The Evolving Strategic Map: Challenges for the Trump Administration

By Robbin Laird and Kenneth Maxwell

The strategic certainties and alliances of the post Cold War world are all now facing severe challenges. The certainties of the period of globalization are clearly contested on many fronts.

The causes of this crisis are multiple. Some see the causes as originating in the imperial overreach of the United States in the Middle East. Others blame the imperial overreach of Europe to the borders of Russia. Some blame Russia and Putin for the seizure of the Crimea.

But these causes will be the subject for future historians.

What is clear now is that a new phase is beginning which requires clear headed analysis. The tectonic plates are shifting and the United States needs to think carefully about the prospects and consequences of these profound changes between (and within) nations, and how best to respond to this new world order (or disorder).

Many of these changes were already underway before 2017. But this is most especially the major international challenge facing the new Trump administration.

But for now what is clear is that security threats have unleashed national reactions with various nations seeking to rebalance their position in the global order, and seeking to work with clusters of either like minded states, or with states capable of providing key needs.

It is not exactly the return of nationalism, for that has not been absent in any case, but is clearly the return of security and defense concerns as a priority, and these concerns are always led by states seeking allies, partners or friends, or “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” types of partners.

And of course, key elements of global reach will remain relevant in the new situation, such as the reach of global information, cyber threats, and information war, as key interactive tools, which will be as disruptive as they are binding.  And the reach of global information into sub-regional groups can well lead to new types of disintegration and integration as well.

These trends were underway before the election of Donald Trump. But the trends are clearly affected by him and will provide a significant challenge to his Administration as it seeks to protect or advance American interests in the new global situation.


We can start with Brexit which clearly has been generated by security concerns unleashed by open borders and concerns about the perceived roles of the European Court and the Commission in making rules without regard to British national interests.  The “democratic deficit” in Europe, and the often low quality of who get high ranking jobs in the Commission have been met by the referendum vote for Britain to exit the European Union.

It is clear, however, that even when Article 50 is invoked it will be a complicated process to determine what exactly Brexit will mean. And these negotiations will clearly be affected by the dynamic and fluid set of affairs on the Continent itself.

And with the possibility of another Scottish referendum it is not impossible to image that Scotland becomes independent and “little” England on its own seeking to sort out its post-Brexit future.

The prospect for a United Ireland has also returned.  The possibility of a post-Brexit “hard” border returning between the Irish republic, an EU member, and Northern Ireland, is already causing deep concern. Northern Ireland is currently without a devolved government, and a return to the bitter tribal politics of the past there should not be discounted.

The Euro, the European Union and “Multi-Speed” Europe

Clearly one of the major domestic challenges in almost all the western nations is the continuing “democratic deficit” that is the alienation of many segments of the population which have be adversely impacted by globalization and post industrialization. The critical role of the upper mid-western states in the victory of Trump, and the rise in support for the anti-EU and anti-Muslim “National Front” of Marine Le Pen in France, and the support for Brexit in the U.K.  are  all part of this new wave.

But how to respond to the root causes of this alienation from mainstream politics and politicians is not at all clear.  This is clearly one of the major challenges for the future within many western democracies.

The impact of Brexit, and profound security and economic concerns among the populations of European states, are leading to significant pressures for change. The euro-club is unlikely to expand, and open borders will end to all intents and purposes.

The European market already hardly an open one, so that renegotiation with Britain will raise again fundamental questions of support for special interests such as French and German farming and many other protected sectors in the European Union.  It is quite likely that the European Union will come to resemble what President Trump called it, namely the European consortium.

But clearly key states will try to sort out ways to work more effectively together to protect perceived national interests, but this is already very different from the multi-national structures dominated by the Commission in the globalization phase.

And key states outside of the European Union, namely Russia, China and Iran, will enhance their roles in dealing with individual states to seek ways to enhance their interests globally, supported by various bilateral agreements or investments as well.


