President-elect Donald Trump inherits a country deeply divided on a host of domestic issues. But the American people relatively agree about one thing—they don’t want to go to war. Unfortunately for Trump, America faces an international order that’s unstable and in disarray. If he doesn’t act to restore that order, we may soon find ourselves in another war.
Of the many foreign policy challenges Trump faces, a few stand out as the most pressing. Here are five conflicts the president-elect will have to contend with on his first day in office.
The most obvious challenge for the Trump administration will be dealing with the ongoing fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Currently, the U.S.-led coalition is battling ISIS in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. On Monday, a separate coalition also began an attack on Raqqa, ISIS’s headquarters in Syria. The goal is to leave Islamic State fighters in Mosul nowhere to flee to. Both battles are expected to last weeks.
But even if ISIS is defeated in Mosul and Raqqa, the battle against the millenarian Islamic group will not be over. ISIS will continue to fight a guerilla war requiring a sustained counter-insurgency to defeat them. The United States will have a role in this fight, but what will it be? Will Trump be willing to put our hard-won counter-insurgency experience to work training and fighting alongside Iraqi soldiers? ISIS will also move to strengthen its hold in places like Afghanistan, where it has increased its presence in the past few months. Will Trump pursue them?
But even without a serious territorial base, ISIS is a religious ideology. Its beliefs are contagious and difficult to root out. Let’s also not forget that many foreign fighters will be returning home to the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, should ISIS loose its territory in Iraq and Syria, bringing with them fundamentalist Islamist beliefs.
2. The Syrian Civil War
To date, approximately 400,000 Syrian civilians have been killed in that country’s civil war. President Assad has barrel-bombed his people, used chemical weapons, and repeatedly broken cease-fire agreements. He is supported by Russia, which is demonstrating its growing influence in the Middle East and causing serious problems for U.S. diplomatic and military forces.
The Syrian rebels, meanwhile, are made up of diverse groups, including those with links to al-Qaeda and others we call, somewhat euphemistically, “moderates.” America’s difficult decisions include whom to back in this fight, what kind of weapons and training to provide them, and how to properly vet them to ensure we’re not arming a future ISIS or al-Qaeda.
This disaster of a civil war is part of President Obama’s legacy in the region. By backing down from his infamous red line, Obama emboldened both Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin to behave as badly as they like. Of course, Obama had the help of his anemic secretary of state, John Kerry, whose love of diplomacy seemingly knows no bounds.
President-elect Trump can either continue this quasi-isolationist non-policy or take a stronger stance. The latter would require a willingness to use military force, which after all is the only thing that makes diplomacy potent. But will the American people support another engagement in the Middle East?
3. Europe, Russia, the Baltic States, and the Balkans
Russia isn’t only flexing its military muscles in Syria, practicing for future conflicts. It’s also keeping its eye on former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe. The annexation of Crimea and Russia’s meddling in Eastern Ukraine, both of which began in 2014, tested the international community’s resolve to take action in defense of national sovereignty. A revanchist Russia is likely to test the next administration with a similar transgression before taking larger steps toward reasserting influence over some of these territories.
Putin’s Russia has also ramped up its combativeness with the West in general. In recent months, it has interfered with the U.S. election, begun preparing for a nuclear strike, revealed a super-nuke capable of taking out Texas, and delivered nuclear-capable missiles to its Baltic exclave in Kaliningrad—just to name a few. President-elect Trump will have to do better than Hillary Clinton’s farcical 2009 “reset” button she presented to Russia’s wily Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He will need a cohesive policy toward Russia that can go toe-to-toe with Putin and his KGB cronies.
The incoming administration will also need to decide what its position will be vis-à-vis Iran. Obama legitimized the Islamic Republic in the international community with a nuclear deal that all but ensures Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. While the Obama administration was making cash deliveries and lifting international sanctions, Iran grew more belligerent in promoting itself as a regional Shiite hegemon in the Middle East.
Iranian Shiite militias are now fighting ISIS in Iraq, and Iran is still actively supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. In Yemen, Iran is backing the Shiite Houthi rebels as part of a proxy war against its nemesis, Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, which supports the Yemeni government. Last month, Houthi rebels fired rockets most likely provided by Iran at U.S. naval ships off the coast of Yemen.
In response to these provocations, Obama has turned away from our traditional allies, including Saudi Arabia, and looked favorably on Iran. He’s sent the message to our erstwhile friends in the region that perhaps we are not such a reliable friend after all. President-elect Trump’s administration will need to repair these damaged relationships and check Iran if it doesn’t want to see a total upheaval in the region, or worse.
5. The South China Sea
Then there’s China. In the past few years, the People’s Republic of China has been asserting itself in the South China Sea, most notably by constructing man-made islands in the disputed Scarborough Shoal. By declaring this area, which is home to important international shipping lanes, part of China’s sphere of influence, China is threatening both its neighbors and international trade.
While the Obama administration proclaimed America was pivoting toward Asia, it appears that Southeast Asian countries are themselves pivoting away from the United States and toward China. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has recently called for a “separation” from the United States, and has begun to partner more closely with China, including ending joint military drills with the United States. Vietnam and Malaysia have also made gestures toward China, including traveling to Beijing and making statements aimed at America about “former colonial powers” not having a direct concern in the South China Sea.
These Challenges Are Interconnected
Far from being distinct areas of concern, these foreign policy challenges are intimately interconnected. Action in one arena will have consequences in another, because these aren’t really regional conflicts at all. Involvement in the offensive in Raqqa will engage the United States further in the Syrian civil war, which will affect America’s relations with Russia, which will in turn play a role in Russia’s plans in Eastern Europe. Our newly elected president must choose carefully what policies to pursue in each case, and as part of a strategic whole.
These policies ought to reflect a broader decision about what America’s role will be in the international community and how to balance it with an American public that has little taste for war and foreign entanglements. But avoiding war often requires displays of strength. Diplomacy must be backed by a true threat of force. This was the lesson Europe failed to learn in the inter-war period. Europeans were so determined to avoid war that they tragically led themselves directly into it with Neville Chamberlain’s promise of “peace in our times.” Inaction is action, and it can be lethal.
President-elect Trump will inherit a foreign policy quagmire left by President Obama, who envisioned a world where America leads from behind. But this is also Trump’s vision, one of “America first,” and America’s allies hung out to dry. It doesn’t have to be that way. But based on what Trump has said throughout the election season, the world is about to become a much more dangerous place.