The world wants many things from Donald Trump, America’s newly minted president. It just has no idea what to expect from him.
That uncertainty hasn’t stopped everyone — from foreign heads of state to media outlets (ours included) — from parsing the billionaire real estate mogul’s dizzying array of proclamations, promises and tweets to try to get a read on the 45th president.
As part of that process, The Washington Diplomat asked D.C.-based ambassadors for their thoughts on what priorities they’d like Trump to focus on as he assumes office. The following, in no particular order, are the replies of more than two dozen envoys on issues ranging from trade and terrorism to immigration and nuclear proliferation.
Perhaps no single foreign policy issue has grabbed headlines since the November 2016 presidential election as much as Russia and Trump’s fondness for President Vladimir Putin.
Moscow’s ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak, made news himself in mid-January with revelations by the Washington Post that he had contact with retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s new national security advisor. One phone call took place Dec. 29, the same day Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and slapped new sanctions against the Kremlin in retaliation for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. Intelligence officials say a Kremlin-led campaign of disinformation and the release of hacked emails was intended to bolster Trump’s chances against his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton, who undoubtedly would have taken a tougher line against Moscow if elected.
For months, Trump disparaged the intelligence community as inept and dismissed as “ridiculous” a classified CIA assessment that found Russian hackers most likely tried to tilt the election in Trump’s favor, noted a briefing by the Council on Foreign Relations. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Trump quipped.
In a January press conference, Trump reluctantly conceded that “I think it was Russia” who hacked the U.S., but added that other countries do the same thing all the time. Shortly afterward, however, his incoming administration was engulfed in yet another firestorm when a leaked memo of dubious veracity claimed that Moscow had compiled salacious, compromising information on Trump. The revelations created yet another rift in the already-rocky relations between the Republican president and the intelligence community — which has many worried about how the two sides will cooperate on future crises.
Despite the uproar over Russia, Trump hasn’t backed down on his desire to work with Putin to find common cause on global problems. He has often suggested that the United States allow Russia — which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — to destroy the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS). Last July, he even wondered, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?” He’s also repeatedly slammed NATO as irrelevant and brushed off the value of the transatlantic alliance — all music to Putin’s ears.
That kind of talk has stunned the foreign policy establishment, including hawks such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and nervous Eastern European allies on Russia’s doorstep. Critics say Trump’s unconditional faith in Russia empowers Putin, a wily adversary who can’t be trusted, and ignores the complexity of proxy wars such as Syria, where, by deferring to Russia, the United States would be siding with Assad, a leader who’s been accused of slaughtering his own people.
While most experts have expressed skepticism over Trump’s Russian olive branch, a few have said it might buck conventional wisdom — a particular talent of Trump’s — and break bloody stalemates that have bedeviled policymakers for years.
Daniel Twining, Asia director at the German Marshall Fund, said that warmer ties between Washington and Moscow under Trump could stabilize Asia at Europe’s expense.
“In 1972, President Richard Nixon formed an entente with what had previously been a hostile China in order to balance the rising power and aggressiveness of the Soviet Union,” Twining wrote. “In 2017, might President Donald Trump form an entente with what had previously been a hostile Russia in order to balance the rising power and aggressiveness of China?”
Regardless, he argued, Washington’s supreme interest lies in “shoring up the European security order, not in another Russian ‘reset.’”
Peter Doran, executive vice president of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), agrees that dealing with Putin will take more than clever slogans and tweets.
“Since the end of the Cold War, all U.S. presidents entered office hoping to patch up relations with Russia through trust and friendship. All have left disappointed,” Doran told The Diplomat. “Putin’s Kremlin treats these offers in terms of win-lose: We’ll win, you’ll lose. The key for Trump will be to demonstrate steady resolve in negotiations with Moscow, while not appearing to talk over the heads of America’s allies in Europe. It will be a true test for the new president and his team.”
Trump’s puzzling relationship with China is nothing new to anybody who’s followed his fiery rhetoric on the campaign trail — or his earlier business dealings, for that matter. His Trump-brand clothing line has long outsourced “Made in China” ties and shirts — an irony exposed by “Late Show” host David Letterman as far back as 2012, when Trump seemed amused that his “great, great” ties were produced in China.
Trump the Republican presidential candidate, however, took on a decidedly different tone when he courted blue-collar voters dismayed by globalization and the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs. He railed against Chinese currency manipulation (though experts say Beijing has stopped artificially devaluing its currency), its territorial ambitions in the disputed South China Sea and a trade imbalance that Trump said he would address by slapping punitive tariffs on China — home to 1.4 billion people.
Many pundits assumed Trump would tone down his tough talk once in office for fear of sparking a ruinous economic war with America’s number-two trading partner. But the brash billionaire — for the umpteenth time — defied everyone’s predictions.
In early December, the president-elect infuriated millions of Chinese by accepting a congratulatory phone call even before taking office from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. That conversation, the first between U.S. and Taiwanese leaders since 1979, was followed by a Wall Street Journal interview in which Trump upended years of consistent U.S. policy with his declaration that the one-China policy will now be up for negotiation.
Unperturbed by the blowback, Trump defended the call with Taiwan’s president as a preplanned maneuver to shore up a key U.S. economic and democratic ally.