The war of words between the Turkish leader and Europeans is simply the more obvious shift in the President of Turkey’s approach to shape in effect a more Islamic state which can provide for leadership in the Middle East and work with other global powers outside of Europe to enhance his position in the region.

Turkey has already ramped up its defense industrial relations in the region and has become a source for arms in the region as well.

And will play off the United States, China and Russia to enhance Turkey’s power in the region.

ISIS is seen as a useful de-facto ally of Turkey in dealing with the Kurdish threat as the leaders of Turkey sees it.

Not only is Turkey not going to be a member of the European Union but its role in NATO is clearly in question as well.


With the focus of attention in the 2016 Presidential campaign on Mexico, it is clear that the alliance between the two countries forged during the globalization phase is on the rocks.  Mexican leaders are reaching out to China as well as to other Latin American leaders to provide new sources of revenue, raw materials and diplomatic support.

Mexico has often been a security threat to the United States in the 19th Century and was seen by the Nazis in World War II as a soft underbelly for the United States. And of course significant parts of the United States were once part of Mexico, something which Americans forget but the Mexicans do not.

With the NAFTA agreements Mexican elites tied their future to their North American neighbors. With the new US administration, Mexican elites are seeking to retreat from this position, and seek alternatives in a reshaped relationship with Latin America and receptiveness to new openings to China.

But with a wall, the blending of Mexicans in the United States and Mexicans living in Mexico is a significant one which create significant domestic political problems for the Administration. The drug cartels will find ways other than overcoming the wall to come into the United States.  This will be especially true if the USCG is really reduced to the extent envisaged in the Trump Administration budget, or by using pathways through Canada into the United States, as the Trudeau government is providing visa free travel from Mexico into Canada.

Dynamics are underway which can clearly change the nature of Mexico and its relationship to the United States which President Trump has not anticipated in his discussion of the future US-Mexican relationship.


The leader of China has consolidated his control over China and is certainly not going to wait while President Trump sorts out his strategy.  He is already shaping a global support for multilateralism Chinese style.  He put that clearly in play at this year’s Davos sessions and although one has to be a bit delusional to believe in Chinese multilateralism, what this means in reality is the Chinese offering an alternative to the Trump vision of trade and global economic relations.

It is a version of playing older style Americanism against the new style of Americanism.

The Role of the BRICS

How will the relationships among the BRIC states work out?

The notion of an alliance of major developing countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) was originally an economically motivated construct from Goldman Sachs British born chief economist. It has long since been superseded. Major rivalries between the BRICS remain, especially between India and China.

But the concept was given form in a series of summits between the leaders of the countries involved,  and they have also established a BRICS development bank to provide a rival (or at least an alternative) to the US and Western European led IMF and World Bank.

Russia is already a major supplier of arms to India. Brazil has signed a deal to provide a new generation of fighter jets with Sweden in preference to the US. Russia is also a major supplier of arms to Venezuela,

For China this is an important extra mechanism for its engagement especially in Brazil where China is already Brazil’s largest trading partner. And is becoming a major investor.

Political Corruption, Drug trafficking and International Criminal Networks

Even if explicit national recognition of globalization as a positive focus of inter-state agreements goes down, globalization will certainly continue at the sub-national level, notably with regard to cyber threats, drug trafficking, and movement of migrants.  For example, the international drug trade is not confined to “bad hombres” from Mexico.

Nor is the US the only market for illegal drugs.  With the putative peace Agreement in Colombia many of the drug traders in cocaine have continued with their links to international cartels,  not only via the Caribbean and Mexico and Venezuela, but also via the Brazil, the small west African nation of former Portuguese Guinea, and on into southern Europe, and into then into the UK and  North Western Europe.

The corruption endemic in all the countries on these route from South America, as well as the control by competing drug gangs in the South American favelas and on the street, and into the political, law enforcement, and judicial systems of all these countries, is a continuing, and largely hidden problem, which is presenting major border control problems for the Brazilian military for example on the far flung, riverine, jungle, and only partially controlled Amazonian frontiers of Brazil.

