The most confusing part of President-elect Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and presidential transition team has been his foreign policy. Trump has not articulated a clear foreign policy for his administration and has instead said many contradicting statements. Nevertheless, there are some clues that are consistent throughout all his foreign policy statements that can be used to detect what he plans to do as President in the realm of foreign affairs.
One clue of Trump’s foreign policy will be about comes from the man that he has picked to lead the State Department, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson is a multi-millionaire oil tycoon who has been Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil since 2006. Tillerson is known for his close ties with Russia and Vladimir Putin, and even signed a $300 Billion oil deal in 2011 for drilling in the Arctic. For his efforts in the deal, Tillerson was given the badge of the Russian Order of Friendship, an award reserved for foreign nationals whose work benefitted Russia. In picking Tillerson, Trump turned down Mitt Romney (the favorite of the Republican mainstream) and Rudy Giuliani (an early Trump loyalist). This confirms the notion that Trump is interested in “draining the swamp” by appointing outsiders (like Tillerson) to government positions instead of more qualified candidates. This means that Trump will be more likely to try unconventional approaches to America’s foreign affairs.
Tillerson is not the only person in the Trump Administration to have connections with Russia. Mike Flynn, Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor, has appeared as an analyst on RT, the Russian state-funded television network. Flynn has also advocated that the United States endorse Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Russian-backed President.
Trump’s policy with regards to ISIS and Syria shows the conflicting viewpoints that define his foreign policy. Trump has repeatedly stated that he wants to “put America first” and withdraw America from the rest of the world. Trump has criticized the Iraq War and called for increased isolationism. Trump fits the bill of an America First Isolationist, especially when one considers his trade policy. On the other hand, Trump states that he has a plan to defeat ISIS. Trump says that he will “bomb the hell out of them." He also states that his plan to defeat ISIS involves taking their oil, though this plan lacks specifics. It is difficult to ascertain whether Trump is an interventionist or a non-interventionist from these colliding statements. One thing is discernible, if Trump is an interventionist, he is not trying to give democracy to other people, but he is intervening strictly for America’s interest only.
This falls in line with Trump’s other statements that he has made in relation to foreign policy. Trump does not seek to intervene in the Ukraine (perhaps because his advisors have connections to Russia) but also because it does not directly benefit America. In Trump’s mind, intervening in Ukraine would benefit Ukrainians by protecting their sovereignty and freedom, but would do little for Americans at home directly. Trump’s interventionism can be seen with countries like Iran. Trump has been critical of Iran, as has his National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. In Trump’s mind, the Iranian regime is a threat to America because of their potential ability to create nuclear weapons. In Trump’s mind this warrants the potential for military intervention, or at least military action. As a result, Trump has been critical of Iran.
Some people may argue that America needs to be less interventionist. Some go as far to say that we should not spread democracy and freedom or engage in “nation building." Clearly this sentiment is pronounced in America as our President-elect supports it. The danger is that by becoming less interventionist, democracy around the world will crumble. In some ways, Donald Trump seems to be okay with this. Trump has praised dictators like Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad. Assad is responsible for the Syrian Civil War and the deaths of 500,000 people, as well as the use of chemical weapons against his own people. Trump also praised Turkish President Recep Erdogan, after he successfully put down a coup attempt in Turkey. Erdogan has been known for his less than perfect human rights record. When democracy falls, dictators rise. When dictators rise, terrorists flourish. This is the case in Syria, where ISIS revolted against Assad. This is also true in Turkey where the PKK has attacked the Turkish government. Allowing terrible dictatorships to survive leads to even worse terrorist groups and even worse conflicts.
Donald Trump has made fighting terrorism a priority. He has repeatedly condemned the horrors of ISIS and other terrorist groups. He has also indicated that he wants to do something to stop them. This is a good thing. The key will be in how Trump attempts to fight terrorism. Will he endorse the dictatorships that have triggered the terrorists to fight in the first place? Or will he support multilateral action to eliminate terrorism and dictatorship from the map once and for all? These are the questions that President-elect Trump must ask himself when deciding what he will do. I hope that he considers the whole situation and supports a democratic interventionist approach that will end terrorism, dictatorship and benefit America and everyone else.