“Today, Taiwan is a fully functioning democracy, respects human rights and the rule of law and has an open economy that, in 2015, made it the ninth-largest U.S. trading partner, with bilateral trade between the United States and Taiwan reaching $66.6 billion,” explained Bonnie S. Glaser and Michael J. Green in a brief for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “As such, Taiwan is a vital partner for the United States in Asia, a robust, prosperous, free and orderly society with strong institutions that stands as a model for the region.”
The brouhaha over Taiwan is almost enough to make the Chinese yearn for the days of Barack Obama’s Asia pivot, which Beijing viewed as a thinly veiled attempt to contain its growing influence in the region. Given the sensitivity of Taiwan’s status in China, which views the island as a breakaway province, experts fear Trump’s categorization of the one-China policy as a bargaining chip instead of a bedrock principle could snowball into war.
“Undermining the status quo could lead to full-scale military conflict between the United States and China over an island that both see as vital to their national interests and whose unique status they have managed well up to this point,” wrote Steven Goldstein in a Dec. 12 Washington Post piece.
“Effectively he has put U.S.-China relations in play in a way that hasn’t been the case before,” China expert George Magnus told Bloomberg on Dec. 12.
“If Trump is determined to use this gambit in taking office, a period of fierce, damaging interactions will be unavoidable,” the English-language China Daily warned, “as Beijing will have no choice but to take off the gloves.”
Nevertheless, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, says he’s “open to working” with the Trump administration on issues of bilateral interest. He spoke Jan. 3 in an exclusive interview with Mike Walter of CGTN television network.
“I think looking back to the last eight years or so, we have managed the China-U.S. relationship quite effectively and most of the time in a constructive manner,” he said.
The ambassador added that “the China-U.S. relationship is determined by larger common interests” but sidestepped a question about Trump’s infamous Taiwanese phone call and refused to criticize the 45th president personally.
“Yes, there are new styles and new personalities. Some of them could be unprecedented, but I think our relationship is determined by logic and common interests,” he told Walter. “We have to learn new tricks, of course — new ways of dealing with new people. This happens all the time, all over the world. The key is to confront the challenges together, and hopefully turn those challenges into opportunities.”
Asked about the South China Sea, he called the issue “a territorial and maritime dispute” involving China and her Asian neighbors, pointedly leaving out Washington, which wants to settle those disputes in a multilateral setting.
“This is not a geostrategic rivalry between any great power and should not be seen as such. It is certainly not a dispute between China and the United States,” he said.
On Dec. 13, the Asia Society Policy Institute released a briefing book, “Advice for the 45th President: Opinions from Across the Pacific.” In it, Wang Jisi, president of Peking University’s Institute of International and Strategic Studies, says China’s political elite believes the United States under Trump intends to undermine Beijing by supporting dissidents and by encouraging pro-independence or separatist movements in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and China’s predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang.
Likewise, U.S. experts are convinced that today’s China, with enhanced power and strong leadership, will try to reshape the current world order that has by and large served U.S. interests since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1979.
“The challenge for Chinese and U.S. leaders going forward is that China-U.S. relations have now entered a ‘new normal,’ one in which both competition and cooperation are growing simultaneously,” the report said.
Therefore, “Beijing and Washington should quickly find opportunities to establish new trust and confidence in each other.” It urges Trump’s team to “move quickly to establish direct connections with their respective Chinese counterparts and jointly suggest a priority list and work schedule for 2017.”
One top priority, says the author, is to make sure the two heads of state meet personally, as soon as possible, “and that there is good chemistry between them.” The report also advises the two sides to sustain the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue held annually since 2009.
“Beyond more active dialogue, the two sides also have a number of substantive issues they should work to address,” it adds. “In upcoming dialogues between Beijing and Washington, the two sides should candidly discuss and clarify their long-term intentions on sensitive issues such as the South China Sea, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, stability across the Taiwan Strait and cybersecurity.”
Ironically, the consternation over China may be obscuring a far more immediate threat: North Korea, whose opaque regime is steadily developing its nuclear program. According to a South Korean military analysis, Pyongyang now has enough material to make 10 nuclear warheads. The North’s mercurial dictator, Kim Jong-un, has vowed to test a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental U.S.
While experts say the tests are likely to initially encounter technical problems, they could trigger the first foreign policy crisis for an untested administration.
Trump has suggested that China do more to rein in its unruly neighbor but otherwise, the president hasn’t indicated how he would handle North Korea’s nuclear provocations, vaguely tweeting: “It won’t happen!”
Long neglected by the United States, Latin America — which technically includes Brazil and every Spanish-speaking country south of the Rio Grande — has been off Trump’s radar screen, with two glaring exceptions: Mexico and Cuba.
Perhaps no other country, in fact, has been on the receiving end of Trump’s nationalistic attacks more than Mexico. Trump’s infamous campaign pledge to build a wall with America’s southern neighbor and have Mexico pay for it have since evolved to having Mexico reimburse U.S. taxpayers for the cost. (Not surprisingly, as appealing as both propositions sound, Mexico has responded with a resounding, “No thanks.”)
Trump has also threatened to slap punitive tariffs on American — and foreign — companies ranging from GM to BMW that dare to set up shop in Mexico.
The attacks have left the embattled administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto scrambling for answers. In fact, Nieto seems so diplomatically discombobulated that the president appointed a third ambassador to the U.S. in less than a year, just days before Trump’s inauguration. Gerónimo Gutiérrez, a member of the opposition center-right National Action Party, will replace Carlos Manuel Sada Solana, who started the job just a few months ago.
