Munich Security Report 2017

United States: Trump’s Cards

“Who plays cards where you show everybody the hand before you play it?,” Donald Trump said in January 2017 as he explained why he would not yet discuss specific foreign policy plans.1 For US allies, statements such as this can lead to both hope and worry. The hope is that Trump is trying to keep as many options and bargaining chips as possible, but that the cards he chooses to play may not be as disruptive or confrontational as feared. The worries are that Trump will embark on a foreign policy based on superficial quick wins, zero-sum games, and mostly bilateral transactions – and that he may ignore the value of international order building, steady alliances, and strategic thinking. Or, maybe worse, that he sees foreign and security policy as a game to be used whenever he needs distractions for domestic political purposes. 

In terms of his priorities, Trump has stressed repeatedly that fighting jihadist groups, especially Daesh, is his security policy priority. But little else is clear. “Mr. Trump’s unpredictability is perhaps his most predictable characteristic,” Steven Erlanger writes. “No one knows where exactly he is headed – except that the one country he is not criticizing is Russia […]. For now.”2 However, that does not mean Trump lacks core beliefs. In fact, he has consistently held key convictions about America’s role in the world since the 1980s: he has long been a critic of America’s security alliances, saying the US pays a lot for them without getting nearly enough in return. He has frequently opposed US trade deals and argued in favor of tariffs. He has often spoken favorably of authoritarian leaders in other countries.3 Thus, “America First” will likely mean a resolutely unilateralist foreign policy – and a foreign policy in which values do not matter much. 

“On the biggest question of all, from which everything else flows, the question of US responsibility for global order, [Trump] clearly has little interest in continuing to shoulder that burden. […] The US is, for now, out of the world order business.”

19 NOVEMBER 2016

What is uncertain is how Trump’s core beliefs will translate into policy (and whether policies will be coherent). Is NATO “obsolete” or “very important” (Trump has said both)? Does the US no longer care whether the European Union provides stability throughout the continent – or will the US even actively undermine the EU? How close will the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia actually be, considering widely differing positions held by key advisors? Will Trump risk a trade war with China or even a military confrontation in the Pacific? How much deviation from fundamental conservative foreign policy principles will Congressional Republican leaders accept? The consequences for the international order could be tremendous: if the US does retreat, vacuums will be filled by other actors. Key institutions will be weakened, spoilers will be emboldened. And some US allies may see no alternative than to start hedging by seeking out new partners. Others will try to convince the new administration that the US-led alliances continue to be a good deal for Washington – and that there is inherent value in long-term commitments.4 After all, successful deals are based on trust, which requires some predictability and is often strongest between countries sharing common values – not between opportunistic leaders. A unilateralist Trump administration may find that it has a different hand than it currently thinks. And once cards are on the table, you cannot pretend you never played them. 


  1. “Full Transcript of the Interview With Donald Trump,” The Times, 16 January 2017, http://www.thetimes.
  2. Steven Erlanger, “As Trump Era Arrives, a Sense of Uncertainty Grips the World,” The New York Times, 16 January 2017,
  3. Thomas Wright, “Trump’s 19th Century Foreign Policy. His Views Aren’t as Confused as They Seem. In Fact, They’re Remarkably Consistent – And They Have a Long History,” Politico, 20 January 2016,
  4. Max Fisher and Sergio Peçanha, “What the US Gets for Defending Its Allies and Interests Abroad,” The New York Times, 16 January 2017,
  5. Robert Kagan, “Trump Marks the End of America as World’s ‘Indispensable Nation.’ President-elect Has Little Interest in Shouldering the Burden of Global Order,” Financial Times, 19 November 2016,
  6. Dina Smeltz et al., “America in the Age of Uncertainty. American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy,” Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, October 2016,, p. 29. 
  7. For quotes of Donald J. Trump, see (as listed in text box, from top to bottom) Donald J. Trump, “Donald J. Trump Foreign Policy Speech,” 27 April 2016, trump-foreign-policy-speech (first two points); Daniella Diaz, “Trump Suggests He Would Be Open to Lifting Sanctions on Russia,” CNN, 14 January 2017,; John Wagner, “Trump on Alleged Election Interference by Russia: ‘Get on With Our Lives’,” The Washington Post, 29 December 2016,; Donald J. Trump, Twitter, 13 January 2017, For quote of Michael Flynn, see Dana Priest, “Trump Adviser Michael T. Flynn on His Dinner With Putin and Why Russia Today Is Just Like CNN,” The Washington Post, 15 August 2016, For quotes of James Mattis, see James T. Mattis, “Nomination Hearing Statement,” United States Armed Services Committee, 12 January 2017, .pdf; Michael R. Gordon and Helene Cooper, “James Mattis Strikes Far Harsher Tone Than Trump on Russia,” The New York Times, 12 January 2017, For quote of Rex Tillerson, see Rex Tillerson, “Senate Confirmation Hearing Opening Statement,” United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 11 January 2017, For quote of Mike Pompeo, see Ashley Killough, “Trump’s CIA Pick: Russian Hacking ’Aggressive Action’ by Senior Leaders,” CNN, 12 January 2017, For quote of Nikki Haley, see Julian Borger, “Nikki Haley Opposes Trump's Views on Russia at Confirmation Hearing,” The Guardian, 18 January 2017, For quote of Mike Pence, see Tal Kopan, “Mike Pence Defends Donald Trump Comments on Vladimir Putin: ‘Inarguable’,” CNN, 9 September 2016,