After Obama: The future of US foreign policy

Robert Zoellick on the key strategic decisions facing the next president

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On January 20 2017, President Hillary Clinton or President Donald Trump will inherit Barack Obama’s legacy, just as Mr Obama still uses George W Bush’s tenure as a reference for his own. In broad strokes, Mr Obama’s foreign policy has reflected a swing of the pendulum away from what he perceived as his predecessor’s aggressive activism and long wars.

The next president, however, will lead a public questioning not only whether Mr Obama’s policies have created vacuums filled by hostile forces, but also whether — and how — the US should intervene. The Pew Research Center reported in April that 57 per cent of Americans believe the US should “deal with its own problems” and “let other countries deal with their own problems as best they can”.

Yet a solid majority has made similar points since the 1960s. Furthermore, a significant majority continues to agree that the US should not “go our own way in international matters”.

Majorities in both parties support the campaign against Isis. About 77 per cent say Nato is good for the country. Most still favour international trade, although voters worry about lower wages and lost jobs. In summary, Americans are uncertain and worried but not isolationist. Many Americans seem concerned that their country is not as respected as they believed it was.

The US public may be distilling impressions that pose a strategic challenge for the next president. The 70-year-old security and economic order that the US helped establish after the second world war — and adapted in the years that followed — is fracturing under stress. After a long era of great-power peace and improved economic fortunes, many have taken the international system for granted.

President Obama studies the globe at the Oval Office © Getty

A century-old order in the Middle East has broken down into a brutal struggle for power between tribes and sects. Arabs, Iranians and Turks manipulate the warring factions as they strive for local hegemony. Countries across the region have stumbled repeatedly as they have tried to establish modern market economies.

Clinton’s appointments

One great success of the second half of the 20th century — the peaceful economic and political integration of a democratic Europe — is teetering on the edge of disunion. Large migrations from desperate neighbours are straining politics. The European Central Bank’s exceptional monetary policies have bought time, but cannot alone supply the growth that would ease stress.

The EU has not decided whether to make Brexit into a new type of European arrangement or a painful lesson. German and French elections in 2017 will determine whether the centre — nationally and across Europe — can hold. As the EU drifts, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been redrawing borders in Ukraine and Georgia, threatening the Baltics, manipulating European and US politics and reminding the world of its power prerogatives. If the EU splits further, a 21st century struggle to achieve a balance of power may ensue — the latest in the long drama of European history.

Michèle Flournoy: the former defense department official could take a top post in a Clinton administration © AP

In the Indo-Pacific region, the question is whether Beijing will seek regional hegemony or an adjustment of the existing order. Japan, India and Southeast Asian countries are repositioning themselves, and their relations with the US, as China signals its intentions.

In 2017 President Xi Jinping’s new Politburo Standing Committee is expected to offer its direction for the future, including on China’s economic transition. In Northeast Asia, the nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles under the control of young leader Kim Jong Un will challenge Mr Obama’s policy of “strategic patience”.

New US administrations are defined by people. Mrs Clinton’s team would be shadowed by the ghost of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, whose death deprived her of a friend whose activism would have driven policy.

She will probably turn to knowledgeable former officials who are generally known to the world. Jake Sullivan, who served as Mrs Clinton’s head of policy planning at the state department, is her campaign policy director, and Tom Donilon, Mr Obama’s former national security adviser, is a senior figure on Mrs Clinton’s transition team.

Other people who one might expect to assume top posts in a Clinton administration, such as Michèle Flournoy, Jim Steinberg, Bill Burns, and Kurt Campbell, are also respected internationally. A President Clinton might add a former senior military officer to the mix, such as retired Admiral Jim Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Watch, too, the appointment of the US trade representative: the appointment of a creative, activist individual would signal the new president’s interest in finding a politically workable path to a revived trade agenda.

Admirer of ‘strongmen’

The staffing of a Trump administration is harder to guess because so many experienced Republicans have opposed him. One notable adviser is Michael Flynn, the retired lieutenant general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who has accompanied Mr Trump to intelligence briefings. There are also former Republican officials who have stayed on the sidelines, perhaps hoping that they will shape the thinking of a President Trump. Would-be Thomas Cromwells are likely to be frustrated by his narcissistic nature and reflexive instincts.

Indeed, Mr Trump’s personality may be the best predictor of his foreign policy. “Everything is negotiable” is his favourite explanation. He acts case by case, staking out extreme positions and then improvising.

Retired Lt Gen Michael Flynn has been an adviser to Donald Trump © Getty

Mr Trump admires people whom he ranks as “strongmen”, such as Presidents Putin and Xi, and even the late Saddam Hussein. Russia and China are conspiring to feed Mr Trump’s ego, while taking advantage of his foreign policy ignorance in order to subvert US alliances. Mr Trump asserts that the US has spent too much time and treasure trying to solve the world’s problems, so he might be content to cede messy topics to others. But no one knows how Mr Trump’s vanity will respond if a foreign counterpart diminishes him.

