Throughout his presidential campaign, President-elect Donald Trump regularly challenged bedrock policies and strategies relating to the U.S. role in the world, from doubting the value of international trade agreements and the NATO alliance to dismissing the traditional U.S. approach to security and nuclear proliferation. As a result, governments worldwide are now intensely trying to assess what a Trump presidency will mean for their relations with the United States and for international order more generally. In turn, Thomas Carothers asked a group of Carnegie’s experts to examine how these governments are digesting the news of Trump’s victory, their views and concerns related to Trump’s foreign policy, and the potential implications for their countries.
- Russia: Cautious Hope
- Europe: Anxiety and Morbid Fascination
- China: Watching Closely for Signs
Douglas H. Paal
- Japan: Trepidation about Transactional Politics
James L. Schoff
- India: Perplexity on Top of Uncertainty
Ashley J. Tellis
- Israel: A Honeymoon of Uncertain Duration
Ariel (Eli) Levite
- Iran: Happiness Among Hardliners
- Saudi Arabia: Be Careful What You Wish For
- Egypt: Expecting Greater Forbearance
- Turkey: A Mix of Trust and Uncertainty
- The Iran Deal: Perspectives From Major Powers
George Perkovich with Cornelius Adebahr, Alexey Arbatov, James Acton, Toby Dalton, Mark Hibbs, and Tong Zhao
Russia: Cautious Hope
The Kremlin did not anticipate Trump’s electoral victory. It was preparing for Hillary Clinton and the prospect of U.S.-Russian relations continuing to deteriorate, with a not-too-trivial chance of a kinetic collision between Russian and U.S. forces—such as through the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria, which Clinton supported.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump’s election is a chance to pull relations with the United States out of the danger zone and make deals on issues such as Syria and Ukraine. Trump’s comment that “wouldn’t it be nice” to get “along with Russia,” his offer to join forces with Moscow to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and his comment on Crimea’s people being happier now than under Ukraine’s rule have not gone unnoticed by the Kremlin.
Putin sees Trump as a fellow leader who cares more about his country’s national interests than about ideologies. In Moscow’s view, a United States that is largely focused on itself is far more welcome than a United States that seeks to dominate the world and aggressively promote its values, norms, and principles in a borderless environment.
That said, the Kremlin is fully aware of a myriad of uncertainties linked to the outcome of the U.S. vote. Who will occupy top positions in the Trump administration? Where will its ideas about U.S. foreign and security policy come from? Will Trump stick to his guns when it comes to Russia or will he eventually succumb to the existing anti-Russian consensus, thereby making peace with the political establishment?
Yet, for the first time in years, there is hope in Moscow that U.S.-Russian relations can be improved in a way that is acceptable to Russia. In particular, this would entail Washington leaning on Kiev to implement the Minsk II agreement while easing the sanctions regime on Moscow, as well as the United States and Russia resuming diplomatic collaboration in Syria and starting a joint military effort against extremists there.
This is a hope, not an expectation, and this hope may well be dashed. In the bigger scheme of things, however, the Trump phenomenon suggests to the Kremlin that the United States is becoming concerned with its global overextension. If this is confirmed, Russia is ready to play along.
Europe: Anxiety and Morbid Fascination
Europeans followed the election extravaganza in the United States with curious anxiety and morbid fascination. The day-after shockwaves equal or exceed those that many Europeans felt in June when the continent woke up to the results of the Brexit vote. Reactions have ranged from stupefaction to jubilation to sheer dread.
The immediate political response in Europe has been a flurry of overtures toward the president-elect from both the elite and the antiestablishment camps. The EU has invited Trump to an early bilateral summit; the German defense minister has called on Trump to elaborate on his plans for NATO; the French president is soliciting talks with Trump as soon as possible; and the list goes on. The sense of dealing with the unknown is palpable, but the fears are acute: Are trade agreements with the United States dead? What will Trump do in Syria? Will there be some new U.S.-Russian concordat? When the Brexit vote happened, the EU was still in a relative position of power to negotiate its new relationship with the UK. With the United States—and a potentially much more transactional U.S. administration—this is much less the case, particularly given how anchored Europe is to the United States, militarily and economically.
At the same time, European populist parties are viewing Trump’s win as a vindication that their style of politics isn’t so far off the mark. “Their world is falling apart. Ours is being built,” a senior member of France’s far-right National Front tweeted, echoing the sentiment of many in l’Europe profond who share this view.
