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Shifting American politics

Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss, assistant professor of political science, weighs in on the election of Donald Trump, his latest nominations, and their immediate impact on U.S. foreign policy.

By Irina Papkova

[photo]
Trump during the electoral campaign.

How do you view Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States?

Trump was a very different candidate and now President-Elect than we’ve ever had before. He hasn’t been in the military and he’s never been elected to any office… But I think that’s in part what people wanted—a change, a non-politician. One should note, however, that Clinton won the popular vote by more than 3 million votes. Still, the election has been described as a “Whitelash,” where almost 70 percent of white men and 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, while minorities overwhelmingly voted for (Hillary) Clinton. I think that’s the most disturbing aspect, because it really calls into question the principles of equality that the country has worked for over the past 50 years.

Going outside the U.S., Trump’s nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013, for secretary of state questions another principle of a somewhat traditional opposition to Russia. What does this reveal?

The nomination of Rex Tillerson confirmed for many Trump’s plan to create a Cabinet that is business-friendly, breaks with long-standing domestic and U.S. foreign policy, and rewards longtime supporters. Tillerson, unlike some of the other cabinet nominations, is highly regarded by many but his career with—and one assumes allegiance to—ExxonMobil also pits him against current U.S. foreign policy regarding sanctions on Russia. Because of this, Tillerson might find the strongest opposition to his nomination among Republican hawks who see Russia as the U.S.’s greatest threat.

What effect, if any, will this Russia-U.S. reconciliation have on the situation in Syria and specifically around Aleppo?

Regarding Aleppo, Trump has already had an effect. (Bachar al) Assad and (Vladimir) Putin —along with Hezbollah and Iran—have pummeled Aleppo in a quest to begin a final chapter in the conflict. Trump seems willing not only to allow this but to welcome it. The problem, beyond the horrendous humanitarian disaster that has descended on Aleppo, is that the world still needs to deal with the Islamic State and the de facto unraveling of Iraq.

What about the Middle East in general?

On the one hand, it might carve out some kind of quiet for Lebanon. From a realpolitik point of view, the situation could get cleared up in Syria sooner rather than later, if the U.S. under Trump achieves some sort of rapprochement with Russia and lets Assad win. Lebanon could be an entryway for the money, engineers, and business people needed to help rebuild Syria.

However, this view leaves out the animosity the Republicans have, and Trump says he has, toward Iran. Because the scenario I’ve just described implies that Iran is the new hegemon in the region, and the Republicans have been adamant that it should not have that power, I don’t see how you can square support for Russia—and Assad—and somehow ignore the growth and strength of Hezbollah, their role in Syria, and ties with Iran. It also leaves out Israel, where Trump’s election has invigorated the settler movement. 

Do you think Trump will withdraw from NATO?

No, but he has already changed the alliance and, in my eyes, weakened it. The potential change in the relationship with Russia is already causing the European NATO member countries to increase defense spending and seek to increase cooperation between themselves, so as not to not to have to rely so much on the U.S. Among other things, the Baltics are very worried, and so are Finland and Sweden.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warned Trump over his attitude toward China, describing his approach as “not clever.” What do you think?

Sino-American ties are becoming strained by Trump’s unorthodox, and frankly cavalier, rhetoric and actions (accepting a call from the Taiwanese President), and domestic opinion in China is quickly becoming very anti-Trump. The relations might very well continue to deteriorate as Trump has already said that he wants to play hardball with the Chinese. 

Yet, Trump’s words and actions reflect a calculated shift in policy that was a long time in the making, with the intent of counteracting the rise of China and allowing for commercial interests—particularly those of Trump-affiliated companies—to be realized between Taiwan (Republic of China) and the U.S. This, in and of itself, shows a strong disregard for longtime national interests.

This week, he cancelled a news conference that was to focus on such possible conflicts of interest between his presidency and business activities…

The least we can say is that ethical implications concerning “conflicts of interest” are pretty stunning, with Trump acting both as President-Elect and as a private businessman. And while it seems that Trump will indeed be elected by the Electoral College on December 19 (though there is still some chance that this will not happen), his ongoing refusal to address his conflicts of interest may well mean that impeachment hearings will start alongside the beginning of his four-year term. What we are witnessing in American politics today is truly unprecedented. 

 

Photo (here cropped): Trump at ISU by aj.hanson1 (2016), PhotosForWork.com, License


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