managing editor for Addis Fortune, was one of these journalists who discussed the making of foreign policy under a new administration. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


DANIEL SERWER, Professor and director of Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: The key to understanding the American presidential process is it organised by and the outcome is determined by the states, not by the federal government. One consequence is that there is very little uniformity. The states close their polls at very different times. States count their votes at very different paces. Some states are very small and find it easy, some states are pretty big and find it hard.

Not only are the rules and procedures decided by the states, but the vote in each state is what determines the states’ votes in the Electoral College. It meets not on Washington, D.C. but in each state capital on December 19th. Each state has a number of electoral votes equal to its number of senators and representative total, because each state has two senators no matter how small, no matter how few people they have. This process favours less populous states. But the District of Columbia, which does not have two senators, still gets three electoral votes, which is the number it would have if it did have two senators. And the District of Columbia is a lock for the Democrats.

As a result of this Electoral College process, an election can be close in the popular vote. But the Electoral College difference can be large. It is also possible you can lose the popular vote and still win in the Electoral College, which happened for the last time in the year 2000. That night I went to bed absolutely convinced that Gore had won the presidency; there was no doubt about it at all, and I woke up the next morning, the Florida controversy was already raging and the election was eventually decided in the Supreme Court.

What this would all mean for foreign policy? There are dramatic differences between Trump, who prides himself on unpredictability, and Clinton, who has a long track record well within the post-9/11 foreign policy consensus. Trump really is erratic, inconsistent, and hyperbolic. He wants to put America first, which is defined not only as ignoring others, blocking immigrants, and doubting America’s questioning, but also destroying the existing international trading system and somehow pursuing his bromance with Vladimir Putin.

Clinton is committed, studious, internationalist – all perhaps to a fault. She once pursued a reset with Putin that failed. She wants to maintain the stability of the international system and restore American authority – something President Obama surrendered in retrenching from, in particular, from the Middle East. The point here is that we really have a very sharp difference on foreign policy, even if it is difficult to define exactly what Trump’s basic foreign policy parameters are.

In the Middle East, in Europe, including the Baltics and Ukraine, Clinton is far more likely to push back on Russian aggressiveness than Trump. In Asia, Trump has sometimes talked tough about China’s trade policy and suggested that South Korea and Japan might want to get their own nuclear weapons. Clinton would certainly not like that idea, but she might also be tough on China about trade. She would want to continue building up American alliances in Asia, especially, I think, with India and Vietnam.

Both Clinton and Trump oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but Clinton would likely want to renegotiate parts of it and proceed. Whether this Congress would go along with that is not clear, while Trump would want to scrap the TPP completely.

But presidents do not always get to decide what issues they deal with. I would expect Moscow and Beijing and perhaps others to take an early opportunity to test the new president, whoever it is.

Could we have an incident involving China and the South China Sea? A North Korean launch of a missile that could reach the United States? A new push by Russian-supported insurgents in the Ukraine? An incident with Iranian ships or missiles in the Gulf? A massive cyber attack?

Clinton understands the capabilities and limits of American power, as well as the need for allied support. Trump does not. He mistakes bravado for strength and unpredictability for leverage. Most of the world, I think, understands this and prefers Clinton. Moscow may not be entirely alone in favouring Trump, but it is certainly pretty lonely. Those of us who enjoy foreign policy for a living – Republicans as well as Democrats like me – will likewise be almost universally relieved if she, not he, becomes president.

VALOR ECONOMICO: How do you think that they are going to act in Latin America?Who do you think Hillary is going to call for her cabinet in terms of foreign policy advisors?  And the same question on Trump.

SERWER: So far as Latin America is concerned, I think with Clinton you will get a continuation of Obama’s policy, essentially of encouraging economic development and political liberalization in Latin America, but also not paying a lot of attention to Latin America, because things are going okay there. Brazil is – despite the big headlines of today – in much better shape than it was 32 years ago when I was there last. It is wealthier, freer, and a lot of good things. I think the foreign policy elite generally in Washington likes to see that happening and it is happening in a number of countries in this hemisphere. And I think Clinton would certainly extend the policy of opening towards Cuba as well.

Trump on Latin America? It is anybody’s guess! I do not know that he has mentioned Latin America, except that Mexico is going to build the wall, which clearly it is not going to do.

I can predict the population of the United States 20 years from now better than I can predict who will be Secretary of State or who will be Secretary of Defense, because decisions by a single person are difficult to predict when decisions by large numbers of people are relatively easy, especially decisions about demographic futures.

With Trump it’s much harder. There’s been this recent rumour about Newt Gingrich. I had heard a rumour about John Bolton as Secretary of State. I do not know the answer there. I think it is very difficult to predict. When he named his economic advisors, they were people nobody had heard of, frankly.