The political reverberations within Europe could be momentous. In 2017, there will be three major national European elections, in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The antiestablishment victory in the United States, and the Brexit vote before it, will only pander to populist politics. Trump’s victory also casts serious doubts over the Paris climate deal, European security (including NATO), and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, to name just a few EU foreign policy concerns.
Europeans are left with one of two choices. They can digest Trump’s election as a wake-up call and acknowledge that they need to stick together—that the “strength in unity” narrative is even more significant today. Or they can allow this historic change in Western leadership to become a wedge that irreparably divides those who see the value in the European project and those who utterly reject all that this union represents.
China: Watching Closely for Signs
Douglas H. Paal
In the early days of U.S. relations with the People’s Republic of China, Beijing often feared the unknown and favored the incumbent party in U.S. presidential elections. Over time, Chinese officials became more self-confident and less fearful that their interests would be impacted by U.S. election outcomes. During this election cycle, Chinese officials made a show of having no preference between the candidates.
Ordinary Chinese, however, showed unprecedented interest in this election and the larger democratic process. And Chinese experts now want to know whether Trump will continue President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, which the Chinese see as restraining their rise. They have noticed with pleasure Trump’s dismissive attitude toward frictions in the South China Sea. Yet, they have also noticed with concern some of his purported advisers’ comments on strengthening ties with Taiwan and the U.S. presence in the region.
Chinese experts are also trying to decipher Trump’s economic positions. Will Trump press Beijing on trade and its currency, and, at the same time, remain uninterested in pursuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership or free trade agreements, from which China feels excluded? Will he reinvigorate the U.S. economy and restore American preeminence, or will he lead the country to turn inward, with more room for China to expand its influence?
Chinese officials and non-officials alike are interested in avoiding conflict with the United States and managing inevitable strategic competition in the Western Pacific while expanding China’s influence there. With ties being tested between the United States and the Philippines, Malaysia, and now South Korea, Beijing sees new opportunities in the region and is keenly interested in how Trump will address these troubled relationships.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will likely extend an early invitation to meet with Trump, reciprocating Obama’s invitation for Xi to join him in unstructured talks at the U.S.-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit in 2013. Beijing will also try to develop a cooperative agenda between the two countries, building on experience in working together on the Iran nuclear agreement and on climate change.
Chinese officials and experts are aware that Trump could take a firmer stance with China than Obama did. They are looking for, in particular, signs of stronger trade actions through the World Trade Organization or otherwise, an uptick in interaction with Taiwan or new arms sales to the island, and tougher rhetoric directed toward Beijing.
Japan: Trepidation about Transactional Politics
James L. Schoff
Trump’s “America First” campaign rhetoric and the deep uncertainty about how he will translate campaign statements into policy realities have raised serious concerns in Tokyo about the continuity of an economic and security relationship of unrivaled importance for Japan’s foreign policy. Trump’s criticism of Japanese trade practices, derision of free trade agreements, and calls for Tokyo to pay more for U.S. troops based in Japan has Japanese politicians on the defensive and unsure of whom to turn to for access to Trump’s inner circle. In this new context of trepidation in Tokyo, Japanese policymakers will focus on two key questions to determine how to best orient their country’s strategy.
First, will Trump be principled and combative with China or stick to simple transactions and less active leadership? Trump has threatened trade sanctions against China and promised a major military buildup, which could reassure Tokyo on security and even facilitate closer Japanese-Chinese relations if they join forces against U.S. trade pressure. The worst outcome for Japan would be a sense of strategic abandonment. This could arise if Trump acquiesces to Chinese “core interest” or “historical rights-based” security arguments in Asia, leading his administration to downplay ties with traditional allies and partners in exchange for lower Chinese trade surpluses and other favors. The ultimate question is will a Trump administration see continued U.S. leadership in Asia as a national and collective strategic good by itself, worthy of U.S. investment to benefit its long-term interests, or is it only willing to exercise such leadership for a price, paid by U.S. allies like Japan? Japan will resist paying more to support a U.S.-centered agenda, but it can step up its own diplomatic activities in coordination with Washington—such as economic and diplomatic investment in Southeast Asia—to support growth and complement U.S. contributions.
