The World That Awaits President-Elect Trump

The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs asked five of its faculty to outline the most pressing global challenges that Donald Trump will face when he takes office in 2017.

World map with various regions highlighted

During the 2016 primaries, Donald Trump claimed he had more foreign policy experience than any of the GOP contenders. In fact, he has traveled widely to meet with presidents, prime ministers, financiers, and developers over the past decade as part of his highly profitable business of licensing the Trump name to large real estate developments around the world. On the campaign trail, Trump’s provocative statements about foreign policy have become part of the public record. From pressuring NAFTA members to bombing ISIS, his pledges have caused a stir in the arena of foreign relations. Publicly, candidate Trump threatened to close borders to Mexicans, slap tariffs on Chinese goods, restrict Muslims in the United States, among other vows. Without a record of public service to draw on, it is difficult to know how these declarations might translate into a Trump foreign policy. To understand what lies ahead for the new president, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs asked its Faculty Associates in international relations to comment on the challenges and opportunities that await in five regions of the world: Africa, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Latin America, Europe, and China.


Image of Caroline ElkinsCaroline Elkins

Professor of History, Department of History; Professor of African and African American Studies, Department of African and African American Studies, Harvard University.

The absence of Africa from President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign website is a notable omission for anyone concerned with the continent’s future, or that of international relations more broadly. Africa is home to fifty-four countries and over one billion people. The new Trump administration must embrace the realities of a massively growing and complex continent and understand the implications of sidelining Africa when considering not only issues of global security and poverty, but also economic growth, the rise of an imperial China, and Africa’s vast and growing expansion of innovation, entrepreneurship, and investment.

Africa has three of the world’s fastest growing economies and several others with growth rates hovering between 4–6 percent. The Economist’s much-discussed “Africa Rising” profile has been buoyed by several other independent reports, including those from McKinsey. China and India have long understood Africa’s potential, out-trading the United States on the continent by 3:1 and 2:1, respectively. Future US policy must balance these growth trends, and global competition and influence, with the undoubted legacies of colonialism, the persistence of widespread corruption, the presence of radical Islam, and staggering poverty rates, among other things. To do so means to implement a much more expansive African Growth and Opportunity Act (the trade agreement from 2002 that enhances US market access for eligible sub-Saharan African countries) and one that draws on the successes of the EU and decreases the relative proportion of oil in the total of US imports from Africa. (Currently, oil accounts for about 90 percent of our imports.)

President Trump will need to work quickly and thoughtfully to make up ground for his lacuna of Africa knowledge and policy positions. To completely sideline an entire continent would come at great peril to the region’s stability—and with it global stability—as well as to the continent’s sustained growth in various sectors. The Trump administration must work with local African initiatives to address the persistent and widespread cultures of impunity. It also means investing through regional, public, and private networks not only in public health, but also in education, job growth, and access to basic necessities like food and water. Above all else, President Trump must place Africa squarely in our nation’s foreign policy, and work with domestic experts and those from the continent—including leading business people, academics, public health workers, human rights lawyers, and economists, among others—in crafting an agenda that reflects contemporary Africa. Without such measures, future risks loom on the horizon. An absence of an informed American presence has the strong potential of opening spaces for the further entrenchment of dictatorial rule and corruption, the expansion of extremist Islamic groups, and China’s continued rise, in part due to its much-needed resource extraction from Africa.


Image of Alistair Iain JohnstonAlastair Iain Johnston 

The Governor James Albert Noe and Linda Noe Laine Professor of China in World Affairs, Department of Government, Harvard University.

In general, the major challenge facing Trump in China policy will be similar to that of any president—how to minimize all the unintended costs to the security and well-being of American citizens that will inevitably arise from pursuing the president’s preferred policies. Of course, due to the deep and wide degree of US-Chinese interaction across all levels of society, there are large numbers of veto-points in China policy that might limit the impact of Trump’s own preferences. But what makes his response to these constraints unpredictable are his personal economic stake in the relationship with China, his narcissism, possible internecine relationships among his policy advisors, and white ethnonationalism that his campaign has mobilized.