Gutiérrez is a former undersecretary for North America and the current head of the North American Development Bank. He has extensive experience working on border issues and the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Trump criticized relentlessly throughout his campaign and blamed for the loss of millions of jobs.
Officially, Mexico’s response to Trump’s attacks has been relatively muted, but his populist rhetoric has become a flashpoint for millions of Americans and Hispanics outraged by the president’s hardline policies on immigration.
“Across Latin America, there’s a sense of alarm about the idea of building a wall along the border. It’s offensive not only to Mexicans but to all Latin Americans,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “It sends a very negative message and brings back memories of the bad old days.”
On Jan. 10, the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute hosted a discussion on what Mexico expects of the new president. Juan Pardinas, director of the Mexico Institute for Competitiveness, said it’s now clear that Trump intends to follow through on his campaign rhetoric. His threats to slap a 35 percent tariff on cars imported from Mexico has already led Ford to cancel plans to build a $1.6 billion auto factory in San Luis Potosí; rival automaker Fiat Chrysler may follow suit.
“Every time Donald tweets, the peso reacts,” said Luis de la Calle, an expert in international trade who helped design, promote and implement NAFTA. But he added that if Trump continues his threats, it may actually lure companies into Mexico because by devaluing the Mexican peso, Trump makes the country a more attractive destination for investors. In any event, he said, Congress is likely to stop Trump’s proposed 35 percent tariff given the interdependence of the global supply chain and Mexico’s importance as the world’s second-largest market for U.S. goods after Canada.
“Mexico is not the enemy,” Sada, Mexico’s now-former ambassador to the United States, insisted in a Dec. 1 interview in Phoenix with the Arizona Republic.
Sada said fencing and other types of barriers already exist along 700 miles of the 2,000-mile-long border separating the two countries, and that 85 percent of bilateral trade is trucked through 58 border crossing points. He said that Mexico would be open to “modernizing” NAFTA, which he pointed out has created more than 5 million U.S. jobs and boosted bilateral trade from $80 billion when the trade deal took effect in 1994 to more than $360 billion today.
In fact, contrary to Trump’s claims that NAFTA has devastated American manufacturing, many Mexicans feel they got the short end of the stick in the sweeping trade pact, which they say failed to provide them with the jobs, wage increases and economic growth it promised. Instead of isolationism, however, many countries in Latin America want more, not less, trade.
“On the economic front, there are a lot of struggling economies in Latin America today, and they want trade with the United States,” said Shifter. “Some of the rhetoric about turning inward and the possibility of trade wars are of great concern — not only to the 11 countries that have trade agreements with the United States but also to countries like Argentina, which are coming out of a long period of protectionism.”
On a separate front, Trump’s threats to overturn the Obama administration’s widely praised opening to Cuba led the White House, in its last few weeks, to push through a number of executive orders to improve bilateral relations. In January alone, the two countries signed deals to cooperate on immigration issues, end the 20-year-old “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allows Cuban migrants to stay once they touch U.S. soil, and work together to fight terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering and other international criminal activities.
In an exclusive December 2016 Washington Diplomat cover profile, José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez — who in 2015 became Cuba’s ambassador here following the upgrading of bilateral ties — acknowledged the possibility that things could get worse under Trump.
“Technically speaking, any president, whoever it is, can reverse any executive action taken by the previous president,” he told us. “We’re not in the business of speculating what could happen. We’ve been through this process 12 times. We’re used to it.”
But Shifter thinks Trump — despite his many threats — is “very unlikely” to close the U.S. Embassy in Havana and cancel everything Obama did with regard to Cuba.
“There’s not going to be significant movement in either direction,” Shifter predicted. “I don’t think he’s going to roll back the major regulations, but he also won’t be very enthusiastic about continuing along Obama’s path.”
In fact, given other pressing global challenges from China to Syria, Latin America may not be high on Trump’s agenda. But Román Macaya, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States, says Latin America is simply too large to be ignored.
“Latin America is a huge expanse of territory, population and culture, and it would be a disservice to any presidency not to engage with the region in a positive way,” said Macaya, who, like Trump, studied at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “People don’t migrate simply because they woke up on the wrong side of the bed. They migrate because they have bad conditions at home. The United States can improve that environment through positive engagement.”
Syria’s grinding six-year civil war has killed upward of half a million people and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 22 million. The takeover of rebel-held Aleppo by government troops late last year seemed to mark a tipping point in the brutal conflict. But Syrian President Assad and his primary backers, Russia and Iran, still must consolidate their gains over a constellation of rebel groups supported by outside powers — such as the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia — along with extremists affiliated with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Stepping into the fray is Trump, who has signaled his intention for a bold and risky realignment of U.S. policy by working with Russia’s Putin to stamp out the Islamic State. It remains to be seen whether the gambit will pay off and inspire serious peace talks to end the country’s relentless bloodshed— or backfire and splinter it even further.
Elsewhere, turmoil continues to wrack the region. In Iraq, government troops are working in tandem with Shiite militias, Kurdish forces and U.S. advisors to dislodge the Islamic State from Mosul. The Pentagon also hopes to uproot the Islamic State from Raqqa, its remaining stronghold in Syria, to cement the heavy territorial losses the group suffered last year.
