The Challenges and Opportunities that Await President-Elect Trump

Donald J. Trump was elected the forty-fifth president of the United States on November 8. Atlantic Council analysts and board members describe the challenges and opportunities the new president will face as he takes office in January of 2017, and provide policy recommendations.

Jorge Benitez, director of NATOSource and a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

As a candidate, Donald Trump said that NATO is obsolete and that US support for our allies should be conditional on how well they do in terms of burden sharing. Trump’s electoral victory will have an immediate and negative impact on NATO. Our credibility as an ally is now in question and doubts about America’s commitment to NATO will hurt the health and solidarity of the Alliance. 

The NATO summit in Brussels in 2017 will be an important test for the new Trump administration. Will the new president mend fences with the leaders of the Alliance and renew US commitment to our most important national security relationship? Or will Trump continue his divisive approach to NATO and jeopardize the future of deterrence and peace in Europe?

Mat Burrows, director, Strategic Foresight Initiative

New geopolitical risks 

By imposing tariffs on Chinese and Mexican goods and killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Donald Trump will accelerate an already protectionist trend.  With immigration also bound to be curbed, we’re in for a downward cycle that the United States and the West cannot control.  A post-Trump administration may have a hard time undoing the damage and set the world back toward cooperation.  

Asian partners may already have concluded the United States is unreliable.  Japan, South Korea, India, and others may believe they have to look after their own interests, including defense.  Years ago, scholars wondered if Asia’s future wasn’t Europe’s past.  Multipolar rivalry could begin to take shape with increased arms sales, new alliances, etc. US-China tensions could spiral if US protectionist forces spill over and aggravate already existing tensions in the South China Sea. 

Silver linings

Trump could force Germany, France, and other core countries to fend more for themselves, revitalizing intra-European political and security cooperation. 

Trump could lower the temperature on US-Russian relations.  There’s unlikely to be a reset, but we could avoid a hostile Cold War situation without the communication channels.   

A Stronger United States

The political classes—both Republicans and Democrats—now have to wrestle with not only making sure minorities are better integrated, but also appeal to low-skilled  white voters, reversing decades-old wage stagnation. We’ll be stronger if we can eliminate the divide. The alternative is what happened to Britain at the time of the first industrial revolution—the creation of a class society.

Thomas Cunningham, deputy director, Global Energy Center

This is an historic moment for US leadership in the world, no matter how you slice it.  Although uncertainty about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory reigns, I offer four points to consider when weighing the election’s implications for the global climate deal and the future of renewables domestically:

1.     It takes four years to withdraw from the Paris agreement.  The Paris agreement to meet a collective target to limit global warming entered into force on November 4.  (The United States signed on together with China in September, spurring dozens of other countries to do the same, triggering the entry into force much faster than expected.)  According to the terms of the agreement, a party cannot submit a motion to withdraw for three years, and that withdrawal would only take effect one year after that.  So the soonest the United States could be released from its international commitments is minimum of four years away—a full presidential term.

2.     Emissions reductions in the US power sector are driven more by cheap natural gas than by government intervention.  The Clean Power Plan (CPP), which sets emissions limits on power plants, is the principal US policy tool to meet its international emissions reduction commitments.  But it is inexpensive and abundant natural gas from the US shale boom that made the CPP economically—and therefore politically—viable. Rescinding the CPP does not, therefore, guarantee the unbridled return of coal power.

3.     Renewable energy is viable for investment and will remain so.  Technological advances, improved energy efficiency, and changing consumer demand are driving rapid decreases in the cost of renewables, reducing the need for specific policies to promote their use.  The tipping point came in 2015 when new installations of wind and solar generation for electricity exceeded that of fossil generation.  Experts are bullish that the trend will continue for decades: BP projects that renewables will account for nearly 45 percent of electricity generation in 2035; Bloomberg anticipates 60 percent of installed capacity will come from renewables in 2040.

4.     The Paris agreement takes a bottom-up approach—the kind of approach to governing that Trump’s supporters demanded on election day.  The Paris agreement does not set binding targets for countries. Instead, parties join by offering their own “nationally determined contributions” to meet a collective target to limit global warming.  If the United States is going to continue to lead the global effort, that bottom-up approach now has to be brought to the American heartland in a way that has never been done before.  The November 8 upset means that climate advocates will need to convince this new majority of the American people why—and how—a low-carbon future is in their direct interest.  That is not too much to ask.  Let’s start the conversation.

