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Donald Trump’s Approach to International Relations

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Donald Trump © BasSlabbers

January 19, 2017 11:54 EDT

Since his election, Donald Trump has followed a different way of conducting politics.

Shortly after winning the US election, US President-elect Donald Trump spoke to Tsai Ing-Wen, president of the Republic of Taiwan. By doing so, he neglected almost four decades of a carefully crafted bipartisan policy, aimed at acknowledging mainland China as a serious actor in international relations.

As Trump gets the keys to the White House on January 20, it makes sense to look at one of his foreign policy actions in detail, and then extrapolate from there to other issues to get a better view of the bigger picture.

US Diplomacy Toward China

On December 3, 2016, President Tsai managed to get a call patched through to Trump in order to congratulate him on his victory. Knowingly or not, by accepting the call, Trump broke with a decades-old American international relations tradition called the “One China” policy. This idea describes a delicate and complex political dance that was introduced to international relations in the 1970s when the US attempted to bring warmer weather to its relations to communist China.

This translated into verbally and diplomatically acknowledging the growing importance of mainland China, while attempting to contain Chinese influence globally and in the Asia Pacific region through creating a network of dependencies. Simply put, this meant accepting mainland China as the one and only China in the United Nations Security Council, while simultaneously supporting its neighbors, especially Taiwan, in their economic and military prowess.

In this context, for over 30 years, no official communication took place between American and Taiwanese heads of state. All political, economic and military negotiations had been conducted behind the scenes. This somewhat inconsistent approach allowed the United States to maintain good working relations with China, while making sure to exert an influence on its rise.

China accepted this policy, knowing its negative implications, as it could use the granted political space to assert its standing around the world. At this point in time, acknowledgement by the US meant to be recognized by the entire Western political community.

In other words, the US and China both knew the conditions of their rapprochement. So, it is no wonder why Beijing reacted so harshly to the telephone call between Tsai and Trump. The ripples went so far that an official Chinese government tabloid requested that President Tsai be prohibited from entering the US on her way to South America for fear that she could use this opportunity to talk to representatives of the Trump administration.

At first sight, this may appear overly sensitive, but it can be explained by looking at Trump’s very different approach to key international questions such as US-Russia relations, which appear to be heading to a new springtime.

The Bigger Picture

Looked at as a separate event, it is easy to criticize Trump talking to Tsai as a harsh breach of protocol. However, at this point in time, before his inauguration ceremony, judging his political agenda is still as hard as during pre-election days. Thus, there are several examples of Donald Trump’s different approach to international relations.

First, he views politics as he did his election campaign. The Trump administration and his surrounding team include a large number of people who have no background in politics and are, in other words, non-professionals.

Second, his way of communicating decisions and his agenda are similarly different. While President Barack Obama has used social media to support his political work, Trump uses Twitter as a primary channel to communicate not only hard facts, but his emotions as well.

Trump, therefore, uses a very non-traditional approach to politics—surely in part to underline his narrative as a newcomer to the global political stage and partly due to his background as a popular TV star and businessman. This works as his model of conducting political business.

Finally, concerning his agenda, Trump also does things very differently than his predecessors. The most notable is his differing approach to key positions in international relations.

Trump’s Agenda for International Relations

One of the cornerstones of US foreign policy is support for the state of Israel. Over the last few decades, US presidents have held differing opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, Israel could always count on the US backing its intentions at least officially.

With Obama, this changed. The US president and his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were not able to hide their animosity for each other’s political agendas. This was recently shown by the US abstaining from a Security Council vote in December 2016, which allowed the United Nations to pass a resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories.

donate to nonprofit media organizationsAlthough the Israeli government did not hold back its anger over the move, it declared this a temporary state of affairs, as hope for better relations would center on Trump taking over soon. It is in this context that the latter’s stance shows a deviation in the American position toward Israeli settlements.

As it appears, President Trump will be in favor of Israel continuing its aggressive settlement policies which, ultimately, means the end of a two-state solution that both Republican and Democratic administrations in the US have proclaimed as the only possible way to solve the conflict.

Nuclear weaponry is another issue that Trump has differing opinions on compared to his predecessors. While George W. Bush did not express the need for global nuclear disarmament, he did not taunt potential enemies with American nuclear might. Trump, however, has declared nuclear weapons as one of his security cornerstones. He has even expressed a desire to enlarge the American nuclear arsenal.

The reason, which explains mainland China’s level of outrage at him for talking to Tsai, lies in a different issue. China is not the only superpower with whom Trump obviously intends to alter relations. For decades, Russia has been a reliable antagonist of American interests. If the US was to greatly improve its relations with Russia, this would significantly change the balance of international relations in disfavor to China.

There are several hints that point toward an improvement of Russian-American relations—namely the potential involvement of Russian intelligence agencies in the US presidential election.

As more and more details are publicized about Russia’s role in the email hacks of the Democratic Party’s servers during the election campaign, with findings that were published on WikiLeaks and which severely damaged Hillary Clinton’s chances, it is interesting to see Trump neglecting or denying any Russian influence on the election result while exchanging pleasantries with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In addition, as the Obama administration put sanctions on Russia as a political consequence, Putin resisted the usual reaction and did not reciprocate in a similar manner. Instead, he stated that this would only harm relations when things would look very differently in a couple of weeks with Donald Trump as president.


This development has left many observers concerned. If the US were to rebalance its network of affiliations and dependencies, many countries that have counted on the status quo world order to persevere would have to realign their alliances.

Similar to China, which counts on a steady antagonism and a form of political blockade between Russia and the US, the European Union would have to rethink its relations with Russia. The American promise to defend Europe against eastern aggression, as stipulated during Cold War times, would fade away, leaving states like Germany and France outside of charted territory.

So far, defining a clear, consistent path or overarching idea in Donald Trump’s international relations agenda has been an impossible task. It is, therefore, hard to judge whether this scenario is realistic. Based on Trump’s inconsistency in other matters, it is possible that it will all turn out differently in the end. However, the possibility of a US alliance with an autocratic and aggressive Russia would be too much to stomach.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: BasSlabbers

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