Meanwhile, nations such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are still reeling from the influx of Syrian refugees that flooded their borders and strained their services. They’re also bracing themselves for the possibility of Islamic State-inspired attacks as the group loses territory and reverts back to a guerilla-style insurgency.
In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition continues to wage a military offensive against Iranian-supported Houthi rebels that has wrought more misery on the Arab world’s poorest country. And in Iran, discontent that the nuclear deal with the West hasn’t produced tangible economic benefits — even though Tehran has largely held up its end of the bargain — may usher hardliners into power in elections later this spring. Even before then, Trump may simply scrap the agreement altogether, giving Iran diplomatic cover to restart its nuclear weapons program.
Amid all these crises, however, the initial spark that may light the region on fire could come from an intractable dispute that has sat largely dormant in recent years. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict could become the Middle East’s latest flashpoint thanks to Trump’s insistence on moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital. The move would break decades of diplomatic protocol, potentially fuel a major rift with Arab allies and even give rise to a third intifada.
Of course, every U.S. president seems to enter the Oval Office with grand visions for Middle East peace. Donald Trump is no exception, but he’s the first president in memory to be so blatantly pro-Israel.
Trump has already appointed his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as senior White House adviser, putting him in charge of “brokering a Middle East peace accord” that he refers to as “the deal of all deals.” Despite his lack of diplomatic experience, Kushner — who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka — was the primary drafter of Trump’s speech last year to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Another Orthodox Jew, Jason Greenblatt, formerly executive vice president and chief legal officer of the Trump Organization, will be the president’s special representative for international negotiations. Greenblatt’s portfolio will include the Arab-Israeli conflict, Cuba policy and trade agreements, among other things.
Meanwhile, Trump has named New York bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel. In the past, Friedman has derided the progressive Jewish lobbying group J Street as “worse than kapos” (Jews who worked for the Nazis) for supporting a two-state solution. He also opposes a ban on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and refers to Jerusalem as “Israel’s eternal capital” — all positions at odds with decades of official U.S. policy.
Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States and an unabashed admirer of Trump, could not be reached for comment. But Politico, in a lengthy Jan. 6 piece by Michael Crowley, says Trump’s election victory “illustrates a remarkable reversal for Dermer,” who, since his September 2013 arrival in Washington, “has been distrusted and even personally disliked by Obama administration officials.”
Following the Jan. 20 inauguration, wrote Crowley, “Dermer is poised to become a VIP in Trump’s West Wing — giving his boss and confidant, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, powerful access to the new White House regime.”
That deeply troubles Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, chief U.S. representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“We expect the new Trump administration to take the concerns and interests of both Palestinians and Israelis into account,” he told us. “We would remind the president of his statement early in the campaign, in which he said that in order to achieve peace between the two sides, we cannot demonize one party and compliment the other. We need to be neutral.”
Of particular importance, Areikat said, is the goal of a two-state solution and the final status of Jerusalem. Palestinians see East Jerusalem — currently under Israeli control along with the surrounding West Bank — as the capital of their future state, while the Netanyahu government opposes any division of the holy city.
It also opposes all efforts to delegitimize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, even though no other government currently recognizes it as such. The last countries to do so were El Salvador and Costa Rica; in 2007, both moved their embassies in Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, in accordance with international practice.
Various media outlets reported that shortly after taking office, Trump will announce his intent to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and convert the current sprawling Tel Aviv mission into a consulate.
Such a move will “open the gates of hell” for Israel and Jews everywhere, warned Osama Qawasmeh, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah party.
Areikat said basically the same thing, yet in much more diplomatically acceptable language.
“I hope that his administration will be wise enough to understand the consequences and repercussions of such a move, and what it would cause in terms of reaction among Palestinians and Arabs,” he told us. “No one — including Israelis and their supporters — would want to see another area of instability in the already volatile and explosive Middle East. I don’t believe the Trump administration as well would want to see such an area of instability created as a result of a move like this.”
Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, problems are festering all over the Middle East — with the consequences of the Arab Spring six years ago enduring from Morocco in the west to Bahrain in the east.
Egypt, with over 90 million inhabitants the most populous state in the Arab world, is ruled by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former military officer who took office in July 2013 following an uprising against then-President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi has been criticized by human rights groups for muzzling dissent but praised by Trump for ushering in much-needed stability after years of upheaval and a brief flirtation with Islamist rule.
Sisi’s envoy to the United States, Yasser Reda, said he hopes the new administration will focus on fighting terrorism and fostering stability — issues Sisi and Trump have discussed “on multiple occasions,” according to Reda.
“Collectively, the most urgent threat we face is instability resulting from pervasive terrorism and extremism,” he told The Diplomat. “Egypt’s strategy to counter terrorism is multifaceted, ranging from our security operations in the Sinai and along our border with Libya to intelligence sharing and the elimination of terrorist financing.”
Under Sisi’s leadership, he added, “Egypt has also taken direct action to counter the distorted ideology of ISIS and other radical organizations, working with the clergy at Al-Azhar University in Cairo to bring tolerance and compassion to religious discourse and to root out hateful ideology from Islamic teachings.
“Egypt will continue to advance diplomacy that brings greater stability to the region,” Reda said. “We hope to build on current progress and work with the new U.S. administration to resolve conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, as well as pave the way for long-term stability through a just and comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestine.”
Like Egypt, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — has been buoyed by Trump’s initial statements. In fact, the U.S. president appears to enjoy considerable popularity among Sunni monarchies thanks to his tough talk against Iran, Saudi Arabia’s Shiite rival, and his opposition to the Iranian nuclear accord negotiated last year by the Obama White House.
