Pauline Askin / Reuters

Donald Trump blindsided the world when he took a call from Taiwan's president last weekend. It almost certainly won’t be his last bolt from the blue. Particularly for foreign policy matters, the U.S. president has tremendous power to uphold or overthrow traditions—such as the one where you don’t speak directly to the president of Taiwan. Given Trump’s willingness to shoot from the hip, and his, let’s say, “eclectic” circle of advisers, it’s worth thinking through other traditions susceptible to sudden changes. Some we already know about: U.S. security commitments abroad, involvement in NAFTA or the WTO, relations with Pakistan, nuclear proliferation. The question is: What aren’t we thinking about? Here are five foreign-policy traditions that could—not necessarily will—be upturned by President Trump.

5. UN visas. Every year, world leaders descend on New York for the United Nations—even the leaders America doesn’t like (See: Castro, Fidel). And every now and then, the U.S. goes through a dance with a dictator it would rather not have in New York. Last year, it was Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes. Strictly speaking, it would be a violation of the UN Treaty for the U.S. to deny him a visit to the UN, but American officials nonetheless made the process so difficult that he eventually gave up. Now imagine Trump doing this on a larger scale, perhaps declaring someone like Xi Jinping persona non grata due to a trade dispute. Would it be illegal? Yep. But that wouldn’t necessarily stop him from making the UN process very difficult.

4. Bosnia. As Taiwangate shows, the U.S. president has tremendous power to legitimize leaders and territories unilaterally. Trump could easily make similar interventions elsewhere. One particularly destabilizing option might be to alter the status quo in Bosnia, where postwar tensions have never really fully diminished, despite U.S. and European efforts. The leader of the ethnically Serbian enclave of Republika Srpksa has been pushing for an independence referendum, an initiative that might appeal to pro-Brexit Trump. The president-elect could swiftly alter the balance of power simply by engaging directly with Republika’s Srpska’s leader, Milorad Dodik, who is closely allied with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Just picking up the phone would instantly elevate Dodik’s status and give a win to Moscow.

3. Armenian Genocide. American presidents have refused to utter the G-word in relation to the massacre of Armenians in Turkey in 1915. As a senator, Barack Obama criticized the Bush administration for forcing out its own ambassador to Armenia, who departed from policy and named the genocide. But as president, Obama kept up with tradition and did not use the word. Presumably, the rationale has been maintaining good relations with Turkey, which denies a genocide occurred. For now, Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are getting along. But should that change, it would be easy to see Trump dropping the word "genocide" into a tweet.  

2. Transnistria. Where else could Trump use the presidential power to recognize states? One option might be the tiny European breakaway region of Transnistria, which has been de facto separated from Moldova for decades. It is barely a state, legally speaking. Russia doesn’t even recognize it, despite stationing troops there. But Moscow still finds it useful. After all, having troops on either side of Ukraine is a great way to make Kiev feel nervous, not to mention the rest of Europe. If Trump wanted to plot a foreign-policy rapprochement with Russia, opting to bring Transnistria into the fold would be easy. European allies would complain, but Americans would barely notice.

1. Antarctica. For decades, the laws and norms covering Antarctica have kept it reserved it for peaceful scientific research. Mining and other types of resource exploitation are banned. The U.S. is a major proponent of this attitude—John Kerry just became the first secretary of state to visit the continent—but Russia and China, which maintain significant bases there, would like to revise the status quo. The Antarctic Treaty System will be in place for decades still, but the treaty has no independent enforcement and functions more as a “gentleman’s agreement” than a binding set of laws. For Trump, a leader who wants to seize other states’ oil and sees climate change as a Chinese hoax, it is very easy to envision a policy shift that radically alters the future of the continent.


This article has been adapted from Matt Peterson’s weekly newsletter for Eurasia Group, Signal.

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