Paula J. Dobriansky, a former under secretary of state for global affairs, is a senior fellow at the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is also an Atlantic Council board member.

The transatlantic alliance, with NATO as its centerpiece, is a unique institution, which provides tremendous benefits for all its members and for the entire international system. Grounded in common democratic values; shared regional and out-of-area security concerns and objectives; and longstanding economic,  historical, and cultural ties, the transatlantic relationship has been the foundation for the maintenance of peace, security, and stability in post-World War II Europe.

Europe, however, is now in a state of crisis—unprecedented refugee flows, fragmentation of pan-European institutions, serious economic and political strains in virtually all European countries accompanied by the rise of far-right political parties, revanchist and aggressive Russian foreign policy,  disinformation permeating European media outlets, and a sense of complacency about the future.

Meanwhile, even as burden-sharing debates have been a perennial feature of the transatlantic alliance,  there is strong and growing belief, espoused by many Americans, that the United States has been bearing too much of NATO’s financial and security costs and not getting enough out of its investment. The European Union has also pursued punitive policies toward major American companies and differences with the United States have emerged on numerous economic, cultural and foreign policy matters, and even transatlantic intelligence cooperation has weakened in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations and resulting disputes about how to balance privacy and security.

With these concerns in mind, the Trump administration should, while acknowledging NATO’s and the EU’s formidable benefits, commence a candid dialogue with our European allies about how to move toward truly equitable burden sharing; more unified positions on major regional security matters;  better coordination on out-of-area threats management; and better handling of economic, trade, and other non-security issues. If handled properly, such a dialogue should foster a stronger transatlantic alliance, that enjoys wide support from all of its members.

Stuart E. Eizenstat, deputy secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration and a former US ambassador to the European Union. He is an Atlantic Council board member.

The unexpected, earth-shattering election of Donald Trump has presented a critically important lesson to all of us who have been involved in senior positions in the US government in international political and economic affairs, and who remain engaged outside government in important think tanks like the Atlantic Council:  effective policy can never get too far ahead of its people in a democracy without causing a backlash.

There are many explanations for Trump’s election, but not the least is an angry populist reaction against the bipartisan consensus of the “establishment” behind globalization, free trade, open borders, technological advancement, and immigration. Trump captured the Republican nomination by challenging the orthodoxy of his own party on these issues and the presidency from a highly qualified candidate, Hillary Clinton, who to many voters embodied the status quo. The sentiments behind the Trump voters were strikingly similar to those that motivated the Brexit voters, and that are at work in many countries in Europe. Tens of millions of citizens on both sides of the Atlantic feel left behind by these forces, and that their governments have left them to fend for themselves.

In order to avoid an unraveling of the international order, which has been put together for decades, with broad benefits, it will be critical to show the middle class that the integrated world works for them; that we understand the pain that has come with the dislocations of trade and technology; that we provide the kind of job-retraining and apprenticeship programs that countries like Germany have put in place, as well as a much broader and strong Trade Adjustment Assistance program. In addition, the kind of huge infrastructure progam that Trump has promised, as well as international tax reform to repatriate the trillions of US dollars in the hands of US multinational companies abroad, can help create good paying jobs for workers who have been displaced.

In the meantime, I am particularly concerned about the future of the US trade agenda. During the campaign, the president-elect came out forcefully against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which is almost certainly dead, but was one of our country’s most important tools to combat increased Chinese influence in Asia. He likewise called for scrapping or renegotiating NAFTA, imposing high tariffs on Chinese goods, and having the Treasury label China a “currency manipulator.” Given his anti-trade rhetoric, it makes new trade agreements, like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the European Union and the United States, more difficult to achieve. However, he did not comment on TTIP, and I am hopeful the new president will see it as a job-creating agreement between countries with high levels of wages and environmental protection. While Trump has favored a US-UK bilateral free-trade agreement, that will be hard to consummate until the United Kingdom formally leaves the EU.