“Numerous observers in the GCC countries have expressed hope that the Trump administration will adopt a pro-active approach to the turmoil in the region. Others are particularly eager to ascertain what, if anything, he may do differently than the Obama administration regarding the threat posed by militant groups [like the Islamic State],” according to a Dec. 13 assessment by John Duke Anthony, president and CEO of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, and the organization’s international affairs fellow, Fahad Nazer. “Just as importantly, there is anticipation that the new president will take seriously the GCC’s deep concerns about Iran’s policies in the Arab world.”
Only Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began in December 2010, seems to have emerged from the chaos as a democratic state.
Fayçal Gouia, Tunisia’s ambassador to the United States, proudly told us that his country has had warm relations with Washington since 1797.
“We’re a very close ally of the U.S. and also a major non-NATO ally. Second, we are a partner with the new administration in fighting terrorism,” he said. “As you know, President Trump made fighting terrorism one of his priorities, and it’s also a major priority for Tunisia. We are also the only democracy in the region, and as such, we would like to expand Tunisian-American relations in all domains — and give this new democracy a chance to succeed and prosper, and be a model for the region.”
Gouia, in appealing to Trump’s business instincts, says now is a better time than ever for the two countries to ratify a free trade agreement.
“This is not a political request, but one that comes from the business communities in both countries,” he said. “Maybe the new administration will oppose multilateral FTAs, but bilateral FTAs that don’t impact the American economy are welcomed. We will work with the new administration on negotiating an FTA that benefits both countries.”
When President Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009, about 40,000 U.S. troops were deployed in Afghanistan. Eight years later, after the killing of Osama bin Laden and continuing violence in Afghanistan, about 8,400 U.S. troops remain there — yet voters were largely ambivalent about America’s longest war, and it never came up as a major election issue.
Afghanistan’s ambassador in Washington, Hamdullah Mohib, says he hopes Trump won’t forget about his country.
“Counterterrorism remains a top priority of both the Afghan and American governments, and we are looking forward to continuing to work with America under the Trump administration to defeat the stateless and state-sponsored terrorist groups in our region that threaten both our countries and the world at large,” Mohib said in a statement emailed to us. He pointed out that 20 of the world’s 98 designated terrorist groups are operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan alone.
“Afghans have taken the lead in this fight and are making tremendous sacrifices every day, but we cannot do it alone,” he continued. “This is a generational battle, and one the world desperately needs to win. If we do not succeed in defeating these groups in Afghanistan, insurgencies and terrorists around the globe will be emboldened. We hope the new Trump administration will also send an unambiguous message that state-sponsored terrorism will not be tolerated.”
Mohib, who appeared on the October 2016 cover of The Diplomat, also appealed to Trump’s business instincts, noting that his Texas-size country sits on more than $1 trillion worth of untapped minerals including gold, copper, coal, uranium, iron ore, lithium and rare earth elements.
“Our location at the heart of Asia means we are perfectly positioned to be a hub for transport, transit, and energy and data transmission,” he said. “It is our hope that the United States recognizes the tremendous opportunities this presents for investment in things like regional energy projects and manufactured goods that can easily be distributed to South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia and China.”
Neighboring Pakistan also looks forward to working with Trump, though that’s not too surprising considering the praise Trump showered on the country in late November. In a phone conversation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the president reportedly said Pakistan is “a fantastic country, fantastic place full of fantastic people” and called Sharif “a terrific guy.” Trump even said he would “love” to visit Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 182 million that has had rocky relations with the U.S. over its alleged support of jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda. That’s a 180-degree turnaround from five years ago, when Trump tweeted: “Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend. We’ve given them billions and billions of dollars, and what did we get? Betrayal and disrespect — and much worse.”
Jalil Abbas Jilani, Pakistan’s envoy to the United States, told us he “welcomes the change of guard in Washington” and he’s “confident and optimistic that under the Trump administration, our wide-ranging and dynamic bilateral ties” will improve.
“We also welcome the sincere overtures and desire of the president to play a role in reducing tension in South Asia, which would directly contribute to enhancing regional peace and stability,” said Jilani, dismissing the idea that Trump dislikes Muslims.
“The reality is that Muslims in America are a thriving, law-abiding and peaceful community,” he said. “Many American Muslims are part of the Trump transition team and advise the incoming administration on various issues. This gives us confidence and hope that the incoming administration will not take any steps that adversely affect or impede the positive role of Muslims in American society.”
Jilani said his two priorities in working with the new White House are “defeating terrorism” and “reviving the economy.”
“I believe Prime Minister Sharif’s vision of ‘trade not aid’ will find resonance with the Trump administration,” he said, “as both leaders share the common goal of stimulating economic growth through job creation in their respective constituencies.”
While India, Pakistan’s archrival, enjoyed strong economic and defense ties with the Obama administration, Trump’s views on the South Asian powerhouse — whose population of 1.3 billion makes it the world’s largest democracy — are less clear. Nevertheless, participants at a Dec. 13 panel sponsored by the Wilson Center agree that possible areas of friction could be Trump’s tough position on immigration and his stated willingness to mediate India’s troubled relationship with Pakistan, including the disputed flashpoint of Kashmir.
