Donald Trump is nothing if not flexible when it comes to his policy positions. He knows how to seize the limelight, as he did with a surprise strike on Syria, and has been moving along what has charitably been referred to as the “learning curve” on a host of other issues. No issue shows Trump’s willingness to transform more than NATO: “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete,” he said recently. The challenge in analyzing this president is in predicting where he’ll land in his game of global spin-the-bottle. It’s impossible to know how likely his shifts are, but a number of foreign-policy issues could be described as soft spots—areas where he is amenable to sudden changes in position. Here are five issues that Trump could easily swing on.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership. The proposed Asia-Pacific trade deal took a thumping in the Trump campaign, and the new president made withdrawing from the deal one of his first acts. Yet the forces opposed to trade on the campaign are on the downswing. Nationalist adviser Steve Bannon is reportedly on the rocks, while Gary Cohn, an advocate of trade deals, is ascendant. Japan and other TPP countries are keeping hope alive for a deal even without the United States, and Tokyo has just declared it’s not interested in the bilateral deal Trump wants to pursue instead. As geopolitical tensions rise in Asia, Trump is likely to hear from his allies and his more traditionalist advisers that a regional strategy to bind America to the region is desirable. There’s nothing stopping Trump from renegotiating a few aspects of the TPP text and declaring a new deal—he wouldn’t even need to change the acronym. Just call it the Trump Pacific Partnership.
Cuba. Few issues illustrate Trump’s lack of a core foreign-policy ideology like his dealings with Cuba. During the campaign, Trump mused about opening hotels there, saying, “I think it’s okay to bring Cuba into the fold.” But he blasted the Castro government after Fidel’s death, and indicated that he would reverse Obama’s normalization if Cuba didn’t meet “our demands.” But the Castro era is quickly drawing to a close, with Raul, Fidel’s brother and the current president, having promised to resign in February. Assuming that happens, Trump could easily declare Obama’s policy a failure and replace it with his own—a fresh start of a new normalization. Especially if his family can get a new hotel out of the deal.
Ukraine. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Crimea, Ukraine occupies a middle-ground of U.S. policy set by former President Barack Obama. Washington led Europe to enact sanctions on Russia, but, despite supportive rhetoric, has not provided lethal military aid to Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. Trump’s policy could easily swing either way. A deal with Russia over Syria could lead him to recognize Moscow’s claim to Crimea—a subject the Ukrainian president raised on a call with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week—or Trump could follow the lead of his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, and go full-bore against Russia on Ukraine.
Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. Another option for Trump is to grab quick wins in the press by taking a low-cost but unexpected position. One option to confound his foreign-policy critics would be to turn up the pressure on Bashir, the Sudanese president, who is wanted for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. Sudan hasn’t featured much on Trump’s radar, despite landing on his various travel bans. But Bashir seemed to expect that Trump would treat him as well as he has treated nearly every other authoritarian, sending congratulations on his election and saying he would be much “much easier” to deal with. But if Americans know anything about Sudan, it’s that the word “Darfur” is synonymous with human rights violations. For a president who clearly enjoys the glow of being the world’s policeman, Trump could make a meal of interfering with Bashir’s freedom of movement or even help him find his way to the ICC.
Mexico. A softening on Trump’s harsh rhetoric on Mexico is already in the works. After calling Mexicans rapists and declaring NAFTA a “catastrophe,” the Trump team has started to engage with Mexico as an actual country and not just as a political punching bag. An anonymous Mexican official told the Wall Street Journal, “we’ve gone from panic to concern,” while the plans for revisiting the trade pact look more like a modest modernization than the wholesale withdrawal Trump threatened. Should that go through smoothly, there’s nothing stopping Trump from newly embracing President Enrique Pena Nieto ... so long as he pays for the wall.
This article has been adapted from Matt Peterson’s weekly newsletter for Eurasia Group, Signal.