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reflections

Nov 9, 2016 | 06:05 GMT

5 mins read

Foreign Policy From the Fertile Plains

Foreign Policy From the Fertile Plains
(CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The votes are in. The election is over. Donald J. Trump is the next president of the United States.

The amount of vitriol that flooded this campaign season will leave much of America with a heavy hangover Wednesday morning. But many can agree that the democratic experience itself, no matter how clumsy and how bizarre, is still something to marvel at. This was an election that brought a significant number of Americans out to vote. The intensity of the debate and the drama of the election night itself has compelled the New Yorker-reading, craft beer-drinking technologist in San Francisco to consider what the Breitbart-reading, firearm-carrying Wal-Mart cashier in Wilmington thinks and cares about. Whether this election was about preserving one's worldview against demographic and technological odds or about propelling one's worldview against a wave of nativism, a vote is still a very personal and thus emotional act.

The great English geopolitical thinker Sir Halford Mackinder once said, "Democracy implies rule by consent of the average citizen who does not view things from hilltops, for he must be at his work in the fertile plains. There is no good railing at the characteristics of popular government, for they are its qualities and no mere defects."

Mackinder was stressing that politics is ultimately local, in the sense that people will vote largely based on their own personal situation — the security of their job, education for their children, religious beliefs, views of social justice, and so on. Stratfor has been focused on the implication of this election for U.S. foreign policy, but people are not necessarily going to base their vote on a grand strategic vision of the United States and its place in the international system. The Colombians who voted against the deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were not voting against peace and economic prosperity for Colombia, but for stronger justice against criminals who terrorized their country for decades. Britons who voted for the Brexit were not voting to maintain London's competitiveness as a financial center; they were voting to limit the number of foreigners moving into their neighborhoods.

The chaos of these election campaigns is also the very nature of democracy. It is a form of governance that may not lend itself to long-term strategic planning, but it does have a built in a system of checks and balances for course correction, whether in two years in midterm congressional elections, four years in the next presidential vote, or in the more regular interplay among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. From the hilltops, the issues that drive many voters can appear illogical, but from the fertile plains, this is a rational vote about the issues people see shaping their lives.

With Trump set to sit in the Oval Office and Congress under the Republican Party's control, the focus will increasingly shift from the fertile plains to the hilltops approaching inauguration day. Conflicts are converging in multiple parts of the world and will demand the attention — and strategic vision — of the president and his administration.

Prolonged uncertainty over Trump's likely policy moves on everything from renegotiating NAFTA to trade policy with China will roil markets for some time, with the Mexican peso taking the heaviest battering. Even as progress is made in degrading the Islamic State core, a grassroots terrorist threat will persist, and a territorial scramble charged with ethno-sectarianism will preserve militancy as a profession in the most volatile parts of the Middle East. Skepticism over the Iranian nuclear deal in Washington will be met with a hard-liner campaign in Tehran, stressing the deal in the short term but not necessarily destroying it outright. As the specter of another Turkish-Russian collision on the Syrian battlefield looms, Russia has plenty of options — including escalating proxy conflicts, nuclear and cyber threats, or fortifying nationalist forces in a fragmented Europe — to raise the stakes in the enduring standoff with the West. A fragmented Europe along with a potentially more conciliatory U.S. foreign policy stance toward Russia would give Moscow the opportunity to negotiate an easing of sanctions and limits to NATO's encroachment in the former Soviet space. Asian allies doubting the firmness of U.S. security guarantees, exacerbated by a stalemated Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, will steer toward unilateral action, with the stronger bolstering their own militaries and the weaker striking deals bilaterally with Beijing.

The United States will not be able to manage this foreign policy burden alone, and the weakening of its security architecture overseas will only add to this burden.

This election is thus the ultimate test, not only of democracy, but of geopolitical theory. Even as the presidency has more leeway in steering foreign policy than in domestic matters, the checks and balances in the U.S. system will constrain dramatic swings in policy. A Republican Congress will be especially mindful of U.S. military commitments and alliances abroad. Rhetoric on throwing out "terrible" deals and negotiating new ones will inevitably come up against strategic constraints, such as the high cost of the United States reopening a front with Iran while dealing with a host of other crises, the steep demands adversaries such as Russia and China will exact in negotiations, and the vulnerability of allies in strategic theaters where U.S. security guarantees are no longer worth what they once were. 

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