Dipankar Gupta, a former Wilson Center fellow and now a sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that the U.S. (and U.K.) are “lode stars” for the world’s perception of democracy — yet recent anti-immigrant movements in both countries have not exactly sent a positive signal to emerging democracies such as India. Nevertheless, he hopes Trump will build on Obama’s vision for the region, including his clean energy initiatives. He also said that many in the Indian community would be supportive of anti-terrorism initiatives and that his administration would offer a renewed focus on stemming terrorist attacks staged in Pakistan.
Despite the mixed reactions among ordinary Indians to Trump’s victory, Suhasini Haidar, diplomatic and strategic affairs editor at the Hindu newspaper, noted that traditionally, “There has been a certain comfort in the Indian establishment when it comes to Republican administrations over those of Democrats.”
In Southeast Asia, the two biggest concerns right now are territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Trump effectively killed by signing an executive order ending America’s commitment to the deal shortly after taking office. The TPP — which Obama made a cornerstone of his trade policy but was adamantly opposed by both Trump and Clinton — would have created the world’s largest trading bloc.
The sweeping trade deal took six years of painstaking negotiations among 12 Pacific-Rim nations that together represent 40 percent of the global economy and a third of world trade. It also notably excluded China, which is hoping to pick up the TPP mantle by advancing its own trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — which excludes the United States.
Critics of Trump’s protectionist agenda point out that China’s regional accord does not include the TPP’s unprecedented labor, environmental and property rights protections. They also argue that the president has ceded influence to Beijing and given away an important source of leverage, leaving the U.S. with only hard-power military options to counter China’s regional ambitions.
The decision to abandon TPP, though widely expected, also let down key allies. “If you are not prepared to deal when it comes to cars and services and agriculture, can we depend on you when it comes to security and military arrangements?” asked Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
The country’s ambassador in Washington was more circumspect.
“Every four years, we prepare for a new administration, and Singapore and the rest of the region has worked well with both Democrats and Republicans,” said Ashok Kumar Mirpuri.
“What we’re looking for is continuity of the relationships that have been built up over a long time. We want to see the United States continue to play an active role in the region, and we’d also like to see consistency in policy,” said Mirpuri, noting that 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of relations between the U.S. and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Singapore co-founded in 1967.
Collectively, Southeast Asian nations account for $2.5 trillion in economic activity and are home to 630 million people.
Mirpuri, whose government has been a driving force behind the TPP from the beginning, said the partnership’s fundamentals remain solid.
“Twelve countries came together for a good reason: to try and shape the rules for future economic engagement, whether it’s intellectual property rights or data,” he explained. “The TPP may not go ahead because of what the president has said, but there has to be economic engagement with the region.”
Mirpuri added that Trump has never said he opposes trade agreements in general.
“I can understand him focusing on the domestic economy until confidence returns. But our first priority is to give him some time to settle in. As key appointments in his administration are confirmed, we will see they’ll understand the values and relationships that have driven U.S.-ASEAN relations. And when they’re ready, Singapore and the other TPP members will be quite happy to speak to them.”
Budi Bowoleksono represents Indonesia, whose 260 million inhabitants make it by far the largest member of ASEAN, as well as world’s most populous Muslim nation. Yet the ambassador said his government is not at all concerned with Trump’s well-publicized campaign rhetoric in which he condemned Islam and threatened to exclude all Muslims from entering the United States.
“Some people may think differently, but we will continue to tell the world that Islam — like other religions — is a religion of compassion,” he said. “We are the third-largest democracy in the world. That tells you that democracy and Islam can work hand in hand, addressing issues of radical extremism and terrorism. In Indonesia, pluralism is our way of life.”
Indonesia had an especially close relationship with the Obama administration, thanks to Obama’s childhood years spent in Jakarta. Bowoleksono said the two countries “have a very strong foundation” for continued close ties, though he declined to comment specifically on Trump’s opposition to the TPP.
Donald Trump’s indifference toward the European Union was well known before the election, but more recent statements by the president that he’ll sever the transatlantic alliance — which has underpinned an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity since World War II — have sent shockwaves throughout the 28-member EU.
In mid-January, Trump — in an interview with the Times of London and Germany’s Bild — called the EU a vehicle for German interests, shrugged off the fate of the bloc and its 500 million inhabitants and described NATO, the transatlantic military alliance that has endured since 1949, as “obsolete.”
Asked about Great Britain’s impending departure from the trade bloc and Brexit’s impact on the EU, Trump said, “People want their own identity, so if you ask me, I believe others will leave. Personally, I don’t think it matters much for the United States.”
But plenty of people say it does matter. Why Trump decided to pick a fight with Europe, America’s most important and reliable partner on the world stage, has baffled and unnerved allies across the pond.
David O’Sullivan, the EU’s ambassador to the United States, declined to comment for this report. James Barbour, the mission’s spokesman, said only that “we look forward to continuing with the new administration the close cooperation the EU and the U.S. have had for the past seven decades.”
French Ambassador Gérard Araud, an outspoken critic of Trump and his campaign antics, nonetheless issued a statement saying that “even though U.S. administrations change, the bond between France and the United States will endure.”
Noting last year’s devastating string of terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice — all of which were committed by Islamic State extremists — Araud highlighted security efforts led jointly by the United States and France.
“France expects to continue this common effort and to promote shared principles of freedom, democracy and justice alongside our American partner,” he said. “We will not tire in our efforts until we have wiped out ISIS, and I am confident that the Trump administration is fully with us in this commitment.”