I believe that the realities of international relations will make it more likely that there will be some modifications to NAFTA, but not its elimination. And rather than start off his term with a possible trade war with China, the new president will instead support an increasing number of private sector-initiated trade remedy cases against Chinese products that have been illegally dumped into the US market. But in an interdependent world we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. With global supply chains and products made in a number of countries, it will be vital to keep the arteries of trade open.
Steven Grundman, George Lund Fellow for Emerging Defense Challenges, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

The most important thing the new president can do for national security in his first one hundred days is to break the grip of deadlock over defense spending, which will require a reframing of the issue that enables a political resolution of the Budget Control Act (BCA). To unlock this debate over fiscal policy and defense spending, the Trump administration first should refocus the measure of fiscal responsibility back to the original impetus for the BCA, which concerned debt as a proportion of the economy. It should do this not because the outlook for the trend of debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) is particularly salutary: It stands at about 75 percent today and is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to continue growing by about one percent a year into the future. However, what this frame of the debate can do is to redirect attention from discretionary spending, the very weakest lever on debt-to-GDP, and back onto factors like the rate of productivity growth, which can be promoted in a domestic stimulus initiative that will enjoy the strong tailwind of identity politics that has swept Donald Trump into office. Such relief from Republicans’ resistance to adding any non-defense spending to the BCA baseline would then open the door to adding the nearly $30 billion a year above the current baseline for defense that is needed to support the existing military posture.

HA Hellyer, senior nonresident fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

There are two things that are striking about analyzing what a Trump presidency could mean. The first is utter and total unpredictability and how erratic it might be—we have no idea which of the mutually contradictory statements Trump and his campaign put out will actually form the basis of policy. That makes for a very difficult and unwieldy space right now.

The second is that Trump’s election has already caused massive damage in one key fashion—the social cohesion of the United States. Today, African-American families, Muslim-American families, Latino-American families, so many different communities in America are feeling a sense of deep concern about a man who regularly issued bigoted comments and encouraged the most far-right elements in American society. That damage has already been done—it shouldn’t be underestimated.

John E. Herbst, director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center

Donald Trump’s victory is a blow against the political establishment in the United States.  He identified a large class of people, blue-collar workers, who had done poorly in the globalizing economy of the past twenty years and who were ignored by both the Democratic and Republican parties.  His candidacy also represented the many Americans unhappy with the repeated failed interventions in the greater Middle East—Iraq, Libya, and even Afghanistan. The fact that his opponent trumpeted Libya as a victory and promised a foreign policy of more of the same strengthened Trump’s candidacy.

Understanding this is important to understanding what Trump may or may not do on policy toward Russia and Ukraine.  Most of Trump’s statements during the campaign suggested that he can conduct business with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has little interest in Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, and is ambivalent about NATO’s role in today’s world.  But we do not know if he would develop policies based on these statements.  In the president-elect’s entourage, only LTG Michael Flynn is reputed to have “dovish” views on Russia. But Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, Senator Bob Corker, Newt Gingrich, and John Bolton all understand the dangers of Kremlin revisionism and have backed stronger US support for Ukraine.  They should provide at least a moderating voice, if not a decisive one, in the formulation of the Trump administration’s policies toward Moscow and Kyiv.

Even if Trump wanted to pursue a policy of rapprochement with the Kremlin, he would have trouble bringing Congress along if Moscow continues its war in Ukraine’s east and its indiscriminate bombing in Syria.  Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are deeply suspicious of the Kremlin and supportive of Ukraine.

Relations with Russia and Ukraine will not be Trump’s first priority. Economic, trade, and immigration policies will likely drive the new president’s first hundred days.  To achieve his objectives in these areas, he will need to work with Congress.  He cannot afford to provoke the legislature over issues that for him are of a secondary nature.

Finally, there is the question of how Putin’s behavior will affect Trump.  If Putin’s warplanes continue to get dangerously close to American ships and planes, Trump may well consider that a challenge demanding a response.  The same is true if Moscow continues to bomb US-supported rebels in Syria.  In short, many factors will play a role in determining the Trump administration’s policy toward Russia and today we can only see some of them.

Frederic C. Hof, director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

If we simply project Mr. Trump’s campaign statements on Syria into a presumption of how he would perform as president there is nothing – nothing – but disaster on the horizon.  I would, however, recommend against making such a projection. 