Second, how committed will a Trump administration be to the open, rules-based order that is so critical to Japan’s economic and political stability? Active support for this order has been a mainstay of U.S.-Japanese relations since the 1980s, but U.S. indifference now—or possibly even outright rejection of current trade regimes—could disrupt Japanese supply chains, harm Japan’s economy, and leave Japan on the shorter end of a “might makes right” world and more dependent on China. Japan’s government spent significant political capital getting the country into the Paris climate agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, two multilateral initiatives Trump has loudly rejected. If U.S. leadership in Asia weakens, Japan will likely band with other middle powers—including Australia, India, and South Korea—to shore up the World Trade Organization, East Asia Summit, G7, G20, and other institutions to provide some leverage as it seeks to improve relations with China on acceptable terms.
India: Perplexity on Top of Uncertainty
Ashley J. Tellis
Like their peers around the world, Indian policymakers are grappling with the populist revolution that has finally come to the United States. Trump’s election offers both opportunities and perils, but it is the fundamental uncertainty about whether his administration will faithfully reflect his views as a candidate or some other, more considered vision that has Indian leaders scratching their heads right now.
Their perplexity, while understandable if for no other reason than its global ubiquity, is nonetheless acuminate because the stakes are so high for New Delhi. For close to twenty years now, successive Indian governments have sought to build a strategic partnership with Washington on the assumption that the United States would remain invested in protecting the liberal international order that so favors a rising power such as India. If a Trump administration were to give up on preserving this U.S. creation—and on maintaining the favorable balance of power necessary toward that end—what good would making America great again be to Indian security and development?
Other uncertainties are equally gnawing. Will Trump’s views on immigration collide with the Indian interest in preserving access to the U.S. market for its skilled labor? However welcome Trump’s resolve to combat terrorism may be, will his policies alter the prevailing U.S. approach toward Pakistan? Will his declared suspicion of U.S. alliances create enhanced opportunities for Chinese assertiveness in Asia? Will Trump’s determination to renegotiate existing trade deals undermine globalization at exactly the time when India has become more connected to the international economy than ever before? For the moment at least, these questions and their answers—which remain mysteries—eclipse even the few hopeful portents that Indian elites discerned in Trump’s otherwise garrulous election campaign.
But underlying these particular incertitudes is a deeper anxiety: Has American society changed so fundamentally that the nation that built and maintained the most successful liberal international order to date is willing to walk away from upholding its proudest and most beneficial creation—beneficial not simply to others but significantly to itself? If so, then Indian grand strategy does indeed confront a dangerous new world, one that India—in both its physical and ideational resources—is not yet equipped to confront successfully or with confidence.
For now, Indian policymakers hew to the hope that, despite Trump’s preelection rhetoric, he will attempt to unify a perilously fractured United States, commit to protecting the U.S.-led international order, and continue to strengthen the U.S.-Indian strategic partnership in order to advance the common aim of effectively balancing against the rise of Chinese power in Asia. These leaders yearn for a reassurance that Trump’s early political appointments will confirm these prospects, but they are nowhere near figuring out what might need to be done if their expectations are confounded.
Israel: A Honeymoon of Uncertain Duration
Ariel (Eli) Levite
On the face of it, U.S.-Israeli relations seem headed for a dramatic improvement once Trump takes office. Notwithstanding the broad and extensive collaboration between the two countries throughout Obama’s two terms in office—including Israeli deference to Washington on numerous security issues and massive U.S. security assistance to Israel—Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu enjoyed no personal chemistry. Substantial policy differences repeatedly surfaced, particularly over Iranian and Palestinian issues, and each leader suspected the other of conspiring politically against him on his home front.
Given Trump’s attitude toward the two-state solution and the Iran nuclear deal and his repeated assurances of support for Israel, professed eagerness to work closely with Putin, vocal hatred toward the old establishment and the “left-leaning media,” and even his Jewish family connections, the new president-elect can expect to find a kindred spirit in Jerusalem. Moreover, he will meet an able and willing partner on a broad bilateral and regional agenda of checking Iran’s ambitions, confronting terrorism and religious extremism, and collaborating with Russia, as well as on other regional issues (which Trump has hardly addressed to date), ranging from the search for a peaceful settlement in Syria and stabilizing Lebanon to rebuilding closer ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Yet, to date, Trump’s honeymoons have neither proven lasting nor been immune to distractions. Will things be very different in U.S.-Israeli relations once he becomes president?
