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Engaging Trump

WASHINGTON, DC – If Donald Trump’s victory in the United States’ presidential election was an earthquake, then the transition period leading up to his inauguration on January 20 feels like a tsunami warning. The entire world is speculating about what will happen, and, depending on who has appointments at Trump Tower that day, the mood oscillates between concern and panic. But, rather than wallow in fatalism, we must take steps to avert the worst.

The situation certainly looks bleak. America’s commitment to its allies has long formed the bedrock of post-World War II security, just as its engagement in international institutions has underpinned global cooperation. This remains as true today as it was 50 years ago, despite some weakening of America’s global primacy.

Yet Trump seems to think that America’s commitment to its allies should have strings attached, exemplified in incendiary campaign declarations that the US would protect only the NATO allies who are “paying their bills.” And he is ready to renounce rules-based cooperation across the board, from trade (he has already rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal) to climate change (he has threatened to withdraw from the historic agreement reached last year in Paris). In short, America’s global engagement, in all its forms, can be expected to suffer substantially, posing a serious challenge to the liberal international order.

This represents a clear reversal from President Barack Obama’s second term, during which important progress was made in adapting America’s international role to a changing global environment. At a time when power is increasingly diffuse and organization difficult, Obama began to spearhead more flexible policy responses.