AALCONAKRY.COM: In the heat of the campaign, Trump accused Clinton and Obama alike, of participating in an expansion of international terrorists. And in the case of Hillary Clinton, we have seen some action that she did when she was a Secretary of State – the overthrow of Qadhafi, for instance in Libya, which allowed Jihadists the control over that region and there was a lot of loose arms. The government in Mali was in jeopardy. How many more action can we expect when she becomes president?

SERWER: Predicting decisions by a single person is difficult. I think Hillary Clinton will be cautious about overseas intervention. She has learned the lesson also of Libya, but in my view, the lesson that should be learned President Obama admits that he made a mistake, but he does not admit that the intervention was a mistake. He admits that not following up, not establishing law and order in Libya was the mistake, or at least that is what he implies.

And I think that is what Clinton will conclude too – that sometimes America has to intervene, sometimes it wants to intervene – that was a want intervention in Libya in order to protect people in Benghazi. But you cannot just intervene. You have to provide for governance afterwards.

CHINA CENTRAL TELEVISION: China has been mentioned more than 30 times during the election. I would like to know if Clinton or Trump gets elected, how will it affect the future U.S.-China political and economic relations?

SERWER: The U.S. and China are deeply entwined with each other, mainly by economic interests. And I anticipate that the Americans will do everything they can to try to keep the U.S.-China relationship on a peaceful and, as much as possible, cooperative basis. We have seen that now with the global warming convention in Paris. We see it in some other areas as well. There are also points of friction on trade, sometimes on investment, sometimes on the South China Sea or on the East China Sea. China is rising, and the Americans know that. They do not want to resist that.  China rising means a bigger market for American products. It means investment in the U.S. It means lots of things besides competition. I think smart heads in Washington want to try to keep that relationship peaceful and in the benefit of both sides.

ADDIS FORTUNE: Let me ask the opposite of the earlier question. Africa has not been mentioned even once during this campaign. Were you surprised with that observation? Whichever person wins the next election, how will you see Africa`s place in the U.S. foreign policy circle?

SERWER: Well, of course, Africa has not been mentioned only if you think Libya is not part of Africa. But Libya has been mentioned. Look, not being mentioned in an American presidential campaign may be the healthiest thing I know about for a part of the world. We mentioned only the problem parts of the world in American election campaigns. Africa is not quite as progressing quite as rapidly and quite as dramatically as a good part of Latin America has, but it has done pretty well.

Growth has been good in Africa. There are democratic regimes in a number of countries that are surviving peaceful transitions of power. These things are good. But they were not going to get mentioned in an American election campaign, because we do not focus on the good things. We focus on criticising the other guy for all the bad things they did.

Yes. Africa has been out of the election campaign. But you know President Obama showed significant interest in Africa. I think Hillary Clinton would as well. I am just at a loss about Trump. I just do not know. I mean, has he ever mentioned Africa? I do not know.

DAILY KURIER: After all this buddy talk about Trump and Putin, if Trump might go into the White House, he would have a lot of Republican hawks – which I also talk to – who would push him towards a much more aggressive stance towards Russia. The idea of Trump schmoozing with Putin seems a bit odd if you take into account what the Republicans think about the position towards Russia.

SERWER: What Republicans think has not made much difference to Donald Trump through the entire campaign. He does not think of himself as a conventional Republican candidate. He has made that quite clear. And a lot of the people you are talking about, or at least some of them, are likely voting for Hillary Clinton precisely for this reason. I sit in, at Johns Hopkins SAIS in a building full of Republicans. Not one of them will vote for Trump. They are all part of the foreign policy consensus in Washington; some of them are much more hawkish than I might be. But they won’t vote for Trump.

It is anybody’s guess how he will actually behave towards Putin. But he has shown really gigantic reluctance to criticize the Russians. He asked them to hack emails; they hacked emails. And he is happy with that. That is a real change in attitude on the part of an American leader.

RADIO SAWA: How do you see the next administration dealing with the rise of political Islam in the Middle East, the rise of Islamism in old allies like Turkey, and the reaction, the resistance from allies in the region like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates?

SERWER: Political Islam presents a real quandary for the Americans. We believe in democracy, but there are certainly variants of political Islam that are not democratic. Even if they come to power in democratic ways, some of them have proved not very democratic, and I would include Typpe Erdogan [of Turkey] in that definition.

This reminds me of the situation between the Americans and the communists after World War II. But generally – this is forgotten – Christian democracy, especially in Italy, was regarded as a great danger once upon a time, because it would have the authority of the pope behind it. It would not respect democratic rules. That turned out to be complete nonsense, but there was concern about it. Certainly the attitude towards even European communists during the Cold War was that they would never respect democratic rules. And somewhat the same concern exists today, but maybe with more basis about some variants of political Islam.

What you see the Americans doing so far, especially in Egypt, is really collaborating very closely with Sisi, who is not behaving democratically in Egypt. They have cooperated closely with Erdogan, and have been hesitant to criticize [him]. I think they are frightened of what political Islam and the directions it might take. The Islamic State gives them a good target. There was nothing acceptable about the Islamic State. Al-Qaida gives them a good target; there is nothing acceptable about al-Qaida.