Viewed from Jerusalem, the answer is uncertain despite favorable signs. Might Trump, once he enters the Oval Office, adopt an agenda that deviates from his campaign statements? Might his key appointees who deal with Israel be less enthusiastic about a renewed relationship, given that they may come from outside the traditional talent pool of the Republican (or Democratic) Party and hence not be accustomed to a close working relationship with Israel? Could some of his other foreign policy decisions undermine U.S. capacity to lead the free world, thereby weakening its capacity to provide Israel with a political and strategic umbrella?
Ironically, though, the biggest challenge for Netanyahu resides in the possibility that Trump might actually stick to his electoral platform and reverse Obama’s policy on the Palestinian issue, applying more pressure on the Palestinians to meet certain conditions for peace while holding back from condemning Israel’s settlement activity. Were he to do so, he would help incentivize the Palestinians to do more for peace but risk removing the single most important lever Netanyahu has employed in reining in the unbridled ambition of his extreme, right-wing coalition partners to destroy any remaining hope of eventually setting up a two-state solution. This possibility would force Netanyahu to choose between endangering his current governing coalition and mortgaging Israel’s future as a liberal democratic Jewish state.
Iran: Happiness Among Hardliners
Kayhan newspaper, considered the mouthpiece of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reacted to the U.S. presidential election with the following headline: “Another Achievement of Liberal Democracy: The Victory of a Mad Man Over a Liar.” Yet Trump’s victory was actually the preferred outcome of the militant men—Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards—who control Iran’s deep state.
For one, the United States’ image—and that of liberal democracy—has been irreparably damaged. In a November 4 speech commemorating the taking of U.S. embassy hostages in 1979, Khamenei defended Trump against charges of populism and lauded him for exposing “the true nature of America.” Khamenei has said for decades that Americans live in a morally corrupt, rigged political system controlled by Zionists; Trump’s words and behavior regularly supported the former, while some of Trump’s most vociferous supporters often corroborated the latter.
Obama has tried harder than any U.S. president since 1979 to improve, if not normalize, relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This has unsettled Khamenei and Iran’s hardliners, who perceive enmity with Washington as an ideological pillar of the Islamic Republic, crucial to its continued survival. Tehran’s revolutionaries won’t have to worry about how to deflect conciliatory letters and overtures from a Trump administration, nor will they have to justify to their population why a United States led by a man called Barack Hussein Obama must remain an implacable adversary.
For Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Trump’s victory is calamitous. The entirety of his presidency was invested in securing a nuclear deal, which is now in peril. During the campaign, Trump consistently called the Iranian nuclear agreement—known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the “worst deal ever negotiated” and vowed to renegotiate it. Trump’s top advisers, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, have advocated “tearing it up on the first day.” In contrast to the Obama administration, there is little likelihood that a Trump administration will encourage foreign investment in Iran to increase Tehran’s satisfaction with the nuclear deal and help Rouhani get reelected in May 2017.
For Iranian civil society, Trump is the worst of both worlds. He will likely provide Iran’s hardliners a pretext to be even more repressive—under the guise of national security. Yet in contrast to many Republican politicians, Trump has expressed no interest in supporting human rights and democracy overseas.
“The opportunity of defeating the enemy,” wrote the celebrated Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, “is provided by the enemy himself.” This is how Iran’s revolutionaries likely feel about the election of Trump.
Saudi Arabia: Be Careful What You Wish For
Anyone would be better than Obama, the Saudis told themselves. Obama had chided them as “free riders,” admonished them to undertake domestic reform, and, most egregiously, seemed to downplay their alarm about Iran’s regional aggression. But now, Riyadh faces the uncertainty of a U.S. president who’s leveled the “free rider” charge even more stridently, making no secret his contempt for the Saudis as hangers-on. “What I really mind, though,” Trump said of the kingdom in August 2015, “is we back it at tremendous expense. We get nothing for it.”
Still, the Saudis could warm to a Trump administration. Personal relationships define Saudi ties to the White House, and the Saudis could welcome Trump as a relief from the cool detachment they had encountered in Obama. Much will hinge on interactions in the first weeks and months of his term. Trump the Decider could be a welcome change from what Riyadh perceived as too much caution and deliberativeness on Obama’s part. Trump also speaks an authoritarian language familiar to the Saudis, and he will likely not press them on human rights and political reform. His business sensibility bodes well for continued, conditions-free arms sales to the Gulf.
