Global challenges for the new US president

Global challenges for the new US president

After a heated campaign, Americans elected Donald Trump on Nov. 8 as the next president of their country. The result is also important for the international community because of the United States’ global reach. The contest between a Republican businessman and a former Democrat senator and secretary of state presented us with an unprecedented campaign as scandals and rhetoric took the forefront instead of the candidates’ policy choices. As a result, we do not know exactly what the preferences are of the new president in international relations.

There are numerous challenges around the world and a crumbling international system that the new U.S. president will have to face when he takes office after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. As the president of the unrivalled superpower, Trump’s few lines on his foreign policy choices and nominees for the relevant offices will undoubtedly be scrutinized globally in the coming weeks. Despite all his populist domestic discourse, it is difficult to go beyond the bare minimum contours of his international choices.

The pressing issues facing the U.S. in international politics today range from counter-balancing both Russia and China to pacifying the Middle East, persuading allies in Europe to contribute more toward an international system, assuring allies in the Asia-Pacific, the Gulf, and the wider Black Sea about its commitments, and dealing with several other global problems such as climate change, cyber security, refugee movements and the like.

Of course, Trump might choose to be an isolationist, but challenges for the U.S. global posture have been mounting in the last few years. First of all, the international system has been evolving into a somewhat multipolar world with Russia challenging U.S. and NATO supremacy on multiple fronts, and China challenging the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific. The outgoing President Barack Obama has been widely criticized for not responding strongly to Russian aggression abroad, and for his hesitation to intervene decisively in the Syria and Iraq crises, which paved the way for increased Russian presence in the region. Thus, responding to Russia in the wider Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, and possibly on the cyber level, would be one of the challenges that needs to be tackled early in Trump’s presidency.

Another crucial issue will be to address China’s policy of expanding its presence in the Asia-Pacific with militarization and the expansion of its sovereignty claims through the construction of artificial islands and facilities such as ports and radar installations. Trump is inheriting an Asia-Pacific policy of dependency on diplomatic and military ties with allies, though he doesn’t seem to favor that either.

In terms of the Middle East, the daunting tasks he will face range from the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to the rivalry between the Sunni and Shiite blocs, and from strained Israel-U.S. ties to the nuclear deal with Iran. Most of his references to the region have been rather vague, and could be used to justify both more interventionist and isolationist stands. In any case, the U.S. choice in addressing regional challenges will be crucial for the future of the wider Middle East. 

Although Obama has done much to recover his country’s low global image after the disastrous George W. Bush era, he is not leaving a clean slate to the new president either. In fact, the outlines of the global system are much more unclear and thus there are several difficult policy choices that the new president has to tackle soon during his administration. Ultimately, the U.S. role in international politics and its relationship with the rest of the world will depend on the new president’s preference between more involvement in the world’s problems or isolation.