The next American president, Donald Trump, faces a daunting set of international challenges on the economic and national security front. How he handles those problems will profoundly affect the future stability and trajectory of the global order.
His condemnation on the campaign trail of free trade, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), his railing against allies whom he alleged are not carrying their fair share of the defence burden and his desire to “reset” relations with Russia because he believes he can make a deal with Vladimir Putin, have rattled U.S. allies and trading partners. If he acts on his election promises, expect more turbulence in global economic relations and a reshaping, if not fracturing, of the western alliance.
The rancourous, bruising presidential election whose debates and media coverage were largely devoid of policy substance, focusing instead on reality-style television, personal attacks and invective delivered through social media, damaged both candidates. It leaves a lasting trail of bitterness and vitriol in Republican and Democratic camps that will be hard to repair. It has also left Americans more cynical and deeply divided than before.
Most dangerous period in decades
That the new president-elect said he would be the “President for all Americans” on election night was conciliatory and encouraging. However, it will be difficult for the new president to rally all Americans behind his policies as he confronts new problems on the domestic and global stage. The U.S’s “soft power” credentials have been tarnished by the sordid spectacle of the 2016 electoral campaign. Worse still, its enemies, such as Russia and China, are revelling in the fact that the world’s leading democracy is a chaotic house divided. Western allies, Canada included, are even more nervous about America’s ability to lead after eight years of uncertain global leadership under the Obama administration.
In the words of former U.S. homeland secretary Michael Chertoff, who served in the administration of George W. Bush, the world has entered its most dangerous period since the Second World War. Those dangers have been accentuated by an election that catapulted someone with no government experience into the presidency.
The Cold War — despite a number of crises of which the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was the most dangerous — was a remarkably stable period in recent world history. The nuclear standoff between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, forced them to be prudent and to manage their rivalry in a way that avoided direct armed confrontation. A succession of military confidence-building and arms control agreements contributed to that stability.
The world today is much less stable. Russia and China are challenging the global order by trying to redraw territorial maps and establish new spheres of influence. Terrorism is on the rise, but its shape is also changing. The institutions of the liberal international order that were built at the end of the Second World War — the UN, NATO and the Bretton Woods trade and investment regime — are seriously compromised. Democratic values are also under attack, even in western countries, with the emergence of a new brand of authoritarian leadership driven by chauvinism, racism, nationalist zeal and a desire to close borders. Trump’s stunning political upset is also part of that phenomenon.
U.S. military and intelligence redesign
Terrorism has a new face. Neither the U.S. government nor other western nations are well equipped to deal with it. Trump proposed temporarily closing — pending “adequate vetting” — U.S. borders to immigrants, refugees and visa applicants from Middle Eastern and other countries where terrorism is a particular problem. It won’t solve the problem. Terrorism has evolved from large-scale, centrally planned attacks, such as the 9/11 attack by Osama bin Laden on New York and Washington, to smaller lone wolf and terrorist cell attacks by individuals who are screened and recruited online through social media and secret websites.
The attack on July 14, 2016, in Nice, France, for example, in which an individual weaponized a delivery truck to mow down a crowd of Bastille Day celebrants, including many young families and children, is an example of this new phenomenon. Terrorists have learned that you don’t need a bomb or guns to kill a lot of people.
The U.S.’s military and intelligence architecture was designed to capture the signature of centrally planned, large-scale terrorist operations. It will have to adapt in order to deal with “low signature” attacks that cannot be intercepted by spies, satellites and drones in the sky. Like the proverbial needle in the haystack, law enforcement officials need to know what they are looking for.
Trump’s threat to shed allies who don’t carry their fair share of the defence burden will only accentuate tensions in the western alliance, if not fracture it. A new group of quasi-authoritarian leaders has come to power in key, frontline states such as Turkey, Poland and Hungary by stoking populist nationalist sentiment. Nor is this phenomenon confined to Europe, as Rodrigo Duterte’s rise to power in the Philippines attests.
