By Julian French.


“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and it is those interests it is our duty to follow”.

Lord Palmerston

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, 9 November. Well, that went well didn’t it? I am sitting at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport about to cross the new inner-West border by flying to London. In June large hordes of British people told Brussels where to go with Brexit. Now, large swathes of the American people have told Washington where to go with Trumxit. Some Chicken Littles here in Europe are already screaming ‘the sky is falling, the sky is falling’. But is it? What are the ‘strategic’ implications of President-elect Trump’s victory? What would a Trump Doctrine look like?

US grand strategy: President Trump will certainly abandon the values that infused the ‘Obama Doctrine’ and likely adopt a hard-headed interests-led foreign and security policy. However, he alone will decide just what the US interest actually is. Certainly, there will be more money for the US armed forces, but probably also a surprisingly ‘pragmatic’ approach to dealing with the likes China and Russia. As for ISIS there is nothing Trump has said thus far that suggests he either understands the issues implicit in the threat, or is willing to commit the immense forces and resources over time and distance needed to deal with it.

Brexit: Britain suddenly has a powerful ally in the White House for the coming Brexit negotiations with the EU, if for once London can exploit such an opportunity. Trump made no effort to hide his admiration for the decision of the British to quit the EU and even claimed Brexit was an inspiration for his campaign.  The Special Relationship might linger on a little longer if Theresa May’s Cabinet can hold its nose long enough to make use of it. If I were London I would get that British new super-carrier over to the US pronto! After all, President-elect Trump clearly enjoys the theatre of power.

NATO: Much will depend on how the Allies react to President Trump. As I wrote in a piece earlier in the year President Trump is likely to adopt a transactional foreign and security policy. As such he will hold the Allies to a far greater degree of burden sharing if the US is to remain the security guarantor of Europe. He will certainly demand the Allies at the very least fulfil and quickly the commitment made at the 2014 Wales Summit to spend 2% GDP on defence of which 20% must be spent on new military equipment. However, comments this morning that NATO is finished are as ever premature.

The West: The old West is dead, long-live the new West? The West was born of an Anglo-American partnership that spawned a global institution-based security order. It is not a little ironic then in that it is the Anglo-Americans who are fast killing it off, which from a British viewpoint is actually a disaster. President Trump will probably accelerate a trend toward Machtpolitik which has sadly been underway for some time, and which speaks to the very nature of a transactional foreign policy. A shared understanding of, and penchant for, big, uncouth power seems to be the spring of Trump’s bromance with Putin, and seems to be how he conducts his business empire.  Equally, if the idea of the West as a bloc is to survive under President Trump, then the Europeans will at least have to abandon some of the overdone institutionalism that passes for foreign and security policy in Europe, and properly reinvest in tools of power and influence.

There is of course a big ‘but’ with all of the above. As I write this it looks like Republicans are making gains in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. With people like Senator John McCain (R-Az) likely to hold key positions on the Senate Armed Services and other important congressional committees, the confirmation process for the new Administration will impose at least some level of balance. In any case, for all Trump’s fiery rhetoric during the campaign from about America’s place and role in the world his emphasis is likely to be overwhelmingly on undoing Obama’s domestic legacy, most notably the Affordable Healthcare Act.  Yes, the armed forces will get a boost to shore up the support of his base, but foreign policy will not be President Trump’s over-riding concern. In any case, he will be mired in endless battles with a Washington that he regards as a ‘swamp’ and which he has vowed to ‘drain’.

Which brings me to the real danger; there will be no Trump Doctrine. Rather, a Trump foreign policy could well descend into a mix of bluster, opportunism, isolationism, idiosyncratic activism, mercantilism, and trade protectionism, but offer little or no coherent or consistent strategy. Given how dangerous uncertainty is already making the world there is little question that President Trump could make the world more, not less dangerous. That is why European leaders far from rejecting President-elect Trump must now hug him close.

When Lord Palmerston made that famous statement about British interests at the height of Empire he did so firm in the belief that it was in the British interest to maintain strategic balance. President-elect Trump has as yet to evince any suggestion that he understands America’s pivotal role in the maintenance of today’s strategic balance. One can only hope he develops such a vision and quickly…for all our sakes.

What Next?

Recent Articles