Trump's victory spells trouble but also exciting, unimagined opportunities

Joseph Camilleri @CatchNews | First published: 14 November 2016, 19:29 IST
Donald Trump AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan
AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

A Donald Trump presidency is as unpredictable as it was unexpected. While some have welcomed the result, for many Americans, as for America's friends and allies, there is a deep sense of unease about the future.

Yet, strange as it may sound, the outcome of this election may depend more on what we make of it than on what Trump and his advisers intend. Though daunting, the challenge is pregnant with possibilities.

Some observers have argued that the Trump victory is a reaction to economic hardship, job insecurity, casualisation and an out-of-touch political elite. But that's only half the story.

People in the US and around the globe are feeling disconcerted by a rapidly changing world and a bewildering, often frightening, set of problems: terrorism, refugees, climate change, a global arms trade, and heightened racial tensions, to name but a few.

That opens the way for people with simple solutions. Enter Donald Trump.

For all his anti-establishment bravado, Trump's underlying message is nevertheless rather familiar: defence of "national interests" (never defined) through strength. He offers a deeply ingrained sense of American exceptionalism, which justifies unilateral action - even when US power is in steady decline.

The Trump approach

Contrary to simplistic reports, Trump seems unlikely to ditch alliances. In a major foreign policy speech he bluntly stated: "America is going to be a reliable friend and ally." But alliances will be approached from a position of strength. This means substantially higher US military spending and rapidly upgraded nuclear and conventional forces.

To achieve the "unquestioned military dominance" he seeks, Trump requires America's allies to carry a greater share of the political, financial and human costs involved. To this end, he has flagged two summits after he assumes office: one with NATO allies and the other with allies in the Asia-Pacific, at which he may well read the riot act.

A similar strategy from strength is foreshadowed in relations with China and Iran. When it comes to the Middle East, he will be looking for reliable friends, notably Israel. Arab regimes will be supported if they are prepared to contribute generously to the defence effort. Human rights and reform in these countries will not be part of America's strategic calculation.

To this dubious policy mix Trump has added his own eccentricities: abandoning climate change as a priority and giving fossil fuel industries a new lease of life; building an "impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful" wall on the Mexican border; imposing a ban on Muslims entering the country (later rebadged as "extreme vetting"); opposition to marriage equality; and support for waterboarding.

America's friends and allies

Little of this agenda will find favour with America's friends or allies, most of whom still appear committed to the Paris climate change agreement. Many Europeans are intent on strengthening it. The German government has just announced an ambitious climate change action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the driving force behind the EU's acceptance of hundreds of thousands of refugees, has made it clear that relations with the United States have to rest on:

 
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