Mr Trump certainly does not value US reliability in longstanding alliances and economic systems. Treaty obligations would be paper contracts subject to renegotiation. Mr Trump seems cavalier about the US role in providing nuclear deterrence for (as of now) non-nuclear allies. Economic relations would be zero-sum and mercantilist. One should expect threats of tariff hikes and obstructions to trade and investment; retaliation would likely lead to blustery negotiations and collateral damage to markets.

It is highly likely that a President Trump would renounce the Paris climate agenda, attempt to build a wall on the Mexican border and deport illegal immigrants, and raise barriers to trade. His actions against Mexico could fuel support for a fellow populist-protectionist, albeit one who is anti-American: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in Mexico’s 2018 presidential election.

A President Clinton would also govern with a few overarching themes. Her campaign chair, John Podesta, has a strong interest in climate change. He quietly helped arrange the Obama-Xi climate accord and would probably seek to build on that foundation, possibly as secretary of state. Mrs Clinton would also advance her life-long advocacy of opportunities for women.

Both Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump are likely to focus first on domestic frustrations, especially economic ones. There will be opportunities for Mrs Clinton to combine her positions on infrastructure investment and immigration with deeper North American ties, a subject of interest to both the Hispanic and business communities.

Mr Trump’s energy polices may boost US production options, but his trade threats cast a dark shadow over growth.

North Korea is likely to compel the new president’s attention in 2017, and that threat will drive early policy toward China. Pyongyang is gaining the capability to strike the US with nuclear weapons. Moreover, its mobile missiles, especially on submarines, reduce warning times. Mr Kim has already used a submarine to sink a South Korean ship. He is now threatening South Korea, Japan, and the continental US with nuclear weapons. Strategic surprise will overwhelm strategic patience.

China has been fearful of actions that could destabilise North Korea. But a new US administration is likely to argue that the status quo will not hold, and the question will be whether China will work with the US, Japan and South Korea to halt the new threat.

Europe left to the Europeans

US business ties with China are strained. Mrs Clinton’s speech to the Institute of Peace in 2012, on the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s trip to China, reveals her likely approach, which is based on stronger ties with alliance partners. Unless a President Clinton can find a way to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which she abandoned in her campaign, her Asia policy will struggle to be credible.

Mr Trump’s dismissive statements about alliance partners, nuclear deterrence, China and trade ties with Asia are at odds with America’s longstanding leadership. If one were to take him at his word, Mr Trump’s Asia policy would alienate allies, isolate the US and fuel a regional power struggle.

In the Middle East, Mrs Clinton would probably seek to repair ties with Israel by focusing on the threat from the combination of Iran, Hizbollah and the Assad regime in Syria. Hizbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shia group, will soon be able to launch a large, accurate missile attack that could require an Israeli counterattack on the ground. While seeking to preserve Mr Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, a Clinton administration is more likely to work with Israel and Sunni Arab states to anticipate dangers and push back on Tehran.

Mr Trump has declared that he would walk away from Mr Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran, precipitating a crisis. Both Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump sound tough notes about Isis and Islamic radicalism, but are vague about what they might do in Syria and Iraq. Neither has shown a willingness to create a strategic balance on the ground that could be the basis of a political resolution, although Mrs Clinton might be persuaded.

Europe’s problems will probably be left to the Europeans, although a President Clinton will respect Nato’s obligations and act firmly, but not belligerently, toward Russia. Mr Trump is oddly attracted to Mr Putin and supports Europe’s populist-nationalist movements. He seems dismissive of the historical investment in European integration and America’s assurance of transatlantic security. Tax conflicts with Europe are more likely than the negotiation of the stalled Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’s modernised standards for trade.

Opportunities to work with a new generation of reformers in Latin America, especially now in Brazil and Argentina, are likely to be overlooked unless Mrs Clinton finds a way to reanimate trade policy. The expanding crisis in Venezuela will require the next president to co-ordinate a regional response.

Careful what you say

The new president will also need to make decisions on defence policies and resources. Nuclear policy and modernisation have drifted. Space, cyber security and unmanned systems, especially underwater, need investments. The Pentagon will have to determine personnel needs, including the force mix and roles of civilians and contractors.

Mrs Clinton’s associates are steeped in these issues but it is difficult to predict the priority and budget she would assign to defence topics. Mr Trump’s dismissive statements about military leaders and experience, servicemen and their families, as well as his reckless views on nuclear weapons and the rules of war are alarming, but his supporters believe he will reassess in office. His first challenge, however, would be to recognise that US presidents have to be careful what they say.

Presidencies are defined by how administrations react to events, usually unexpected ones. Having a strategic framework helps, as do experienced hands who can work together. The best leaders seek to anticipate, shape the landscape and drive their teams beyond rhetoric to results. The next president will need to start by deciding if the US should perpetuate the 70-year-old order. If so, the president will need to explain why to the people of the US — and the world.

The author served as US trade representative and US deputy secretary of state during Republican administrations, as well as president of the World Bank

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