The world’s autocrats in Russia, China and elsewhere are saying that democracy is in disarray and they offer a better model and way forward for their citizens. They are manipulating social media and traditional media to promote their cause. One of Trump’s tasks will be to figure out how to strengthen the appeal of democratic values, including strengthening the norms of political accountability and human rights in those countries where commitment and adherence to these norms are wavering. Pandering to dictators and autocrats is not in the interest of the west, or those who aspire to be free.
The Middle East quagmire
There is no greater mess that the new president faces than in the Middle East, where years of prevarication, indecision, evaporating red lines and failed negotiations have allowed Russia and Iran to establish their own condominiums in the Levant, moves that are deeply unsettling to key U.S. allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Trump may be more willing than Barack Obama to accept the fact that the ship has sailed in Syria and that its leader, Bashar al-Assad, will not relinquish power as long as he continues to enjoy Russia and Iran’s support.
The U.S.’s diplomatic and military goal should be to limit Assad’s power and political reach by ensuring that Sunnis in Syria and Iraq have autonomy in their own areas of control. This may be the only way to ensure some measure of fragile stability, which is in Russian and western interests.
The impending destruction of ISIS’s caliphate in Iraq also means the west and Iraq’s neighbours are going to have to get ready for an exodus of foreign fighters who are going to perpetrate their campaign of destruction elsewhere. Again, American leadership is needed to deal effectively with this threat. It is not the time for the U.S. to hunker down or disengage.
Managing the continued exodus of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe will also require U.S. engagement because Europe is clearly not up to the task. If this gnawing issue is not resolved, there will almost certainly be more Brexit-style eruptions in Europe, which is not good for Europe, North America or the rest of the world.
U.S.- Canada-Mexico NAFTA renegotiation
Within the first 100 days of his new administration, Trump promises to renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from the deal under Article 2205 in order to secure American jobs. Congress has a key role on trade policy (and tariffs). It is encouraging that Congressional Republican leader Paul Ryan favours corporate tax cuts as a better prescription for U.S. growth than tariffs. Others in Congress share his view. Trump may well hedge on trade even as he has already hedged on building a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexican border. It is also worth noting that there is almost $7 trillion in GDP growth to be secured by harmonizing regulations in all three NAFTA countries while eliminating outstanding barriers to trade in goods and services.
Canada should step back and take a deep breath. In the words of Derek Burney, former Canadian ambassador to the United States, “We should do our homework quietly, talk to potential allies quietly, discuss privately with the new team as it takes shape, but not panic. Trump’s real target is U.S. companies that are moving out, not Canada.” However, there will be challenges to Canadian competitiveness at a time when we are losing market share in the U.S. if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doubles down on carbon to meet Canada’s international commitments on climate change and the Americans, under Trump, decide to take a pass. Canada’s policies on refugees and open borders could also be a source of friction with the new administraiton.
TPP, meanwhile, given the complexion of the new Congress and Trump’s own agenda, is clearly dead.
Canada was fortunate that it was not drawn into Trump’s line of fire during the election. Trudeau wisely decided to say nothing that would compromise Canadian interests. Trump said he would reverse Obama’s decision to veto construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. If Keystone does get built, that will be good for Canada’s oil patch. But Trump has also said he will not defend NATO allies who are “free riders.” Though Canada is hardly a free rider, Trump will be looking for Canada to boost its defence spending above the slightly more than one per cent of GDP it now spends.
Whatever happens, Canada should boost its efforts to promote trade with markets in Europe and Asia. Ultimately, that is going to be the only way to ensure Canada’s future prosperity and reduce its dependence on the U.S. and the vagaries of its politics.
Trump’s presidency raises far more questions than it answers. Providence is murky. But his presidency surely promises to transform the way Canada has managed relations with the United States over the past 60 years.
Fen Osler Hampson is co-director of the Global Commission on Internet Governance. He is a distinguished fellow and director of the Global Security & Politics Program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.