The Redrawing of Boundaries and Negative Globalization: The Case of the Middle East

The state boundaries established in the 1920s in the Middle East were also stakes in the sand. With the evolution of the new phase of the global order, these lines are very likely to be redrawn.

The fissures in the Middle East are creating new fault lines as well with the role of outside players being significant in playing upon those fault lines with new working relationships among powers in the region, state and non-state with external power actors, namely European states, the United States, China, and Russia.

Key players in the region are already redrawing on the ground the nature of power.  The dissolution of Iraq and Syria is well underway.  ISIS and the significant migratory pressures in the region represent what might be called negative globalization, namely the movement of threats and forces which have eroded the reality of state sovereignty in the region.

And the reach of Iran and Turkey from the two sides of the region is designed to augment their national influence and augments the dynamics of change in the effective meaning of sovereignty in the region.

The GCC states facing Iran, Turkey and ISIS and having several powers proactively acting in the region from the outside face internal and external pressures, which can easily lead to explosive pressures on these states.

In many ways, the new Middle East, which will emerge in the next few years, may be the clearest statement about what the new phase in global politics actually will look like.

Israel as the only democracy in the region faces significant pressures to defend its interests and will certainly rely heavily on the United States to provide for maneuver room while Israel finds its place in the evolving Middle East situation of maneuvering sovereignty and explosive negative globalization.

The Trump Administration and Its Way Ahead

There are many other fissures emerging in a dynamic process of disintegration of the old and forging of the new, notably in terms of old nemeses of the United States, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. But we can simply stop here for the moment and reflect upon the trends we have introduced in the paper and address the challenge for the way ahead for the Trump Administration.

What are the consequences for trade and the opportunities for China as a consequence of Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific trade deal negotiations? One aspect will be the question of how Australia and the east coast Latin American countries might seek new forms of engagement with each other.

The evolving strategic map raises a number of key questions.

What will new world “order” look like? What are the principal emerging clusters of power — political, economic, and military?

How serious is the domestic political crisis of western democracy? Is the West up to confronting these shifting military, strategic and economic challenges of a new global order and strategic map?

How dangerous is the threat of war? How dangerous is the threat from nuclear proliferation? If the threat of war is a real treat where will the spark most likely come from?  Estonia? Korea? Ukraine? Will it be conventional? How quickly might a war become nuclear?

How will the Russians play on the fissures in Europe and tensions between key European nations and the United States? What opportunities will emerge for the Russians? What threats can be generated by significant Russian miscalculation of varied Western responses to their actions?  If there is less Western cohesion, they may well be very different responses to which the Russians might clearly miscalculate.

The world which President Trump is facing is a very fluid one and one which is changing right before his eyes.  History will not stop while he sorts out his NAFTA negotiating strategy or figures out what to do with China.

His rhetoric and language has highlighted trends already underway but what is not clear is what will be his realistic policy responses?

Will there be a reworking of the US-Mexican relationship which can involve security and trade but is viewed by Mexico as equitable and far?

What will be his real policy towards Europe in terms of trade and defense and will there be a realistic understanding of how negative some of the far right players in Europe clearly are for American interests?  Any notion that Marie Le Pen is somehow Trump like needs to be clearly dealt with.

Brexit will be a difficult path to thread through a fluid and dynamically changing Europe, a Europe which remains central for the security, defense and prosperity for Britain.  What will be the Trump Administration policy towards Britain in a European context?

And China clearly needs to be dealt with.  It is a threat to US interests on many levels and the President clearly raised the level of interest in terms of dealing with these threats.  But there needs to be a global policy which deals with China in a broader context; it is not just about a trade negotiation.

There are many other issues and players to discuss, but what we have done here is simply to sketch how dramatic the changes underway are already.  And those changes will define the environment to which the Administration will need to shape and respond, not simply aspirations articulated during the campaign.


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