Trump’s Syria-related language did not reflect fact-based analysis.  Instead his general theme – let’s support Moscow and the regime in fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – was a minor piece of the successful rebellion he spearheaded against US foreign policy elites and the political class.  Moscow and the Assad regime are not, after all, concentrating much firepower on ISIS.  Civilians are their targets of choice.

Yet Mr. Trump took full advantage of the tortured, unexplainable Syria policy of the Obama administration to propose something simple and straightforward to an American electorate largely fed up with the Middle East.  He also amplified Mr. Obama’s stated contempt for foreign policy expertise.  My view is that many of the foreign policy stands articulated by Trump during the campaign – the Mexican wall, the NATO alliance, free trade agreements, Russia, and Syria – will be modified significantly as he tries to govern, provided he and his team receive sensible, practical options. 

Our task is to encourage and enable the new president to make good on his pledge to “Make America Great Again.”  In the Syria context this will mean reversing the Obama approach: taking steps to protect Syrian civilians so as to mitigate a humanitarian catastrophe and establish essential conditions for a diplomatic process leading to political transition.  It is a task well-worth pursuing.    

Faysal Itani, resident senior fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

Regarding US foreign policy on Syria, a Trump presidency introduces a good deal more uncertainty than a Clinton one would have. Those of us working on Syria understood the parameters of Clinton’s position and intentions – more interventionist than Obama and tough on Russia and Iran – partly because she had articulated them often and clearly, but also because we knew many of the members that were expected to inform her views. We need their thoughts on policy in Syria as well. Reading a Trump administration’s views on Syria poses a different challenge: firstly, apart from some superficial rhetoric on the campaign trail (mostly dealing with ISIS), we do not actually know what Trump thinks about Syria and US options in the region. We also do not have access to his foreign policy team because, like his ideas, it has not come together yet. In other words, we simply do not know what a President Trump will do. He has expressed a tendency toward “deal-making” with authoritarian leaders, but that does not always translate into meaningful options in a Syrian context. For example, were he to seek a deal with Russia over Syria, what would that entail exactly? It would change little, since neither party is able to decide the outcome in Syria. I suspect Donald Trump himself has yet to give the Syria problem serious thought. 

Richard L. Morningstar, founding director and chairman, Global Energy Center

A decision by the Trump administration to follow through on President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to withdraw from the COP21 Paris agreement would have a devastating effect on that agreement and an adverse effect on the conduct of our overall foreign policy.

The strength of the Paris agreement is based on the commitments of signing countries through nationally determined contributions to reduce carbon emissions to certain levels by 2050. A system is being established to monitor the progress on the commitments and developed countries have agreed to supply technical assistance to developing countries to help achieve their goals.

The United States played a major role in negotiating and bringing about the agreement. As a major emitter and key player in the negotiation and implementation of the agreement, its withdrawal would destroy the fabric of the agreement and lead to other defections. This would make it all but impossible to reach the goal of holding the rise of the global average temperature to between 1.5 and 2.0 Celsius.

In addition, a US withdrawal from the agreement would have a spillover effect on other foreign policy issues. Climate change is a major priority for many of our partners and allies. A rejection of this issue by the Trump administration would destabilize our relationships with many countries and make cooperation on other issues that are important to the United States much more difficult.

Magnus Nordenman, director, Transatlantic Security Initiative

Donald Trump’s election victory opens up a window of major uncertainty for the United States’ European friends and allies in NATO. President-elect Trump suggested during his campaign that US assistance in case of an attack was dependent on the allies having paid their share of the defense burden. If Trump’s posture on NATO persists during his presidency it would be a very serious challenge to NATO and its core principle under Article 5 of “one for all, and all for one” in case of an armed attack on an Alliance member. It would also cause European nations to more seriously consider a security arrangement that did not include the United States. Still, Trump’s comments during the campaign should not be construed as deriving from a broad-based rejection of the US leadership role in Europe. Fresh public opinion polls by Pew revealed that some 77 percent of Americans believe that it is a good thing that America is a member of NATO, while only 16 percent thought that NATO membership was bad for the country. Early and constructive interaction between the Trump administration and European leaders along with a strongly made case about the interdependence of US and European security is crucial in order to not let this uncertainty fester.

