Trump and International Security

Main Image Credit President-elect Donald Trump at a campaign event in Las Vegas, Febraury 2016. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia.

Although power has shifted from West to East in recent years, the US remains the core of the liberal international order. The election of Donald Trump is a profound shock to that order, particularly in parts of the world that depend on a predictable and stable US military presence and commitment.

NATO – described by US president-elect Donald Trump as ‘obsolete’ – will not crumble with his election. However, European defence spending may rise more quickly as its core members – Britain, France, and Germany – come to terms with the erosion in the belief that the US will keep to its Alliance commitments. Britain is, in some respects, uniquely exposed at a time when it is disengaging from the EU. Its intelligence and nuclear capabilities rely, for their affordability and sustainability, on US–UK arrangements that have developed over seven decades and cannot be easily replaced. The resilience of these institutional ties will depend on Trump’s political appointees, but the risk of long-term atrophy cannot be ignored.

Yet there can be no serious European defence without the active involvement of Britain. Should faith in NATO weaken, we are ultimately likely to see a thaw in the relationship between London and its continental partners. Some European states, especially those in the South and one or two in Central Europe, may choose to bandwagon with Russia, anticipating that Moscow’s leverage over Europe will grow as American commitments wane.

Trump’s election will reinforce Europe’s populist wave, not least in France, which in turn will leave Europe more inward looking, and less capable of exerting its influence in Ukraine, the Balkans or the Middle East. As others fill those vacuums, competition and instability will grow on the fringes of Europe – and perhaps within it.  

Perceptions of US retrenchment in the Middle East and disorder in the region have both grown over the past eight years, even without Trump, but the effects of his election will be equally serious there. Trump has spoken critically of both Washington’s traditional ally, Saudi Arabia, and its rival, Iran. He has promised to tear up the landmark Iran nuclear deal, which had imposed restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear programme. Should he follow through on this commitment – and his election alone may prompt companies to reduce exposure to Iran pre-emptively – then competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, already rising, will grow. Riyadh may pursue, with greater focus, its own nuclear weapons option, while Arab states from the Maghreb to the Arabian Sea will look to hedge their bets by engaging, more closely, with Russia, as many have already been doing.

Moscow has taken advantage of the US presidential election to intensify its bombardment of Aleppo, and will press home its advantage in the knowledge that US intervention in Syria is now decisively off the table. Trump has also demonstrated a personal and ideological affinity for authoritarian strongmen, and particularly those with an anti-Islamist bent. We may therefore see a reinvigoration of Washington’s strained ties with Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. 

In Asia, this pattern of competition, realignment, and uncertainty is perhaps most consequential. Some countries will welcome the prospect of a more restrained US; China, of course, but also emerging partners such as India, which will benefit from warming US–Russia ties and oppose Washington’s policy in Syria. But Trump’s hostility to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), his questioning of the US commitment to Japan and South Korea, and his casual attitude to nuclear proliferation in those countries carries the risk of a major arms race and an explosion of tensions between Asia’s great powers.

Any perceived thinning of the US security umbrella could prompt South East Asian countries to hedge their bets, or even to lurch towards Beijing in dramatic fashion, as the Philippines has done in recent weeks. Smaller states, such as Singapore, will feel exceptionally vulnerable.

Regional partnerships, for instance between India, Australia, and Japan, will become much more important to the security order. The US-led hub-and-spokes model will grow less relevant, and a network of overlapping bilateral and multilateral partnerships will strengthen. However, any Japanese move towards nuclear weapons would provoke serious alarm. It would prompt changes in China’s nuclear posture, impacting both the US and India in turn, while prompting other states to balance against Tokyo as well as Beijing. The South and East China seas would become even more contested, turbulent, and volatile.

During eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, many traditional US allies have expressed concern that the US is pulling back from the world. Middle Eastern partners complain that Washington has ceded space to Iran and Russia, while Asian allies argue that the so-called pivot is devoid of substance. These complaints have been exaggerated, but they reflect a world in which power is more dispersed, US military force is less effective, and basic institutions and norms are under severe stress. Populism and economic nationalism reinforce this prevailing sense of uncertainty, with free trade under attack and the global economy still fragile.

A Trump presidency will apply unprecedented stress to this order, and the result is likely to be a more chaotic, violent world. For Europe, this demands greater cooperation, investment in security and defence, and an effort to maintain transatlantic relations on as even a keel as is possible under the uncertain circumstances of the following months. 


Shashank Joshi

Advisory Board

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