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USC Dornsife experts forecast foreign policy under the Trump administration

International relations faculty map out a possible shape for U.S. relations with Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Russia under the new president

four experts speak at a panel
Moderator Wayne Sandholtz, Abraham Lowenthal, Laurie Brand and Robert English, from left, discuss foreign policy. (Photo/Peter Zhaoyu Zhou)

The outlook for foreign policy under President Donald Trump was the timely topic for faculty at the School of International Relations based at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“We’re exceptionally lucky to have on our faculty at the School of International Relations scholars who are highly accomplished and deeply knowledgeable about some of the parts of the work where some of the most intense questions arise,” said Wayne Sandholtz, director of the school, who moderated the Jan. 25 roundtable discussion on the University Park Campus.

Here are excerpts from the discussion, which touched on Russia, the Middle East, Latin America, China, Taiwan and North Korea.


In opening the discussion, Robert English, associate professor of international relations, Slavic languages and literature, and environmental studies, said that there are areas for both optimism and pessimism for the potential road ahead for U.S.-Russian relations under the new administration.

Noting that his optimistic view is out of the mainstream, English sees the concern about many of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions as blown way out of proportion.

“This threat inflation we’re seeing is, in my view, the most extreme since the early Cold War McCarthyite days or perhaps the days of the mythical bomber and missile gaps,” English said, pointing to the U.S.’ overestimations of Russian ballistic missile arsenals during the Cold War.

On the other hand, he sees potential turmoil ahead.

“There’s the well-known incoherence of Trump’s views and that of his team,” English said. He also observed that Russians are taking note of the hardline views from cabinet nominees such as Steven Mnuchin, Rex Tillerson — who has since been confirmed as Secretary of State — and others who are under intense questioning during Senate confirmation hearings, especially when they call Russia a threat and discuss sanctions against the country.

“Russians see that and whatever they think Trump may be inclined to do, they see a political establishment that won’t permit it,” English said.

Russians are also taking note of Trump’s vacillating stances on nuclear weapons, he said.

“They see Trump all over the place speaking about deep cuts in nuclear weapons as a priority with Russia and the next day speaking about building up nuclear weapons as if he didn’t remember what he said five minutes before,” English said. “That doesn’t inspire confidence.”

Middle East

The issues that pertain to U.S.-Middle East relations are considered some of the top foreign policy challenges carrying over from the previous administration, said Laurie Brand, Robert Grandford Wright Professor and professor of international relations and Middle East studies. And most problematic is that the president and his cabinet members not only lack a coherent policy vision, they appear to be on different pages when it comes to developing one.

For instance, during the course of confirmation hearings, “there have been some cases where nominees appear not to have discussed pertinent issues with the then-president elect,” which, Brand said, “is disturbing.”

Brand noted that Trump has reiterated some long-standing U.S. policies of maintaining stability and pursuing peace, understanding and good will. However, in a break with past U.S. efforts, he has vowed to reject regime changes in the Middle East and North Africa, and he also omitted trademark rhetoric.

“He made no explicit reference to democracy, human rights, freedom of speech or any other things that are generally cited when talking about U.S. values,” Brand said, noting that for some Middle Eastern leaders “that dovetails quite nicely with their domestic programs.”

Latin America

Latin Americans were overwhelmingly surprised by the election of Trump and reacted immediately and very negatively, said Professor Emeritus of International Relations Abraham Lowenthal, an expert on U.S.-Latin American relations.

“The immediate sense of alarm has been greatest in the countries closest to the United States geographically — Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean countries,” he said. These are the countries most fully integrated with and most positively oriented toward the U.S. by trade, tourism and investment. “They are therefore, the countries that would be hardest hit by restrictionist and punitive immigration policies, by protectionist trade policies and by xenophobic U.S. attitudes and measures.”

He also noted that in the wake of Trump’s announcement that construction of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico will proceed soon, “it is too early to be sure that the worst-case scenarios of mass deportations and rampant protectionism will actually occur.

“A great deal will depend on decisions made within the Trump administration requiring working consensus among its constituent parts as well as subject to … the decisions and actions taken by Congress, federal courts, state and local governments … nongovernmental organizations and the media, not to speak of actions and decisions taken by foreign governments and international organizations.”

Lowenthal said the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America on the eve of the Nov. 7 election was probably in its most positive state in several decades.

“The main aim of the Trump administration and the Western hemisphere,” he said, “ought to be that of the physician: Do no harm.”

China and Taiwan

Daniel Lynch, associate professor of international relations, specializes in domestic politics and foreign policies of East and Southeast Asia. He sees Trump’s initial approach toward China as fundamentally protectionist — aiming to shield the U.S. from foreign competition.

“He’s already signaled on trade policy that he will declare China a currency manipulator,” Lynch said. “He seems convinced that China is artificially keeping its currency undervalued and thereby cheating the United States out of market trade opportunities.”

He also noted that the president appears to lack knowledge about Asian affairs and international relations as well as the subtleties and intricacies of diplomacy and military affairs. For instance, Trump stated he sees no reason to be bound by the One China policy, under which the U.S. formally recognizes the government of Mainland China rather than Taiwan. To many people’s surprise, Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president right after his election.

“I don’t think he’s motivated by sincere interest or knowledge about Taiwan,” Lynch said. “But he knows … he can use Taiwan to irritate the Chinese Communist Party and he likes to do that. This is the flip side — he thinks he can use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to strike some grand bargain with China.”

But Lynch noted that intimidating China will not be effective. “You can’t bully China, especially in China’s own neighborhood — the South China Sea, Taiwan and issue areas that China considers very, very important.”

North Korea

When it comes to North Korea, David Kang, professor of international relations, business, and East Asian languages and cultures, and director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC Dornsife, sees very few ways for the new U.S. chief executive to make headway.

“My sense for U.S.–North Korean relations is that despite all the discussion about what Trump might do … every president realizes they have very few levers to pressure North Korea with,” Kang said.

North Korea has consistently tested incoming U.S. presidents with some kind of provocation, such as a missile test, to see how they will respond. But the country has not yet tested Trump.

“My sense is that there’s so much more going on with China and everything else that North Korea doesn’t feel the need to do anything yet because they’re going to wait to see what a Trump presidency is like,” Kang said. “They’re waiting to see if they need to push on Trump or whether they can find some modus vivendi with him.”

Outside of starting a war, which Kang said is very unlikely, there isn’t very much that any outside administration can do to make headway with North Korea.

“We’re going to be in the same place we are with a lot of rhetoric, a lot of fist shaking, a lot of name calling, but I’m not sure there’s going to be that much change in U.S. policy toward North Korea.”

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