SFS On Topic: Foreign Policy Recommendations for Trump Administration

The unexpected election of President Donald J. Trump on November 8, 2016 left many uncertain about the future of the United States’ role in the world, due to President Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience, along with his unclear and often shifting stances on certain issues. SFS faculty offered their thoughts on Trump cabinet nominees and foreign policy recommendations for the Trump Administration.  

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson

AP/LM Otero

SFS Centennial Fellow Mark Lagon questioned whether Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson would uphold and protect the rights of civil society organizations as Secretary of State, given Exxon’s spotty history of campaigning against such organizations in this op-ed in Newsweek“One wonders whether as secretary of state, a former CEO and a 41-year veteran of Exxon would criticize Russia, Egypt and China when they similarly attempt to increase the costs of advocacy and personal risks to individuals who engage in watchdogs’ efforts,” Lagon wrote.

Professor Brenda Shaffer, however, argued that Trump’s appointment of Tillerson may benefit U.S. foreign policy due to his familiarity with energy issues and Russia. “In assessing the implications of Tillerson’s nomination for U.S. policy efforts to avert climate change, it is important to note that he was at the forefront of energy company CEOs endorsing a carbon tax in 2009,” she wrote in The Hill. “…One of the major strengths of U.S. foreign policy over the decades, in contrast to Europe and many other regions, is the ability to integrate energy into foreign policy. The U.S. has a larger tool box due to this approach.” Read the full op-ed here.

Foreign Policy Tools

In an op-ed for Fox News, Professor Brenda Shaffer discussed the tools that could allow the Trump administration to successfully break from what she sees as two decades of U.S. foreign policy mismanagement.“[H]aving won on a promise of fundamental change, President-elect Trump has an opportunity to dramatically shift the underlying assumptions that have guided two decades of foreign policy,” Shaffer wrote. “If Trump is serious in his desire to restore American international power, there are some clear lessons that his administration must embrace.” Read the full op-ed here.

Professor Abraham Newman co-authored a piece for the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog about the potential for the Trump Administration to use domestic financial laws to crack down on Chinese corporations, as President Obama recently did. “Trump repeatedly lambasts the bureaucratic excesses of Washington and has even called for a freeze on federal government hiring,” they wrote. “However, cutting the resources of the bureaucracies that Trump needs to fight these battles would set him up to lose the battles before he even starts fighting them.” See the full article here.

Professor Marc Busch detailed a prescription for the Trump trade agenda to maximize American interests across industries and markets, supporting both the massive U.S. services sector and more traditional manufacturers and farmers through the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He explains that TPP will bolster intellectual property rights and liberalize global trade in services, for which America accounts for a staggering 30%. He adds, “What about U.S. manufacturers, ranchers and farmers? On these fronts too, TPP goes deeper than the WTO. In addition to cutting tariffs, TPP offers novel ways of dealing with nontariff barriers, especially quality standards…TTIP will do even more on this front than TPP, but not if TPP fails.” Read the full op-ed here.

North Korea


Professor Victor Cha considered five potential paths for North Korean nuclear ambitions during the Trump Administration in Korean JoongAng Daily. He discussed the plausibility that within the next four years North Korea will gain the ability to reach the U.S. West Coast with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile.

“At the same time, North Korea under Kim Jong-un may try to engage the regime with proposals for peace treaty talks or other diplomatic proposals designed to entice the Trump administration into a deal,” Cha wrote. “It is unlikely that Pyongyang will seek to engage the government in South Korea until after the political impeachment crisis subsides, however.” Read the full article here.

In an op-ed for Korea JoongAng Daily, Professor Michael Green analyzes the potential direction of Donald Trump’s foreign policy in Asia, considering relations with China, the TPP, and the unpredictability of major challenges in the region.“Trump told The New York Times that the key to his foreign policy was to be unpredictable,” he says. “That worked for him in the New York real estate world. It might cause Kim Jong-un to take pause. It also makes it hard to say what a Trump administration will ultimately do on China, trade and alliances.”

Nuclear Policy

Professor Matthew Kroenig discussed Trump’s recent comments on nuclear armament, agreeing with the President-elect that the U.S. should increase its nuclear stockpile, in an op-ed for Politico. “The United States needs a robust nuclear force, therefore, not because anyone wants to fight a nuclear war, but rather, the opposite: to deter potential adversaries from attacking or coercing the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons of their own,” he wrote. Kroenig reiterated his views while appearing on PBS NewsHour. Watch the full discussion here.

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Middle East

SFS Research Professor Elizabeth Ferris offered her views to PBS NewsHour on the way forward for the Syrian refugee crisis. She advocated for the negotiation of a peace agreement for the conflict in Syria, calling it the only long-term solution to the refugee crisis.

“I hope with all my heart that President Trump can find a political solution that brings peace and justice to the country,” she writes. “Failing that, I hope (but am not holding my breath) that he will launch an ambitious plan to resettle Syrian refugees throughout the world. Without bold leadership on either front, then the only answer is to continue to support the host countries, to raise still more funds to care for the refugees, and to muddle along as we have been doing these past six painful years.” Read the full article here.

Professor Dennis Ross wrote about how the Trump administration should handle the fight against ISIS in an op-ed for Foreign Affairs.“In order to destroy ISIS and uproot the extremism that has been generated by the Syrian war, the United States will need to help stabilize opposition-controlled areas of the country while pressuring Iran and Russia to move toward a viable political settlement,” he said. “To get there, President Trump will need to be more willing to put pressure on Moscow and Tehran than he has so far indicated. That means he should be ready to impose penalties on both if they do not fulfill any commitments they make.”

Osama Abi-Mershed, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, discussed the potential consequences of Trump’s policy actions in the Middle East for an article in the Baltimore Sun. “If [Trump] goes after Islamic State, that strengthens the hand of Shiite actors, Syria and Hezbollah,” Abi-Mershed said. “But if he’s serious about going against Iran, there will be resistance from Putin, and it would be in the interest of the Sunni regimes.” See the full article here.

Human Rights

Centennial Fellow Mark Lagon wrote his recommendations to address human rights in an op-ed for the Council on Foreign Relations. He urged the Trump administration to engage with multilateral bodies, continue a strong relationship with Europe, and view China as a top priority. “However understandably worried some Americans and observers abroad are about rancid election year rhetoric, the new administration very much has it in its power to get these three areas of human rights right,” Lagon wrote.