Araud is far less convinced of Trump’s commitment — if one in fact exists in the first place — to fight climate change.
Just in case there’s any ambiguity here, the French ambassador emphasized that “as the United States did last year, we proudly ratified the Paris agreement on climate change. We expect the United States to honor this important commitment to the future of our planet. At all levels of society, we want to continue working together toward a more sustainable future.”
Ambassador Peter Wittig of Germany — with 81 million people the powerhouse of Europe and by far its largest economy — said he sees three main challenges Washington and Berlin must face together as transatlantic partners.
“The first is countering terrorism and stabilizing the Middle East. There is no easy fix to the problems of Syria and Iraq, but together we can fight back ISIL and start the process for ending the civil war in Syria,” he said. “Second is dealing with Russia and reassuring Eastern Europe. Russia’s illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine and its new assertiveness challenge both Europe and the U.S. We should engage the Russian leadership in a constructive dialogue on international conflicts while strongly defending our security interests, particularly in Eastern Europe.”
The third challenge, Wittig said, is “building jobs and growth in an ever-more interconnected world.” He pointed out that German investment in the U.S. economy has created nearly 700,000 well-paying jobs here, and that “our close economic integration and trade with the world’s other nations have made our countries prosperous.”
Yet the economic integration Wittig speaks of is clearly in danger, as Euroskeptic parties — buoyed by last year’s Brexit victory and Trump’s election — are poised to win elections in several key countries, including possibly France.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel herself will go up against these forces as she seeks a fourth term in elections later this year. Although she remains highly popular, her reputation took a hit after Germany accepted nearly a million refugees from war-torn nations in 2015. Trump pointedly reminded the chancellor of that fact in his controversial interview, gloating that “she made one very catastrophic mistake, and that was taking all of these illegals, you know, taking all of the people from wherever they come from.”
On Jan. 15, the unflappable Merkel told reporters in Berlin that “we Europeans have our destiny in our hands,” though she pledged to work with Trump whenever possible.
In progressive Scandinavia, Donald Trump has never been popular, even though like Germany, the Nordic nations have struggled to absorb refugees and temper rising xenophobic sentiment. Last August, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told reporters that the Trump campaign was based on fear; ordinary Swedes apparently share his concerns. According to a June 2016 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 6 percent of Swedes are confident that Trump will do the right thing, while 92 percent said they had no confidence in him at all.
In fact, a congratulatory letter prepared (but never sent) by Löfven’s office to Hillary Clinton in the event she won hails her election as “a milestone for the world.” The letter that was actually sent — the one to Trump — is noticeably less warm and says only that Swedes “value the broad cooperation” between their country and the United States.
Björn Lyrvall, Sweden’s ambassador in Washington, declined to comment for this article. In an email to The Diplomat, his colleague, Danish Ambassador Lars Gert Lose, urged the Trump administration “to continue its close cooperation with European partners on tackling a broad range of global security challenges through NATO and other multilateral institutions and coalitions.”
Lose said Denmark’s contributions to the anti-ISIS coalition and in Afghanistan are among the largest of any U.S. ally relative to population, and that “having the U.S. in a strong leadership position and coordinating closely with partners is vital.”
He also said the United States is Denmark’s third-largest trading partner outside the EU, with 650 Danish companies operating here. “There is considerable more potential to be realized by broadening and deepening our trade relations in ways that are mutually beneficial and contribute to growth and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.”
If Donald Trump’s close ties to Putin make Eastern Europeans nervous, their countries’ top envoys in Washington certainly aren’t saying so — at least publicly.
Ambassador Piotr Wilczek represents Poland — Eastern Europe’s largest member of both the EU and NATO — which recently welcomed a contingent of U.S. troops as part of a more permanent NATO presence meant to deter Russian aggression.
“Through American actions and the declarations of President Trump, we are assured that America’s commitment to our region is unwavering, and we fully expect that there will be even further opportunities for U.S.-Polish partnership based on mutual commitment in the years ahead,” he said. “Thanks to the important decisions reached at the Warsaw NATO summit [in 2016], we feel a true sense of Allied solidarity.”
Poland now meets NATO’s 2 percent GDP defense spending target.
“Thus, it is important for Poland and the United States to stand together, to strengthen our joint capabilities in defense,” Wilczek said, “but we also have to speak in one voice on matters regarding respect for international law.”
Journalist Alex Massie, writing in Politico, was far more blunt about the message Trump was sending to Europe. His Jan. 16 article — “Trump to Europe: Drop Dead” — said Trump’s insinuation that he would consider dropping sanctions against Russia over Ukraine in exchange for a reduction of its nuclear weapons arsenal essentially sells out Eastern Europe, particularly the Baltic states.
“How can Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania have any confidence in the Atlantic alliance now? Would Trump rally to their defense in the event they were targeted by fresh Russian aggression? At present, it is hard to believe so, which truly would render NATO obsolete,” Massie wrote.
But the Baltics, like many other nations around the world, are putting on a brave face — likely hoping that behind the scenes, Trump moderates his views once in office and recognizes alliances that have endured for decades.
“Since the Baltics gained independence in 1991, we’ve had 25 years of excellent relationships,” Eerik Marmei, Estonia’s ambassador to the United States, told us. “All three of the last U.S. presidents have visited the Baltics. Bill Clinton came in 1994, George W. Bush visited all three and Obama came in 2014. This shows that the Baltics have been very important strategic partners for the United States throughout these 25 years. We expect that to continue. There is a very strong basis of cooperation, and we don’t see any reason for that to change.”