Barring major military conflict with China, there are two specific areas where Trump’s expected China policies may have a direct bearing on the welfare of Americans. The first is trade. Taken at his word, he wants to impose very high tariffs on Chinese imports in order to compel Beijing to appreciate its currency, stop stealing US intellectual property, and open up its markets to more US investment and exports. Many economists expect, however, that China will likely react—at least initially—by raising tariffs on US goods, further restricting US investment, while also shifting imports to alternative markets. The result will be a trade war (or skirmish) in which US consumers are harmed by inflation, with no concomitant regrowth in traditional US manufacturing jobs, and indeed possibly a reduction in critical exports to China, such as aircraft. The Chinese may even engage in cost-imposition of their own by dialing up conflict on a range of other issues (e.g., North Korea sanctions, counterterrorism, international health, cyber commercial espionage, Taiwan, and maritime disputes) to remind the United States that China can impose costs on the United States too. Of course, Trump may change his mind about the wisdom of high tariffs as he listens to corporate advisors, and as he contemplates the costs to Chinese investment partnerships that he seeks for his own personal wealth. Instead he may simply impose some symbolic cost on China and then sell this as a major policy victory.

The second area where the long-term welfare of Americans is at stake is climate change. Any decline in cooperation with China on global warming may not be considered a welfare cost for Trump, given his apparent belief that anthropogenic climate change isn’t happening. But it will make China, rather than the United States, the “responsible stakeholder” on climate change, as other countries will look to Chinese leadership on the issue. Given Trump’s narcissism, his desire to be praised by large audiences may restrain any impulse to dump US-China climate change cooperation wholesale.

The unintended or unpredictable effects of his policy preferences, personality traits, and personal economic interests may be even greater if, as his initial appointments suggest, his China policy team reflects the gamut of GOP factions—moderate Asia specialists, Tea Party-leaning advisors who support tough economic and military policies toward China but are less interested in exporting US values, and neo-cons who want to be more proactive in undermining the legitimacy of the Communist Party. It will be hard to coordinate across these constituencies if Trump himself has no consistent preferences and no particular knowledge of the issues.

Finally, there is the ethnonational wild card. Trump’s campaign mobilized a fair amount of white xenophobia. At the public level, one cannot rule out growing incidents of anti-Chinese discrimination in the United States, with concomitant reactions from hypernationalists in China. In addition, some of Trump’s advisors from the hypernationalist wing of the GOP may demand loyalty tests and recommend restrictions on the employment of Chinese-Americans in sensitive policy areas. Added together, these factors may predict inconsistent policy outputs, undisciplined policy statements, and policy backfires.


Image of Jorge DominguezJorge I. Domínguez 

Antonio Madero Professor for the Study of Mexico, Department of Government, Harvard University.

As the next president of the United States, Donald Trump has the opportunity to advance policies to promote the interests that the United States and Latin America share. This is possible because the United States does not encounter in Latin America many of the challenges that it finds elsewhere. No terrorist attack has been launched on the United States from anywhere in Latin America. There are no US troops in combat in the region. There are no nuclear-weapons states in Latin America, nor are there interstate wars. The last revolutionary insurgency is likely to be ending in Colombia in the near-to-medium term.

Governments throughout the region are looking for ways to cooperate with the United States. Mexico has been, for many years, a far more important destination for US exports than China; and Mexico and Canada are a key part of the explanation why there are still automobiles manufactured in North America. (US auto companies would have gone bankrupt without their NAFTA partners or without the US government’s rescue of these firms.) Here’s a critical fact that was overlooked in the US election: net Mexican migration to the United States has been at zero (yes, zero) for the entire current decade, indicating that there is an opportunity to think constructively about immigration policy.

The search for shared peace also requires the United States to reassess its policies with regard to drug traffic interdiction. The failure of this policy is an important reason for the high value and high violence of such illegal activities in Latin America, resulting in high incarceration rates for drug use and sales in the United States. Further, the search for shared prosperity requires sustaining the commitment to freer trade between the United States and the entire region, sustained systematically through leaders of both political parties.

Pull quote from Jorge Dominguez


Image of Melani CammettMelani Cammett 

Professor of Government, Department of Government, Harvard University.

Disaster looms or has erupted in virtually all corners of the region, and the hopes and dreams of millions during the 2011 “Arab Spring” remain unfilled. In Tunisia—the relative “success” case of the Arab uprisings—nascent democracy is threatened by deep and still unresolved socioeconomic problems and security threats from extremists. A swift US intervention in Libya in collaboration with NATO, though billed at first as a success, has failed to shore up security in that country, and the ongoing war in Yemen has brought great destruction and hardship to the Arab world’s poorest country. Egypt is on a collision course towards a profound economic crisis. The Arab-Israeli conflict has never faced lower prospects of resolution. Threats from ISIS, among many other problems, continue to plague Iraq. And the list goes on.