Trump’s counterterrorism views align with those of the Saudis. They are likely to overlook, to an extent, his campaign utterances on Muslims as sloganeering and, on a practical level, approve of his stated intention to focus on combating Islamist ideology and political Islam as a wellspring of terrorism. Such an approach (in contrast to Obama’s prescriptions for greater political openness) would align with the Saudi strategy of promoting a quietist form of Islamic orthodoxy as an antidote to violent radicalism.
It is on the issue of Iran where the Saudis take the most comfort—with qualifications. They applaud Trump’s threat to overturn the Iranian nuclear deal, which they saw as a bait-and-switch that left them dangerously exposed to Iran’s hegemonic advances. The key question now is whether Trump’s rejection or revision of the Iran deal would be accompanied by U.S. commitments to defend the kingdom against Iran. Trump has made fanciful and sometimes contradictory statements about U.S. troop deployments in the region. And any economic quid pro quo he would demand from the Saudis in exchange for U.S. protection comes at a time when the Saudis are already facing extraordinary pressures at home due to low oil prices.
Trump’s views on Syria have caused the most consternation in Riyadh. Trump’s realpolitik on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian patron—and his professed willingness to work with them against the Islamic State—runs counter to the Saudi aim of overthrowing the Syrian dictator. Riyadh will be closely watching Trump’s apparent warmth toward Putin to see if it evolves into an acceptance and even a welcoming of greater Russian influence in the Middle East, which would be felt not just in Syria but in Egypt, Libya, and the Gulf itself.
Like other U.S. allies, the Saudis are struggling to gauge whether and how Trump’s administration can turn his disruptive and sometimes alarmist rhetoric into policy amid regional realities, limits on U.S. power, and institutional constraints.
Egypt: Expecting Greater Forbearance
The tensions that arose between Washington and Cairo in recent years over Egypt’s deteriorating human rights situation appear likely to diminish after Trump assumes the U.S. presidency. Trump stated several times during his election campaign that his priorities with regard to Egypt will be helping its government in the fight against “Islamic terrorism” and “fundamentalist Islam.” The Egyptian government expects therefore that with Trump coming to power, counterterrorism cooperation with Washington will strengthen, restrictions on military aid and arms sales will ease, and U.S. diplomatic endorsement of Egyptian security policies will solidify.
Egyptian officials are hoping for greater cooperation on the economic side as well, given that the country currently faces an existential economic crisis. After a period of uncertainty, the government has reached out to the IMF for support in floating the local currency, reducing fuel and food subsidies, and introducing liberal economic reforms. Given the autocratic nature of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule and the expanded economic role of the Egyptian army in recent years, the Obama administration has declined multiple requests from Cairo for financial aid. Egyptian officials expect the Trump administration to actively champion Egypt’s IMF deal within the fund and to be more forthcoming with financial assistance.
Unlike Obama—who has publicly questioned Egypt’s status as a U.S. ally since its military took over political power in 2013 and perpetrated large-scale human rights abuses—Trump sees in Sisi a powerful general capable of safeguarding stability in the Middle East’s most populous country and an ally in the war on Islamic terrorism. Egypt’s grievous human rights situation, including its repression of independent civil society and voices of dissent, does not seem to hold any political significance for Trump. The Egyptian government will likely perceive this new view from Washington as an opportunity to implement still more repression.
As a result, Egyptian human rights activists, civil society leaders, and voices of dissent expect that Trump’s electoral victory will help Sisi obtain greater international acceptance of his autocratic rule. They fear a new wave of repression aimed at forcing them into incarceration or exile and even less pushback from Washington against such actions.
Turkey: A Mix of Trust and Uncertainty
The initial reaction in Ankara to Trump’s election conveys a level of trust, but also uncertainty. The general message from Turkish authorities seems to be a positive one and bears the hope that relations between the two countries will deepen. However, behind the diplomatic facade, there is inevitably a degree of fear resulting from the perceived Islamophobia of the Republican president-elect’s campaign. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has often fought hard against Islamophobic tendencies—real or perceived—in Western countries.
