Last week’s historic meeting between President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump was a cringe-worthy yet exemplary example of a peaceful transition of power between bitter political rivals following a difficult election. The awkward Oval Office rendezvous kick-started speculation by DC’s ecosystem of policy wonks, journalists, and risk consultants on which policies the Trump administration will hold over from the outgoing regime and on those which his administration will chart a new course. Outside of populist rants and 3 A.M. twitter blasts, there is little clarity as to which policies the new president will advocate. Trump’s foreign policy could include a number of controversial actions, from the U.S. withdrawal from NATO to repealing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement and launching a ground war to destroy ISIL. Perhaps the most controversial of Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric during the 2016 election campaign was advocating for the construction of a border wall with Mexico and the repeal of the North American Free Trade Agreement. These quasi-serious policies have already had a real impact: as soon as a Trump win became apparent, the Mexican peso fell 12% to an all-time low. Trump’s screaming proposals, we can only hope, were nothing more than campaign rhetoric and shallow promises rather than actual policy positions.
It is now time for the president-elect to develop a serious foreign policy. Trump’s surprising nominal compromise on keeping some of the main tenets of the Affordable Care Act showed that his positions are a work in progress and he is open to keeping at least some of Obama’s initiatives intact.. What this means for foreign policy is that, while improbable, Trump may decide to continue to pursue the Obama administration’s priorities on promoting free trade agreements and using diplomacy as a first resort. He may, however, look to reverse unsuccessful policies, which have led to the loss of influence in Asia and the Russia/Syria imbroglio.
In pursuing a Western Hemisphere policy, Trump will have ample opportunity to improve on Obama’s mixed record in the region. Indeed, the free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, as well as the TPP, have served to tie the signatory countries with the U.S. economy and promote expansion for U.S. businesses into those markets. These agreements serve to keep these nations out of the poisonous influence of left-leaning, anti-American governments such as Venezuela and Bolivia. Also, the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba indicated a concerted effort by the administration to deal with the eventual succession of the Castro regime to post-revolution officials. The administration hopes that increased trade with the U.S. and free exchange of ideas with expat Cubans in the U.S. will loosen the regime’s grip on power while easing the country into a capitalist and democratic government. Trump should continue these policies.
Outside of the successes on which to build, Trump has the opportunity to refocus Obama doctrine in Latin America, which has proved a more reactive than strategic approach. The administration’s handling of the disastrous situation in Venezuela and related humanitarian crisis is questionable, with the only reaction being to place a handful of Maduro’s government on the U.S. sanctioned persons list. Additionally, the administration has not formulated a comprehensive strategic approach to the security situation in Mexico and Central America, simply choosing to continue with the struggling Merida Initiative and allowing individual agencies to pursue pet projects to curb gang violence and drug trafficking. The result is a continued northward mass migration of people fleeing the chaotic violence. Perhaps most critically, the administration has permitted China to exert significant influence in Latin America. Any traveler to Honduras, Panama or Argentina would find it difficult not to notice the number of Chinese trade groups, businesses, schools and government assistance projects that are propagating in Latin America. The sheer amount of Chinese investment makes it clearly obvious that Latin America is a clear priority for China while the U.S. has chosen to focus its foreign policy strategy on other regions. Allowing unfettered Chinese influence in the America’s symbolic backyard could prove a historic mistake in the years and decades to come.
Trump should make Latin America a priority and mandate a comprehensive strategy from his Western Hemisphere team. He can key in on the successes and failures of the Obama administration to formulate a plan that aggressively focuses on free trade and economic inclusion in addition to ensuring a long-term strategy to deal with the security and humanitarian crises that are at the root of many domestic problems. The Trump administration should be prepared to take advantage of the swing of the pendulum as Latin American countries abandon leftist principles in favor of capitalism while checking China’s influence in the region. Needless to say, selective amnesia of the policy proposals espoused from the campaign would prove helpful as well.