Foreign policy, development, and humanitarian aid have had little coverage in the US presidential campaign. However, the issues will still be in the in-tray of Donald J. Trump come January. Here are some of the most pressing:
Syria, Iraq and Yemen
Trump’s statements on the Middle East have been a mix of isolationism and promises to crush so-called Islamic State, making it unclear what he intends to do.
The president-elect has argued that deeper involvement in the Syrian war would cause “World War Three” and bring the US into direct conflict with Assad allies Iran and Russia. “The first thing we have to do is get rid of [IS] before we start thinking about Syria,” Trump has however argued. What that means for Syria and Iraq, where the battle against IS in Mosul is ongoing, is far from clear, as the next president has said his plans to fight the group are secret. Statements on his website make promises to work with Arab allies and friends in the Middle East to defeat the group and “pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy [it]”.
Neither candidate has said much at all about the Middle East’s third major war and humanitarian catastrophe – Yemen – where the White House has said it’s reviewing support for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition’s air campaign against Houthi rebels. Trump has made comments suggesting he’s worried about Iranian influence in the region and Iran backs the Houthis to some extent, but with confusing statements like this one, it’s anyone’s guess what Trump intends to do.
The war in Afghanistan
Trump will inherit the longest war the US has ever fought – in Afghanistan. The US invaded in 2001, backing local forces to overthrow the Taliban, and still maintains about 10,000 troops there. Obama promised to end the war, but Afghanistan’s military has not been able to hold off an onslaught by the Taliban and other militant groups on its own, and the government has often been fragile almost to the point of collapse.
The US has spent more than $113 billion on reconstruction aid over the past 15 years in Afghanistan. That includes funding to build up the Afghan military, but it does not include the cost of the US military mission, which would push the bill to around one trillion dollars. Despite all the American money spent and lives lost, Afghanistan figured very little in the presidential campaign.
Neither candidate put forward a plan for Afghanistan. That may be because American politicians really have no idea how to extract their country from what increasingly looks like a quagmire with little chance of victory. Obama’s strategy – a surge of US troops to quell the insurgency, followed by a gradual withdrawal intended to leave the government able to stand on its own – has failed. Can Trump do any better?
It’s hard to view Trump’s election as anything but bad for the environment. On the “Energy” section of his website, Trump says he intends to “make America energy independent”. He would do this mainly by opening up new coal and oil fields, a strategy that seems to conflict with his goal to “protect clean air and clean water”.
In addition, Trump pledged to “open shale energy deposits” that could provide access to more oil and natural gas through “fracking”. The relatively new technique involves drilling into rock and injecting water, sand, and chemicals to force out gas or oil trapped inside. Fracking is widely used in North America, where it has created jobs and reduced dependence on foreign oil imports. But environmentalists point to a host of problems including: using huge quantities of water that are often diverted from elsewhere, the risk of pollution if chemicals contaminate groundwater sources, and a potential link with earthquakes. Critics also worry that increased investment in traditional energy sources detracts from the development of renewable energy.
Trump doesn’t mention climate change on his site. In fact, Trump promised during the campaign that he would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The next round of climate change talks began on Monday in Morocco but the process may now lack support from the world’s most powerful leader.
Refugees and immigration
Contrasts between Trump and Clinton are nowhere more stark than on immigration and refugees.
While Clinton had pledged to push for progressive immigration reforms that would have created a path to citizenship for some of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, Trump has vowed to immediately terminate Obama’s executive orders providing amnesty to undocumented immigrants who arrived as children and to parents of US citizens.
Trump’s supporters will be expecting him to make good on campaign promises to significantly ramp up detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants and to limit legal immigration (although they may be forced to accept that Trump’s promise of a wall along the length of the border with Mexico may turn out to be largely symbolic).
On the campaign trail, Trump responded to extremist attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando by calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the country. Immigration and security officials have pointed out that implementing a ban based on religious affiliation would be practically impossible considering that most countries don’t identify an individual’s religion on their passports. But as president, Trump will have the authority to determine the number of refugees that can be admitted for resettlement from various regions. He made it clear as recently as Monday that if elected he would suspend resettlement of refugees from Syria based on security concerns. He has advocated instead for resettling refugees to “a safe zone in their home country”.
Currently, the United States is by far the largest donor to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR (contributing 40 percent of its budget in 2015). Considering Trump’s professed suspicion of multilateral institutions like the UN, it’s unclear whether that level of support would continue or how involved the US would be in negotiations towards global compacts on migration and refugees set in motion at the September summit in New York.
Those eying a possible expansion of US foreign aid under a Clinton presidency will be disappointed by today’s result. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly stressed the importance of rebuilding infrastructure at home before helping others abroad, arguing in June that America should “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us”. An increase in the foreign aid budget is therefore highly unlikely, while cuts now become a distinct possibility, especially with the Republicans retaining control of both chambers of Congress. Trump’s antipathy for trade deals could also threaten important pacts like the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a tax-free lifeline that drives up business on the continent.
For security analysts, one of the biggest unknowns is whether Trump, when he becomes president in January, will continue to promote some of the more hardline and potentially dangerous positions he has adopted on the campaign trail: from banning Muslims from entering the country, to his support for torture (saying “I like it a lot. I don’t think it’s tough enough” about waterboarding), to keeping Guantanamo Bay open. All of the above help extremist groups, from Islamic State to Boko Haram to al-Shabab, in developing the propaganda that brings in more recruits, deepening conflicts and humanitarian crises from northern Nigeria to northern Iraq.