On style, Erdoğan undoubtedly has a certain admiration for Trump’s performance: his way of turning the tables against the traditional political establishment, “reaching the public,” and capturing the “national will.” On substance, the Turkish leadership will bring two priorities to Trump’s immediate attention: the extradition of Fethullah Gülen and continued security cooperation. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has already called on the president-elect to grant the “urgent extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the mastermind, executor and perpetrator of the heinous July 15 coup attempt who lives on US soil.” Even if the Turkish government knows exactly how an extradition process works under U.S. laws, it felt that this was the first and most important message to put out to Washington after the election.
To keep the U.S.-Turkish strategic cooperation at its current level, Erdoğan is obviously keen to continue benefiting from Washington’s and NATO’s security umbrella, especially as regional threats still loom large at a time when its armed forces are still recovering from the July 15 shock. How this will be achieved remains to be seen. Turkey will likely want to continue hosting U.S. strategic assets at the Inçirlik air force base and participating in NATO’s Missile Defense Shield (for example, the U.S.-operated radar in Kürecik).
For domestic reasons, the Turkish leadership has refrained for several years from making a final decision on its own missile defense system, instead entertaining a Chinese offer (non-NATO compatible), U.S. and French-Italian bids, and now perhaps a Russian bid for the same system. On this issue, the uncertainty looms large on both the Turkish and U.S. sides.
The Iran Deal: Perspectives From Major Powers
George Perkovich with Cornelius Adebahr, Alexey Arbatov, James Acton, Toby Dalton, Mark Hibbs, and Tong Zhao
During the presidential campaign, Trump harshly criticized the Iran nuclear deal and declared in a speech to AIPAC, “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Will he, in fact, do so after he takes office?
Everyone acknowledges that the Iran nuclear deal is imperfect. At the same time, practically all countries in the world—including Israel—recognize and welcome the fact that Iran is fulfilling its obligations under the deal, as verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. As long as this is the case, the threat of Iran’s nuclear program is contained.
The nuclear deal represents a collective achievement of the United States, France, Germany, the UK, Russia, and China—the P5+1—and has been codified by the UN Security Council. The sanctions that helped motivate Iran to accept unprecedented, verifiable constraints on its nuclear program would not have been so effective without the cooperation of additional countries that acted under the UN Security Council’s imprimatur. While Iranians are frustrated that non-nuclear sanctions (related to human rights, money laundering, and terrorism) remain in place, and that risk-averse major Western corporations still shy away from the Iranian market, the P5+1 is fulfilling its share of the bargain and lifting specifically nuclear sanctions.
Thus, were the United States to threaten to break the deal or try to renegotiate it (which would amount to the same thing), the world’s major powers and largest economies—France, Germany, the UK, Russia, China, Brazil, India, Japan, and South Korea, among others—would consider this a rogue action and vigorously oppose it. They would consider the United States to be in violation of the deal and would not feel bound to reimpose or tighten sanctions on Iran, as the United States might wish. Meanwhile, Iran could exploit such a U.S. move and threaten to or actually stop observing nuclear restraints. The rest of the world would blame the resultant global crisis directly on the new U.S. president. This would not be a good bargaining position for the United States.
Some opponents of dealing with Iran argue that the United States does not need cooperation from the other major powers or the UN Security Council to impose crippling sanctions on Iran. Unilateral legislation could punish any foreign company or country trading with Iran by denying them access to U.S. markets, including financial services, or by imposing massive fines on them. A new administration, with congressional allies, could impose new sanctions with this effect while saying they are not related to Iran’s nuclear behavior and therefore not a violation of the deal.
Such sanctions might hurt Iran in the near term but could strategically hurt the United States more in the long term. Other major powers would see such so-called secondary sanctions as a hostile and illegitimate act by the United States. They would argue that the United States’ financial power must be contested to deter it from using this weapon in irresponsible and destabilizing ways. This could bolster Chinese efforts to promote an alternative global currency to the dollar and alternative international financial institutions. Moreover, excessive unilateral use of the sanctions weapon would kill chances of Chinese and Russian cooperation in containing the North Korean nuclear program or any other future proliferation threat.
In sum, the EU, Russia, China, and other major powers will view the new administration’s handling of the Iran nuclear deal as a key indicator of whether the United States will be a global coalition-builder to deter security threats or a rogue that needs to be tied down. The latter outcome, ironically, would benefit Iran enormously.