Marmei said Trump’s challenge — “wouldn’t it be nice if we could be friends with Russia” — is valid.
“This is exactly the same question we ask as well,” he said. “We’ve been trying to have a good relationship with Russia for many years. Unfortunately, if you look at Russia’s foreign policy goals, then the picture is not that nice.”
Marmei also shares Trump’s concern about NATO allies pulling their own weight financially when it comes to defense.
“Over the past four years, Estonia has spent more than 2 percent of its budget on defense. This year, it’s 2.2 percent. He said the Europeans have to pay their fair share, and we’re on the same page.”
Ambassador Andris Teikmanis, who represents neighboring Latvia, said his country will boost its defense budget “substantially” to 1.7 percent of total GDP this year and will cross the 2 percent threshold in 2018.
“We hope the United States will continue its crucial contributions to international security, be it providing deterrence against countries with harmful intentions or fighting international terrorism,” Teikmanis said in a thinly veiled reference to Russia. “The NATO alliance is strong when allies on both sides of the Atlantic invest in collective defense and share their burden fairly.”
He said Latvia is grateful for “continued U.S. commitment to Latvia’s security” and hopes that the Pentagon will expand its footprint across the Baltic region, adding that “through years of regular joint allied training and shoulder-to-shoulder fights in the fiercest battles of Afghanistan and Iraq, our militaries have developed an ironclad bond.”
Yet perhaps no other European head of state is happier about the new occupant in the White House than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Back in July, the right-wing leader called Trump’s migration and foreign policy “vital” for Hungary, and those of rival Clinton “deadly.” That made Orbán the first European head of state to express a clear preference for either of the two candidates, reported the ultra-conservative website Breitbart.com.
On Jan. 21, Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, Réka Szemerkényi, hosted a post-inaugural brunch celebration titled “Salute to Freedom.” In a phone interview with The Diplomat, she said Trump’s views on a variety of issues very much dovetail with that of the current government in Budapest.
“The policies announced by the incoming president resonate very closely to our own priorities on border control, illegal immigration and the economy. There is much focus on job creation, decreasing external indebtedness and unemployment,” she said, noting that Hungary has managed to halve its jobless rate from more than 10 percent to under 4.9 percent today.
Szemerkényi also said the EU’s sanctions against the Kremlin following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea have hurt Hungary’s economy and are no longer effective, a position that may find resonance in a Trump White House.
“It is in the interest of European countries to develop a strong, cooperative relationship with Russia,” she said, adding that “this does not neglect or diminish the security challenges that come from the cyber sphere.”
Of all issues, however, it is Orbán’s uncompromising stance on illegal immigration that most closely mirrors Trump’s agenda. Under the Orbán government, Hungary has pursued a “zero refugee” strategy that has resisted calls by the EU bureaucracy in Brussels to distribute Syrian, Iraqi and other migrants evenly throughout Europe. According to Politico, Hungary has announced the construction of a second fence along its southern border, and in September launched a recruitment drive for 2,000 members of so-called “border hunter action units” to help soldiers and police officers target refugees. That same month, Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign affairs minister, said Hungary should be permanently kicked out of the EU because it had treated migrants almost like “wild animals.”
Refugees are already more unwelcome in Hungary than anywhere else in Europe. A Pew survey conducted in 2016 showed that 82 percent of Hungarians believe refugees are a “burden on our country because they take our jobs and social benefits,” while 76 percent believe refugees would increase the likelihood of terrorism in Hungary — a refrain often espoused by Trump.
Szemerkényi echoed that sentiment. “The very unfortunate and horrible terrorist attacks in Europe points all of us to the need to take security questions seriously,” the ambassador said. “A lot of other European countries which had underestimated these pressures are finally starting to understand that this is not simply a refugee crisis, but a security crisis as well.”
It’s hard to imagine two more diametrically opposing types of leaders: the bombastic, reckless, insulting Donald Trump and the multiculturally sensitive, polite prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau — who takes pride in his feminist point of view and the inclusion of Muslims, Sikhs and aboriginals in his youthful Cabinet.
Yet that doesn’t mean the two neighbors, which share the longest unarmed border in the world, can’t work together to pursue common goals.
Laura Dawson, director of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, says the United States and Canada have an interest in the defense and prosperity of North America, but that Canada has a distinctive way of achieving its foreign policy goals: “soft-power diplomacy” characterized by consultation, mediation and accommodation.
Dawson points out that thanks to NAFTA, economic ties to Canada now account for nearly 5 percent of U.S. employment and 6.5 percent of its GDP.
Even so, she said, Canada could serve as a bridge-builder and “wing man” for the United States overseas.
“As Mr. Trump seeks to reconfigure the U.S. relationship with the world on interest-based terms, a strengthened partnership with Canada could help the U.S. achieve its goals and ensure that promotion of interests is not misinterpreted as aggression by U.S. foreign partners,” said Dawson, a former economic advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. “Through its role as a middle power, Canada can have conversations with allies and adversaries that the U.S. simply cannot without provoking a defensive or hostile response. In the language of negotiation theory, Canada’s more cooperative approach can help to make the competitive bargaining strategies of the United States more successful.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.