How President Trump Could Endanger The Planet

The businessman’s worldview and campaign promises may undo decades of global alliances and trade agreements, and create new conflicts

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Nov 11, 2016 at 4:02 PM ET

Throughout his months of campaigning, Donald Trump would lay out a position on policy and then walk it back, sometimes in the very next sentence. But many observers who’ve studied the business tycoon’s statements before he even announced his readiness to run for president say that his attitude has largely stayed the same over decades. When it comes to the rest of the world, the president-elect favors less intervention, fewer trade agreements, and a version of ‘pay to play’ for international allies at war.

Here’s what that could look like for the world.

As he begins his transition to the White House and populates his administration with largely conservative, even hawkish officials, Trump is expected to re-assess many of those alliances, along with trade agreements he has routinely criticized during the campaign. The Iran nuclear accord, which he has described as “stupid” and a “lopsided disgrace,” will be scrutinized to see how it can be strengthened or restricted or even re-negotiated.

There is NATO, where U.S. forces man bases throughout Europe to guard against Russian expansionism, and there is America’s navy, deployed around the world in seas that are contentious, costly and yet critical. But Trump may choose to change that.

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“Make Japan, Saudi Arabia and others pay for the protection we extend them as allies,” wrote Donald Trump in a full-page ad that ran in The New York Times in 1987. America’s longstanding security blanket for the Gulf states for example, “has been costing this nation in terms of the economy, deficit and taxes,” the ad, titled: ‘There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure.’

“He has said that the U.S. has no strategic interest in being in Asia militarily. He said NATO’s original mission is obsolete, so he doesn’t seem to see any need for the U.S. to be forwardly present, and he’s said that the U.S. should only do that if others pay,” said Thomas Wright, a foreign policy expert at Brookings to The Atlantic. “If he was to go to the Germans or the Japanese and demand hundreds of billions of dollars a year, they would not be able or willing to do that. And that would give him a pretext to unilaterally suspend [security] guarantees or simply say he wouldn’t uphold them.”

Wright recounts an interview Trump gave Oprah Winfrey in 1988 in which he asked why Kuwaitis who “live like kings,” weren’t paying the U.S. 25 percent of what they were making, even though “we make it possible for them to sell their oil.” “It’s a much more imperial version of U.S. hegemony,” Wright remarked.

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Trump essentially echoed those statements throughout his campaign and reiterated in his acceptance speech in the early hours of Wednesday after he’d clinched the electoral college votes necessary to win.

“We will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us,” Trump told the cheering crowd. “America will no longer settle for anything less than the best,” he said, before adding: “I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone, with everyone – all people and all other nations. We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.”

In the heady hours following the results, world leaders conveyed their congratulations to Trump with a mixture of pleasant surprise (Russian President Vladimir Putin), to measured conciliatory gestures (UK Prime Minister Theresa May) to reminders of global obligations (German Chancellor Angela Merkel). To Trump, the message from most leaders was clear: uphold agreements, honor alliances, and stand up for humanity.

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Trump’s past praise for Putin may complicate his relationship with European leaders. In a statement from the Kremlin, Putin reportedly “expressed hope for joint work to restore Russian-American relations from their state of crisis, and also to address pressing international issues and search for effective responses to challenges concerning global security.” If Trump wants to turn a page in Russian-American relations, might he be tempted to push for an easing of the sanctions for Putin’s annexation of Crimea? Any placating of Putin would come at a cost to European stability and Trump will have to weigh those concerns against his own goals and ambitions for the region and the world.

One area, however, where Trump may choose to escalate rather than scale down, would be in the fight against the Islamic State. “Immediately after taking office, I will ask my generals to present me with a plan within 30 days to defeat and destroy ISIS,” Trump said in September. He has never articulated a strategy to fight the terror group, but has vowed to “crush ISIS” and to do so quickly. Syrian President Bashar Assad has already said he is “ready to collaborate” with the incoming Commander-in-Chief; the Syrian leader has always maintained that his war has been against ‘terrorists’ in his country, something Trump has echoed, even though Assad’s enemies include Syrian rebels who are also fighting ISIS.

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There are trade agreements Trump has vowed to upend and tariffs he plans to charge on Chinese goods. He has threatened to leave the North America Free Trade Agreement if Mexico refuses to renegotiate. Trump has railed against the billions of dollars in cash remittances that are sent over the border every year by Mexican immigrants, and has said he’ll slap tariffs on imported goods. The news of his election sent the peso into a downward spiral. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is all but dead in the water now.

Another critical global concern that a Trump presidency now imperils is the environment. Just over four years ago Trump tweeted: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He has since promised to “rescind all job-destroying Obama executive actions … including the Climate Action Plan.” He may pare back America’s efforts to cut emissions as per the Paris accords signed last December by 195 countries.

The best indicators for now of how a Trump presidency will look are the people he chooses to place in key positions such as defense and national security. Hawks like Sen. Jeff Sessions and Newt Gingrich are being tapped for major roles in a Trump administration. In a throwback to the defense spending largesse seen under President George W. Bush, defense companies are already enjoying a boost on international markets, “a sign of early investor confidence that the Republican control of the White House and both chambers of Congress will mean boom times for the military-industrial complex.”