Predicting the Unpredictable: Where will Trump stand on foreign policy?

American Herald Tribune|Yuram Abdullah Weiler: With the surprise election of Donald Trump, pundits and world leaders alike remain in the dark as to the unpredictable president’s position on foreign policy. While embracing a borderline isolationist world view, Trump has also made bellicose tweets that would delight the staunchest interventionist. It may simply be a pipe dream to expect predictability from a candidate who has already declared unpredictability to be his watchword in U.S. foreign policy. [1]

Trump hinted at his foreign policy during his first major address on the subject in April 2016 at the Center for National Interest. Trump outlined his foreign policy views, highlighting five major weaknesses in the current U.S. approach. [2] It is worth mentioning that the center was founded by former U.S. president Richard Nixon, who was also a proponent of detente with the former Soviet Union, broke the logjam in America’s relations with China in 1972. Trump’s approach to U.S. foreign policy appears to reverse completely the direction set by the founder.

First on Trump’s list was the overextension of resources, meaning the perpetually lackluster U.S. economy and trade deficit. As a result, Trump said, the U.S. military has been weakened. While Trump blamed all this on outgoing U.S. president Obama, the reality is that America became a debtor nation under Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980s when foreign ownership of U.S. assets exceeded domestic ownership. [3] Trump’s prescription is his so-called America-First trade policy.

Secondly, Trump accused America’s allies of not paying their fair share of the “security burden.” Pointing to “trillions” spent over time “to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia,” he implied that other nations would be left to defend themselves if they were not prepared to at least come up with the NATO-mandated two percent GDP outlay. The statement hints of Trump’s latent isolationism, or perhaps it is merely populist rhetoric, which he thought would play well with American voters.

Thirdly, after having implied that U.S. allies would be on their own unless they paid the requisite NATO minimum, the flamboyant deal-maker complained that America’s friends “are beginning to think they can’t depend on us.” The contradiction with point two above is obvious: Since Trump has gone on record demanding that allies must either pay up or defend themselves, then such countries certainly would be justified in feeling that the U.S. is not dependable.

Under point three, Trump brought up the subject of the multinational nuclear agreement with Iran. An outspoken critic of the deal, which he called “disastrous,” Trump lambasted all aspects of it: the time period it will be in effect, the sanctions relief for Iran, and finally, the verification and compliance assurance process. [4] Other than to renegotiate with Iran, Trump has failed to reveal any details as to what his alternative would be to the current nuclear accord.

Always fancying himself as a master at the “art of the deal,” Trump insisted that the Iran nuclear pact was the “result of not being willing to leave the table.” The real estate tycoon turned U.S. president said, “When the other side knows you’re not going to walk, it becomes absolutely impossible to win.” This yields a crucial insight into the nature of “The Donald.” Rather than a zero-sum game, he will likely see foreign policy and international relations as a series of “deals,” and from any one of which he “must be willing to walk.”

Fourthly, Trump spoke of a lack of respect towards the U.S. on the part of rival powers, which “don’t take us seriously anymore.” After citing a long list of alleged humiliations targeting the office of the American president, Trump accused the Obama administration of allowing China “to continue its economic assault on American jobs and wealth,” while insisting in apparent contradiction that the U.S. holds economic power over China. Certainly if Trump insists on crossing the “One China” policy red line, Beijing has already hinted at “revenge.” [5]

Likewise, he alleged that the U.S. had the leverage to put pressure on China to “reign in” North Korea, which he declared to be “totally out of control.” The important clue to Trump’s foreign policy here is that under his administration, China instead of Russia will be America’s nation-state adversary. This could be termed a “reverse-Nixon” approach to foreign policy, and is entirely predictable given his conversation with president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen and his outreach to Russian president Putin, as well as his selection of Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. [6]

Finally, Trump correctly stated that America lacked coherent foreign policy goals. This, of course, can be seen again and again in U.S. history. U.S. president Jimmy Carter, for example, began his presidency with an impassioned plea for Americans to conserve energy, pointing out the necessity of weathering “the eventual decline in the availability of world oil supplies caused by capacity limitations.” [7] Yet when the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf seemed threatened by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter reversed himself and proclaimed his readiness to use military force to assure availability to the west in what later became known as the Carter Doctrine. [8]

Having previously declared the elimination of Daesh as one of his top priorities, [9] Trump regurgitated that “we’re in a war against radical Islam,” remarking cryptically that “unless you name the enemy, you will never ever solve the problem.” However, merely placing labels on the ideologies of others has never solved problems. Obviously, calling these violent takfiri terrorists radical Islamists, Wahhabis or some other moniker will not alter their repugnant behavior.

“Behavior that solves a problem is distinguished by the fact that it changes another part of the solver’s behavior,” wrote noted psychologist B.F. Skinner. [10]  Yet so far, Trump has given no indication of a change in behavior. By referring to Iran as “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror,” [11] he is engaging in the same bullying behavior as Bush II, who named Iran as a member of the “axis of evil.” [12] His belligerent approach will likely be the same as or worse than that of his predecessors, Bush II and Obama, hence no solution to the global problem of terrorism is likely to emerge from his administration.

Admittedly, Trump’s volatility is a weighty variable in the U.S. foreign policy equation. However, based on the current trajectory, he will continue a conciliatory approach with Russia while further alienating China. And if Trump makes good on his threat that Iran’s naval vessels defending territorial waters against U.S. incursions “will be shot out of the water,” [13] we can expect another sanguinary conflagration in the Persian Gulf.

*(Image Credit: Michael Vadon/ flickr)


[1] William Gallo, “Trump Embraces Unpredictability as Foreign Policy Strategy,” Voice of America, November 25, 2016, accessed January 8, 2017,

[2] “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech,” The New York Times, April 27, 2016, accessed January 8, 2017,

[3] Peter Kilborn, “U.S. Turns into Debtor Nation,” The New York Times, September 17, 1985, accessed January 8, 2017,

[4] “Trump on the Issues,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed January 8, 2017,

[5]  Brenda Goh and J.R. Wu, “Chinese state tabloid warns Trump, end one China policy and China will take revenge,” Reuters, January 9, 2017, accessed January 9, 2017,

[6] Simon Tisdall, “Donald Trump attempting to play Nixon’s ‘China card’ in reverse,” The Guardian, December 12, 2016, accessed January 8, 2017,

[7] Jimmy Carter, “National Energy Program Fact Sheet on the President’s Program,” The American Presidency Project, April 20, 1977, accessed January 8, 2017,

[8] “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”  See Jimmy Carter, “The State of the Union Address Delivered Before a Joint Session of the Congress,” The American Presidency Project, January 23, 1980, accessed January 8, 2017,

[9] “Foreign Policy and Defeating ISIS,” Donald Trump campaign website, accessed January 8, 2017,

[10] B.F. Skinner, “An operant analysis of problem solving,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 7 (1984): accessed January 8, 2017,

[11] Sarah Begley, “Read Donald Trump’s Speech to AIPAC,” Time, March 21, 2016, accessed January 8, 2017,

[12] George W. Bush, “President Delivers State of the Union Address,” George W. Bush White House Archives, January 29, 2002, accessed January 8, 2017,

[13]  Daniella Diaz and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump on Iran ship behavior: ‘They will be shot out of the water’,” CNN, January 9, 2017, accessed January 9, 2017,