So now we know. Sometime after the presidential inauguration on January 20, America’s new commander-in-chief will take his seat in the Oval Office for the first time. Donald Trump will sit back, survey the room where so much history has taken place and then, somehow, make his mark on the world.
To say that the 45th president of the United States is something a little different is the understatement of the century. He is the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower never to have previously held elected office – and Eisenhower’s military career was very different from Trump’s journey through real estate development and reality television.
Trump will be inheriting a country more divided than at any point in its recent history, perhaps since the American Civil War. He will also be taking the helm at a time when global geopolitical tensions are growing fast.
In her bid for the presidency, Hillary Clinton based much of her campaign around pointing out these problems. At a time of so much risk, she argued, America needed an expert, someone deeply versed in the intricacies of how Washington and international diplomacy worked. The American electorate thought differently, and now it’s down to Trump.
How will he handle it? The clues so far are mixed at best. Clearly, he’s a man with considerable confidence in his own abilities, and he will certainly want to feel presidential. Acting that way, however, might require a rather abrupt change of style. Will he continue tweeting whatever he thinks, even as he talks to fellow world leaders? It’s entirely possible, but he may also choose to take a rather more conventional approach.
World leaders will want to talk – indeed, many will start reaching out over the next few weeks. Most have kept their distance as much as possible during the campaign. Some will still see him as politically toxic. But now they have no choice but to engage, and in the corridors of power across much of the rest of the world officials will be frantically trying to work out what that might look like.
Even Russian President Vladimir Putin might not know quite where this is going. If U.S. officials are to be believed, his intelligence services may have actively intervened in the election to try and help Trump – or perhaps more accurately, to stop Hillary Clinton. But that doesn’t mean he will know how relations with the notoriously unpredictable mogul turned politician will ultimately work out.
Given their high-profile “bromance” – or at least overlapping interests and self regard – there might be genuine “reset” of relations with Moscow. Trump, though, is a man reputed to often fall out with friends and partners and then hold a serious grudge. Things could go in any number of directions.
America’s allies are already openly nervous, particularly in Europe and Asia where Trump has accused regional powers of leaving too much of their own defense to the United States. He may yet be open to cutting deals with both Moscow and Beijing that would be rather friendlier to their regional aspirations. But he will also want to look tough. He prides himself on unpredictability – not necessarily a particularly positive trait at a time when the risk of nuclear war between rival superpowers is on the rise.
Traditionally, an openness to trade has been one of the key safety valves that keeps major states from fighting. Trump, however, may have little choice but to make good on his promises to clamp down on Chinese imports and what he has branded currency manipulation. That will hardly make matters better.
America is deeply entrenched in multiple conflicts in the Middle East, and it is far from clear how he will handle them. He’s expressed a preference for tougher military action against Islamic State but less in the way of nation-building, while talk of torture and extradition killings has clearly unnerved the military. Those issues will be coming across his desk from day one, and he will need to decide fast how to tackle them.
Top of the priority list will be Syria. Trump is perhaps more likely to give Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a free hand, at least for now. In the long run, though, he may yet end up being sucked into the region like so many of his predecessors.
Had Clinton won the White House, one of her challenges would have been whittling down the hundreds if not thousands of potential advisors who spent the campaign jostling for a role in her administration. Trump, if anything, faces the opposite challenge – although now that he has the job, he may find a range of Republican figures are more willing to return his calls.
Working with them, however, would require yet another change of style. Trump is known for operating with only a tiny cell of advisors and acolytes. That’s not necessarily impossible to manage in the White House, but it would inevitably mean that multiple issues would simply get ignored.
There is also, unfortunately, the minor issue that roughly half his own population and much of the rest of the world have extremely negative perceptions of him, viewing him at best as a narcissistic bully and at worst as extremely dangerous. Promising to act as a president to “all Americans” in his acceptance speech might have been a start to closing that gap, but it will take much more.
Those who did vote for Trump clearly hope he will be able to solve many of the intractable problems that communities have faced. Working-class white voters in particular simply don’t like the way the country has changed, perhaps most particularly the shift in its ethnic makeup. Acknowledging their concerns without becoming even more divisive will be tough – not least because Trump’s campaign has done so much to heighten those divisions.
The new president will have to handle all these problems from day one. It’s in everyone’s interest that he does so well. For if his victory shows nothing else, it is that nothing is truly unthinkable in this unstable modern era.
About the Author
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters. Since 2016, he he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.