All of these are important problems in their own right. However, nothing is more urgent than addressing the brutal civil war in Syria, which has now evolved into one of the worst humanitarian disasters of our time. With half a million dead, and ten million refugees, the Syrian civil war has created a potential “lost generation” of at least a million children who are likely to be in transition—and without education—for a decade.

Unlike his former opponent, President-elect Trump has not articulated a clear set of policy priorities for the Middle East, but a few positions seem consistent and others seems likely. First, Trump has repeatedly emphasized that he will "bomb the s**t out of ISIS." In fact, this is not too far off from the approach of the current administration, which has been engaged in a bombing campaign against ISIS and has even coordinated with Russia in this mission. The Trump administration's relationship with Putin, however, may be much warmer, given the apparent admiration that the two leaders hold for each other. While this might facilitate the diplomatic process around Syria, it will almost certainly not offer support to the opposition and will strengthen the position of Bashar al-Assad.

Syria is a classic example of a civil war quagmire, in which a cycle of escalation on both sides feeds on itself with no obvious end in sight. With so many external actors effectively subsidizing the war, pouring in more US resources is unlikely to resolve the situation. Until the key international players, including the United States, Russia, Turkey, and others, and regional actors, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, reach an understanding on Syria, no diplomatic, military, or humanitarian initiative is likely to succeed. At the same time, if the United States does not exert pressure on the al-Assad regime, the brutal dictator of Syria is even less likely to pay for his war crimes and will likely consolidate his authority over at least the western portion of Syria.

In the meantime, Europe and the United States need to open their borders to more refugees. As the United National High Commissioner for Refugees notes, on average, refugees spend about seventeen years outside of their home countries before returning after conflict. As Syria’s war grinds on, it is by now obvious that a quick return is not on the horizon and the world needs to support host countries (such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey) with the resources and strategies to meet the pressing needs of refugees.


Image of Bart BonikowskiBart Bonikowski 

Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, Harvard University.

The Europe facing the next administration is as unstable as it has been since the end of the Cold War. It is threatened from the outside by increasingly expansionist Russian foreign policy and from within by a political legitimacy crisis and growing opposition to immigration. Both developments have implications for the United States and will present complex strategic challenges for a Trump administration.

The inward-looking Russia is aggressively projecting its power abroad in an effort to regain its status as a key geopolitical player and to distract its citizens from economic stagnation at home. Once he assumes the presidency, Donald Trump will contend with a Russia that has encroached on Ukrainian sovereignty, engaged in military provocations against NATO, and become deeply embroiled in the Syrian conflict. The Obama administration has responded by increasing US military presence in eastern Europe, while NATO has ramped up the development of a rapid response force to counter Russian threats. Will President Trump escalate these measures or work to reduce tensions in the region? Trump’s seemingly cozy relationship with the Kremlin is unlikely to produce a robust policy toward Russia, which makes Russia’s continued hostility toward its neighbors all the more probable. In Europe, as elsewhere, US foreign policy under President Trump is bound to be as erratic and unpredictable as Trump himself.

The rising prominence of nationalist and populist politics in Europe presents a second major challenge for the United States. Fueled by discontent with immigration, fears of terrorism, distrust toward EU institutions, and—arguably—the effects of the economic crisis, anti-establishment parties have been gaining support across the continent, even in countries historically resistant to radical politics. Brexit has been these movements’ largest victory to date, and a number of upcoming national elections may bring others. The situation is likely to be exacerbated by the ongoing crisis of center-left parties and the temptation facing the center-right to compete for the radical right’s supporters. These developments present threats to the future of the European project and to the principles of liberal democratic governance in the region. Their causes, however, are not limited to Europe, as evidenced by comparable developments in the United States. To the degree that nationalism and populism are driven by reactions to neoliberal policies, demographic changes, and national security shocks ( stemming in part from conflicts in the Middle East), as well as the declining legitimacy of technocratic rule, the solutions will necessarily need to be global—not national or regional. The next president could take a leading role in addressing some of these problems. Under Donald Trump, however, a measured response to the threats of nationalism and populism is improbable. On the contrary, his election is likely to lend further legitimacy to anti-system movements across established democracies. This in turn, will further destabilize politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Image credits: Kristin Caulfield, Manager of Communications, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.