The election of Donald Trump to the President of the United States will have a severe impact on Muslim strategic affairs around the globe. Of course, domestically, the effect of his election will be phenomenal, with many expecting racist and Islamophobic attacks to become more frequent as racist segments of American society feel vindicated by the shock outcome. Sadly, this has been witnessed in Britain in the wake of the Brexit referendum, and there is no reason to think that the American right wing will show more restraint nor that Trump’s campaign has been less divisive or inflammatory.
Indeed, Trump’s nativist populism has been driven by rural America’s hatred of minorities, including women and Latinos, but it is perhaps Muslims which have been hit hardest. Certainly, in proportion to the average American’s exposure to Islam or Muslims, Trump’s campaign made them the biggest scapegoat of all. His divisive rhetoric advocated mosque surveillance and torture as a core components of homeland security, and proposed a total ban on Muslims entering the United States. He positioned American Muslims as “outsiders” by fabricating first-hand accounts of Islamic euphoria in New York on 9/11, and congratulated himself on his policy of mistrusting all Muslims when it was supposedly justified by a lone-wolf shooting incident in Orlando. In short, he has done his utmost to stoke Islamophobia in the US, and rode its crest to the White House. Add to this is the list of his appointees to his administration which so far ranges from far right white supremacists to outright Islamophobes.
However, as hard as a Trump presidency is going to be for Muslims in the US, it is in his position as Commander-in-Chief of American forces and his setting of American foreign policy that his victory will have the most profound impact on the global Ummah. From boosting Israeli, Russian and Chinese agendas of regional dominance to demonstrating his foreign policy naivety in the quagmire of Syria, the anticipation of President Trump’s supremacy is unsettling Muslims around the world.
This is because Trump’s foreign policy is characterised by a nativist isolationism and American exceptionalism which runs counter to 60 years of onshore protection. In other words, he feels America is too involved in global affairs and ought to be more restrained in its interventionism. He has promised to withdraw troops from US military bases around the world, and put more pressure on US allies to defend themselves.
The first direct result of this scaling back of overseas operations is the likely emboldening of regional hegemons, such as Russia and China. For the past eight years, the Obama administration has conducted a policy of increasing the strength of US friendships and footprints in the Asia-Pacific and Eastern European regions, with the express purpose of counterbalancing Russia and China as regional hegemons. Trump’s promise to undo this activity is unsettling the millions of Muslims in Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, who may be faced with increased Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and beyond.
This looks ever more likely in the face of the second direct impact of Trump’s isolationism; the dismantling of US alliances and mutual protection agreements. Trump has been vocal in his lamentation that America bears the brunt of the cost in blood and treasure for maintaining the security of other nations. He has already considered demanding half of Kuwait’s oil as reimbursement for its liberation from Iraq in 1991, and his repeated frustration with the inability of many NATO members to meet their financial commitment to the alliance has jeopardised the future of the NATO bloc. On the campaign trail, Trump rejected the tenet of mutual defence, intimating that he would withdraw US protection from any NATO member which does not spend 2% of its GDP on defence.
Simultaneously, Trump has made increasing overtures to Russia, praising Putin for his leadership and promising a new age of Washington-Moscow relations during his term. These anti-NATO diatribes and pro-Russian posturing are sure to embolden Russian aggression in the Balkans and Caucasus, potentially impacting on the significant numbers of Muslims across Bosnia, Albania and Azerbaijan. This policy also directly affects the only Islamic member of NATO, Turkey, which is currently struggling with the Syrian civil war on its border. However, given Turkey’s relatively strong relations with the major NATO antagonist, Russia, and its fulfilment of NATO’s financial conditions (spending 2.1% of GDP on the military in 2015), Turkey is not at significant risk of NATO abandonment.
Outside of NATO, Trump’s isolationism is scaring long-term recipients of American military assistance, such as Afghanistan and Kenya, and even those to whom America has been historically sycophantic, such as Israel. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump pandered to Israel in an unprecedented manner, promising to support its claim to Jerusalem as the country’s capital city, yet many Israeli politicians are worried by the anticipated withdrawal of foreign military assistance. The US has been Israel’s largest military partner in terms of defence sales and defence spending for over 30 years. A sudden cessation of financing would be cataclysmic for the IDF, particularly in the context of the Syrian war turbulence and increasing unrest in the West Bank.
However, perhaps the greatest threat would be a newly-outcast Iran. Trump has repeatedly described the 2015 JCPoA as Obama’s worst mistake, and has promised to take every step necessary to ensure Iran’s nuclear programme is destroyed. He is bringing Russia in from the cold and pushing Iran back outside. This will inevitably damage the long-worked-for trust and dialogue between the US and Tehran, and any reneging on the JCPoA from Washington will almost inevitably restart Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities. In the context of Israeli military degradation and the ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, this could be a major mistake and contribute to heightened insecurity in an already fractious region.
Finally, beyond withdrawing troops from strategic positions, abandoning allies and undoing peace agreements, Trump’s direct control of the American military is a dangerous prospect, when connected to his anti-Muslim agenda and simple-mindedness. Indeed, President Trump is possibly the most abject politician America has ever elected for the task of tackling the intricacies of foreign policy and diplomacy. When pressed on the campaign trail, his nuanced approach to the threat of ISIS consisted of (possibly nuclear) bombing the region and seizing its oil, while struggling to differentiate between the Kurds and al-Quds forces. His deep mistrust of Arabs, and their reciprocity, is likely to automatically exclude any Trump administration representative from peace-making negotiations, leaving it up to increasingly nativist and domestically-beleaguered European leaders to counter Russia’s Assad solution. This is not a mix which will lead to a cessation of hostilities any time soon.
To conclude, a President Trump is a terrible proposition for Muslims across the globe and for world security in general. He is the archetypal Islamophobic representative for jihadists everywhere to exhibit as proof that the West is opposed to Islam. His isolationism is likely to leave power vacuums for Russia and China to fill with their own expansionist agendas, and his skewed black and white view of the world will prohibit the compromises and understanding of nuanced foreign policy necessary to engender peace. The next four years are going to be very bumpy.
By Sam Eastoe.
Sam Eastoe is the ‘Resurgence Russia and China’ programme leader at IISA