TSG IntelBrief: Old Challenges for the New Trump Administration
January 23, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The new Trump administration faces a wide range of foreign policy challenges, from the five-year-old Syrian civil war to the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict.
• While new presidential administrations bring potentially novel approaches to old problems, the level of influence that the U.S. has traditionally enjoyed in the world is diminishing.
• President Trump has voiced unprecedented criticism of both NATO and the EU, while consistently pushing for better U.S.-Russia relations.
• While the U.S. is likely to focus on domestic political issues over the next four years, global challenges and the competing interests of international powers will continue to direct the administration’s attention outward.
On January 23, talks to extend a ceasefire in Syria begin in Astana, Kazakhstan, led by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Just three days after assuming power, the Trump administration declined to send an envoy designated specifically to the talks; instead the U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan will attend, as will UN envoy Staffan de Mistura. There are no expectations for significant progress in ending the Syrian civil war, but Syrian rebel groups have, for now, formed a coalition for the talks. With international diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict achieving little over the last five years, even small diplomatic measures could be a welcome step toward a comprehensive solution down the road.
Whatever the path to resolving the Syrian civil war, U.S. influence is unlikely to be the predominant factor. What matters most in war and politics are facts on the ground, which currently favor the Assad regime and its main backers—Russia and Iran; those facts are unlikely to change with the new U.S. administration. For years, Washington has focused on fighting the so-called Islamic State and has resisted a more active role in the anti-Assad camps. The new Trump administration will likely take an even more skeptical line with the Syrian rebels, as well as a more cooperative line with Russia over Syrian affairs. The Trump administration’s view that the Syrian conflict is fundamentally a war between civilization and terrorism—a view that aligns more closely with the narrative put forth by Russia and Assad—will mark a massive change in U.S. policy.
Regarding the moribund Arab-Israeli conflict, there are indications that the Trump administration may make symbolic and practical changes to the U.S. position over one of the longest-running conflicts in the Middle East. A possible early step would be to relocate the U.S. embassy from its current location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a move would have tremendous implications for any future Palestinian state, as well as the final status of the disputed city of Jerusalem. Even the hint of a potential embassy move has been met with vocal concern from the Palestinians and many of their Arab neighbors; King Abdullah of Jordan warned of catastrophe if the embassy was moved. As with many long-standing precepts of U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration, it is too early to know if President Trump’s campaign rhetoric over this issue will translate into substantive policy changes.
Adding to the challenge of specific conflicts in places like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and others, is the reality that the guarantors of stability in the post-World War II era—NATO and the European Union—are themselves on shaky ground. The very ideological underpinnings of these organizations—that a unified trade bloc and a united political-military front is the best approach to ensuring collective security—are being questioned by many, including the new President of the United States. Far more than any specific policy changes, the most likely shift in broader U.S. foreign policy will be the overall ideological approach, which is likely to see long-held assumptions overturned.
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