NEW YORK – In less than two months, the American political transition will be over. The 45th president of the United States will settle into the Oval Office. President-elect Donald Trump will become President Trump; President Barack Obama will join Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush as a living former president.
Speculation about Trump’s likely foreign and domestic policies is rampant, but little if any of it is meaningful. Campaigning and governing are two very different activities, and there is no reason to assume that how Trump conducted the former will dictate how he approaches the latter. We also do not yet know who all the principal advisers will be and how (and how well) they will work together.
But amidst this uncertainty, there are some things we do know. The first is that Trump will be greeted by an inbox piled high with difficult international challenges. To be sure, no single problem compares with the Cold War at its height, but the sheer number and complexity of difficult issues is without precedent in modern times.
Topping the list will be the Middle East, a region in an advanced stage of unraveling. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are all dealing with a mix of civil and proxy wars. The Iran nuclear pact at best manages one aspect of Iranian power, and only for a limited duration. The Islamic State (ISIS) may lose its territorial dimension; but it, along with other groups, will continue to pose a terrorist threat for years to come. The plight of millions of refugees constitutes not just a humanitarian tragedy, but also an economic and strategic burden to countries in the region and in Europe.
And Europe is already confronting many significant challenges, including Russian aggression against Ukraine, Brexit, the rise of populism and nationalism, and low rates of economic growth. Turkey poses a special problem given its increasing illiberalism at home and mercurial behavior abroad. The fact that Syria’s Kurds have proven to be America’s best partner against ISIS adds to the complexity of the foreign policy choices that await.
East Asia’s stability is jeopardized by China’s rise and strategic ambitions, North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile advances, and a host of contested maritime and territorial claims. In South Asia, there is renewed tension between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed rivals with a history of conflict. Just as uncertain is the future of Afghanistan, where more than a decade of international involvement and assistance has failed to bring about a capable government or quell the Taliban and other armed opposition groups.
Closer to home, oil-rich Venezuela has many of the characteristics of a failed state. In Africa, too, a mix of poor governance, low economic growth, and terrorism, civil war, or both is overwhelming many countries. And at the global level, few if any rules or penalties for reckless behavior apply in important domains (cyberspace being paramount among them).
While campaigning isn’t the same as governing, Trump’s campaign has added to the difficulties he will face. By running on a platform of “America first,” Trump has raised questions among America’s allies about the wisdom of continued reliance on the US. The apparent demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has created unease in Asia and South America about US predictability and about whether the US will remain a champion of global trade or embrace something closer to protectionism. Mexico, singled out for criticism by Trump during the campaign, faces a unique set of issues concerning both trade and immigration.
The incoming president and those around him will come under pressure to address all these issues and concerns quickly, but they would be well advised to take their time. The priority for now and for months to come ought to be to staff up the new administration. Some 4,000 positions must be filled. The new administration will also need to learn to work together and review existing policies before it can decide on new ones. There will be considerable focus on – and expectations built up about –the administration’s first hundred days. But there is nothing magical about the first hundred days of a 1,460-day presidency. It’s better to get things done right than to get them done by Tuesday.
Other governments would be smart to do more than watch and wait for the new US administration to sort itself out. Allies need to consider what more they might do on behalf of common defense. They can develop and share their ideas about how best to deal with Russia, China, ISIS, North Korea, and Iran. Similarly, they can begin to think about how to protect and promote global trade in the absence of new US-led accords. In this new era, the balance between global order and disorder will be determined not just by US actions, but also and increasingly by what others long aligned with America are prepared to do.