But these variants that the move in an Islamist direction, but are not terrorist groups but may be more autocratic in orientation, as certainly Erdogan has become, gives everyone a pause. I do not know that there is going to be a general policy toward political Islam. I think you see political Islam behaving very decently in Tunisia, so you respond to that circumstance; you see it behaving badly in Turkey, you are going to have to respond to that; and you see it behaving sometimes this way, sometimes that way in Jordan, you have to react to specific circumstances, not to some global idea of political Islam.

LATVIAN RADIO: Pivot to Asia, not very successful; restart with Russia, not very successful; Latin America, not very interesting; Africa doing good, not very interesting; Middle East . . .

SERWER:  Disastrous.

LATVIAN RADIO: . . . somehow struggling, disastrous, what should the United States do? What could be the next pivot for America in the global region? Who are the closest partners now when Europe is doomed a bit?

SERWER: The closest partners are Europe, period! Always have been, always will be. I do not think anybody in Republican or Democratic administrations has a lot of doubt about that even though Donald Rumsfeld once preferred old Europe to new Europe.  But it is still Europe.

America’s most reliable partners around the world are in NATO; they are in the European Union, and you are right that when we survey the world, there are a lot of things that do not look great. But look, the threats to American national security today are minor compared to the threat we faced for the entire period of the Cold War. For more than 40 years, we faced a real existential threat. We should not blow up terrorism into an existential threat. It is not.

AL HAYAT: For the peace process in the Middle East, President Obama talked in Cairo about the two-state solution and he would not allow for settlement. And now there is no hope, there is no talks, and there is double standard over Palestine. What is your expectation for the new administration?

SERWER: I do not expect any new administration to launch a major new initiative on Israel-Palestine. Nobody thinks the conditions exist for success. And several people have tried, every American president has tried and failed. After a while, you learn your lesson.

There are things that can be done in Israel-Palestine that will improve the eventual likelihood of a two-state solution. One of those would be to stop the Israeli settlements, but that is a bridge too far. The Israelis have stymied every effort by the Americans to do that. I think improving economic conditions in Palestine is important. Getting Palestine on to a more democratic track is also important. There are lots of things that can be done to improve relations between Arabs and Jews in – both within Israel and between Israelis and those in the West Bank, Gaza being sort of out of bounds for the moment.

What you can expect to see, even from a president who is very concerned and very committed to the two-state solution, is a more indirect approach to creating the conditions under which it might be possible rather than going directly at it or reviving the peace process. Trump of course said little about this, but he did say we have to have an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians that satisfies both to some degree. Let’s make a deal, basically. Frankly, that was pretty close to Bernie Sanders’ position, but Hillary Clinton is not there yet. She is much more wedded to a traditional American backing of the Israelis.

GEORGIAN TELEVISION: Do you have anything to say on the candidates’ position on NATO enlargement? At the NATO summit in Bucharest, the alliance offered Georgia and Ukraine membership to NATO. How will the next administration`s position will affect this?

SERWER: A Clinton administration will clearly want to keep the door to NATO open. I do not think it will press rapidly for Ukrainian or Georgian membership, but it will want to keep the door open, which means more cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia. Trump has threatened to disband the alliance, then he backed that up and said no the alliance is okay, because it is willing to fight terrorism. Well, it was always willing to fight terrorism.  Whom did we go to Afghanistan with?  We went with the NATO alliance.

But I do not want to hide from you that I think generally in Washington there are doubts about Georgian and Ukrainian membership in NATO, and there are doubts among both Democrats and Republicans. Some people regard Georgia as simply a bridge too far.  It is too far out of the NATO area.

For Ukraine, there are important voices in Washington, including Kissinger and others, who say, look, we should cut a deal here and tell the Russians that Ukraine won’t come into NATO. Maybe they will let us bring Ukraine a little bit closer to the EU.  That would not be my personal view, but I think you should understand that there is significant opinion in Washington that thinks that Georgian and Ukrainian membership in NATO was not a good idea to begin with and might likely never happen.

CARIEN du PLESSIS: We saw George Bush pursued quite a successful programs in Africa such as against HIV/AIDS. It had quite a lot of measurable success and praise.  Barack Obama had Power Africa, that was one of his big programs, which I think so far has had debatable success. Do you think Hillary Clinton will continue with that or will the next four years see another program? What do you think is her passion in Africa?

SERWER: With Trump, he is a big-time hotel developer; maybe he will develop big-time hotels. It is not the worst thing that happens to countries, though I am not fond of visiting countries that built too many Trump-like hotels. But look, it is just very difficult to tell. The man has never mentioned Africa so far as I know; how am I going to know what he might do in Africa?  What I think we do know is that there will be enormous pressure in a Trump administration to cut way back on international assistance. That I think is quite clear.

Published on Nov 18,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 863]



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