The future of the US-Russian relationship is also crucial in the context of the future of NATO. During the campaign Trump suggested that he would seek to make a deal with Russia and restore the Washington-Moscow relationship that has deteriorated since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in 2014. If this arrangement would include an arrangement about “spheres of influence” in Europe, it could very well spell the end for the long-standing American vision of a “Europe whole, free, and at peace.”

Carlos Pascual, Atlantic Council board member

Terrorism, migration, globalization, and the digital destruction of jobs are instilling fears across the United States and Europe that globally create a platform for populism and nationalism.  The challenge: how does the next US president create a coalition of leaders to replace fear with a vision for security and prosperity that can underpin growth domestically and internationally?  The Middle East demands a strategy that can sustain peace, and not just foment conflict, in order to stem loss of life, destruction, refugee flows, and sources of terror.  These destructive factors have exacerbated fears of job loss and personal security.  The advent of digitalization and robotics, at least temporarily, is taking additional jobs out of the market place – equally perhaps across the world, affecting developing and developed markets alike.  Combined, these drivers of fear foment resistance to change, trade, and international engagement, potentially undermining the foundations for global growth and stability.  No country can address these issues alone.  Resisting change rather than shaping it will potentially deepen economic dislocation and fear.  Resisting engagement on security, particularly in the Middle East to Russia, will never address the root causes of terror and migration.  The need for research is urgent, research focused on a vision for global leadership — for stability, jobs, security, and growth — that builds on lessons of the past decades and embraces solutions that can share burdens across borders.

Aaron Stein, resident senior fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) had lent its support to Donald Trump before the election. His challenger, Hillary Clinton, had tangential ties to the Gulen movement, the leader of which, Fetullah Gulen, Turkey accuses as the mastermind behind the failed coup attempt on July 15. She also angered many people when, in the third debate, she called to arm the Kurds in Syria – a policy position Ankara vehemently opposes. The pro-government press in Turkey was jubilant and, even before the polls closed, had taken to spreading a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton had two people assassinated. The AKP and those allied with it in the media made these comments, despite Donald Trump’s comments on Muslims. 

The future is murky. President Erdogan congratulated Trump in a phone call today and advisers close to him have made no secret of their content with the election result. With all of this said, Donald Trump has espoused policy positions on Syria that are radically opposed to that of Turkey and, once in office, he will feel pressure to “kick the you know what” out of ISIS – a policy outcome that could prompt him to tighten relations with the Syrian Kurds, which the AKP would not like. Donald Trump never really articulated a coherent policy position on much of anything during the campaign — and Turkey was no different. Ankara’s ruling elites may be excited, but the tone and tenor of relations with Turkey will be dependent on his approach to Syria, Iraq, and NATO — issues that remain complicated.

Paula Stern, Atlantic Council board director and former chairwoman of the US International Trade Commission

Weaponized misinformation and cyberattacks prevailed in the 2016 US presidential election. Social media played a key role in the propagation of incendiary news, and hackers intensified efforts to undermine US democracy.

This election proved a field day for misinformation and distortion of facts, propagated by master exploiters of fear using social media to incite hate. This new breed of public diplomacy in the information age—digitized poison missives—has led to a blurring of lines between legitimate and illegitimate information. Anyone who cares about the rules-based democratic order will need to pursue countermeasure social media strategies against agents that distort facts and release information with the express purpose of stoking fear and mistrust within the populace.

Cyberattacks became political weapons of dissension. The same group of Russian hackers that targeted the Democratic National Committee headquarters hacked into national security and public policy think tanks only six hours after the election. Reportedly, the attack was designed to implant malware and give hackers a back door to access their information. In the last few months, at least a dozen European organizations have also been targeted by state-linked Russian hacker groups. The Russian government has signaled that it is eager to exploit cyber weaknesses in the United States to fracture the United States and its allies. Going forward, more focus needs to be placed on defending against cyberattacks while launching a social media offensive against information meant to incite wrongful fear and hatred in the populace.

Related Experts: Aaron Stein, Faysal Itani, Frederic C. Hof, H.A. Hellyer, John E. Herbst, Jorge Benitez, Magnus Nordenman, Mathew Burrows, Richard L. Morningstar, Steven Grundman, and Thomas Cunningham

Image: US President-elect Donald Trump greeted supporters at an election night rally in New York. (Reuters/Mike Segar)