The new U.S. Foreign Policy under Donald Trump

of the panel discussion
on Monday, 29 May 2017, 7.00 – 9.00 p.m.
at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs


Julien Pinaudeau

            After a rather tumultuous start, the Trump administration seems to face a shift in several key areas, especially when we consider the foreign policy. The escalation with North-Korea, the attitude towards Russia or the intervention in Syria and Afghanistan not only illustrate a certain continuity with Obama´s policy, but rather a determined implementation of it. Almost 100 days after the beginning of Donald Trump´s presidency, a panel of experts will discuss about the new U.S. foreign policy and its consequences on the European Union and on key regions such as the Middle East or the Balkans.

Panel discussion with:

Reinhard Meier-Walser, Hanns-Seidel Foundation, University of Regensburg

Gudrun Harrer, Der Standard, University of Vienna

Cengiz Günay, Austrian Institute for International Affairs (OIIP)

Vedran Dzihic, Austrian Institute for International Affairs (OIIP)

Heinz Gärtner, International Institute for Peace (IIP), University of Vienna


Stephanie Fenkart, International Institute for Peace (IIP)

            In order to initiate the panel discussion, Stephanie Fenkart has chosen to quote Donal Trump who considered during his campaign in 2016 that NATO was “obsolete” and reversed his position during a recent meeting in Brussels: “I want to keep Nato”. Few days after the G7 Summit in Taormina (Sicily), Angela Merkel has declared that: "the times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over". Considering the multiple about-faces of Trump and the strong statement made by Merkel, what could be the future of NATO?

            Reinhard Meier-Walser (Hanns-Seidel Foundation, University of Regensburg) is about to publish a paper about Trump’s presidency and the future of NATO, nevertheless such an analysis remains quite difficult due to the extreme volatility of the American foreign policy. Transatlantic relations and common security are seriously challenged by the new U.S. President Donald Trump who wants to reduce the engagement of his country and to put pressure on the allies in order to make them fully respect their financial commitments. The willingness to manage NATO as if it was a company and the distrust towards the European Union are new key aspects of Trump´s foreign policy. Such a trend associated with the impossibility of predicting the next about-face may lead to a catastrophic situation for the alliance.

            The delicate situation faced by European partners and NATO members are just one aspect of the U.S. new foreign policy. President Trump visited the Middle East region in order to meet his allies from Saudi-Arabia and Israel. Such a strategic region is traditionally a cornerstone of the U.S diplomacy. According to Gudrun Harrer (Der Standard, University of Vienna), the current priority for the Trump administration is to neutralise the growing influence of Iran through trustable allies without evoking human rights or any kind of sensitive topic. A probable $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia was the greatest sensation of President Trump's visit in the country and illustrates precisely the concept of “transactional diplomacy” which underlines the importance of business and deals instead of underlining norms or values. Donald Trump embodies a naïve point of view about such a sensitive geopolitical region and considers that Iran is the greatest threat due to its relationship to terrorist organisations. Therefore, the American president wants absolutely to forge an Arabic-Israeli front in order to counterbalance Teheran´s influence in the Middle East. Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed his gratitude for Donald Trump´s support, nevertheless he is disappointed by the decision to delay the relocation of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The famous left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz is ready to “give craziness a chance”, despite the US president´s controversial personality and hopes that peace remains possible with Palestine.

            Beyond this impressive arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the traditional alliance with Israel, is it possible to analyse the impact of the new US foreign policy over other strategic partners from the Middle East region? Cengiz Günay (Austrian Institute for International Affairs) wants underlines the traditional partnership with two countries: : Egypt and Turkey. The Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi places great hope in Donald Trump because he represents an “anti-Obama model”. Barack Obama was strongly associated with liberalism as far as internal relations were concerned and he was supporting revolutionary movements also referred to as the Arab Spring. On the contrary, Donal Trump illustrates such a shift from a liberal normality to an authoritarian order. Similarly, Turkey's President Erdogan's expectations are great as well, especially after Trump´s congratulations for the constitutional referendum of April 2017.  The relationship with Barack Obama was quite disappointing due to the former president desire to create a democratic Turkey as a model for the whole Middle East region. Nowadays, the authoritarian style of President Erdogan seems to match with Donald Trump and Ankara hopes that the new US administration will put an end to the Syrian conflict which takes place at the gates of Turkey. Nevertheless, the unpredictability of Trump's foreign policy and the new axis forged with Saudi Arabia should dampen Erdogan´s hopes of significant benefits for Turkey.

            What could be the impact of the new US foreign policy on the Balkan peninsula and more precisely on the Western Balkans?  Vedran Dzihic (Austrian Institute for International Affairs) assumes the peripheral status of such a region in Donald Trump´s priorities. The behaviour of the American president, who pushed the Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic to make himself a way in front of the crowd at a NATO summit, illustrates somehow Mr. Trump's disrespect and roughness towards this region. The shift from liberal to authoritarian presidential style represents a wrong political signal for the Western Balkans, while the inconstancy of the US foreign policy is creating new opportunities for regional powers such as the Russian Federation. Several countries show serious concerns about the volatility of Donald Trump's policy and its possible damages over the whole region.   


            If the Western Balkans are considered as a side stage for the US new diplomacy and an area where many problematic changes could happen, should we affirm that such a scheme applies to a new world order characterized by uncertainty and authoritarian reality? Is global security “from Vancouver to Vladivostok” strongly questioned? According to Heinz Gärtner (International Institute for Peace and University of Vienna), Donal Trump´s policy appears to be erratic and unpredictable, nevertheless several concepts and theories of political science may help us better analyse the new US foreign policy. Firstly, the opposition between a transformative president (more idealist and willing to change the nation's directory) and a transactional one (more pragmatic and action-oriented) invites us to see Trump as a pure transactional model. However, the new American president may be considered as transformative in a negative sense due to the clear priority he gives to his country (America First) over international partnerships and his plan to deconstruct Barack Obama´s legacy, namely the Obamacare. Secondly, Stephen Sestanovich is opposing those who advocate a maximalist, full engagement policy and those who argue for retrenchment, a more careful approach to involvement in other countries’ affairs. In this context, Donald Trump clearly advocates retrenchment. In addition, the new American president has a Jacksonian profile due to his admiration for the US president Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) who was populist and nationalist. Finally, the theory of relative gains may help us to understand why Donald Trump is giving priority to power policy and bilateralism. The deal concluded with Saudi Arabia is a good example of the relative gains associated to a strong bilateral relationship.


            During the question and answer session, Cengiz Günay insists on demonization of several prominent characters such as Vladimir Putin, Erdogan or Donald Trump and thinks that such a method does not help to analyse what he refers to as a combination of business and power policy. In addition, new trends associated with the new US foreign policy started before Donald Trump’s election and are not strictly speaking due to his behaviour, especially in the context of US direct military interventions. Vedran Dzihic points out a possible shift from a liberal global order to an authoritarian one whereas Heinz Gärtner discusses a possible come-back of geopolitics and powers balance under the presidency of Donald Trump. He agrees with the need to not overestimate Trump´s influence and he reminds the public that isolationism has a long tradition among American history.