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Foreign Policy

The Middle East Under Trump

Feb 22 , 2017
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The world entered the year of 2017 with everybody talking about US President Donald Trump. It is widely believed that Trump will bring uncertainty to almost every part of the world, including the Middle East. While many are talking about Trump’s Muslim ban and its implications on the relations between the US and Middle Eastern Muslim countries, the biggest change in the Middle East under Trump might be the change of regional geopolitical landscape.

There has been a kind of geopolitical structure in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War, and it was Washington and its Western allies that had created and dominated the structure. The US had been sitting on the top of the structure while major regional players were divided into two groups, “moderates” and “radicals”, according to their policy toward the US The moderates included GCC countries, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority, and the said radicals included Saddam’s Iraq, Qaddafi’s Libya, Iran and Palestinian Hamas.

Though the US will still be a major player in the region politically, economically and militarily, yet the structure with US unilateral dominance will gradually lapse into history. Actually, it is not Trump but Barack Obama who has scaled back the US role and presence in the Middle East. Barack Obama during his presidency had begun withdrawal from the Middle East. Obama decided to withdraw from Iraq, to participate in but not lead the war in Libya, to act cautiously on Syrian issue and to negotiate a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue.

Though Obama had already begun US withdrawal from the region, America’s role will be less substantial during Trump’s presidency. Firstly, the US will predictably reduce its strategic presence in the Middle East. Trump has been frequently talking about “America first”, which is partly rightly interpreted as isolationism: Trump will further reduce America’s economic and military investments in the Middle East.

Second, Trump’s policy toward the region will worsen its relations with some Middle East countries. Trump’s talking about moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem greatly angered Middle East Muslim countries; so did Trump’s executive order of banning Muslim travelling to the U.S. Trump’s talk about renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal disrupted the détente that Barack Obama had begun with Iran. All of these antagonizing behaviors will further reduce America’s influence in the region.

America’s decline will also be accelerated by the recent failure in its geopolitical competition with Russia. The Syrian issue is basically a geopolitical competition between the US and Russia, and while there is no comparison with the U.S. in terms of comprehensive power, Russia did win out in Syria: Syrian government forces supported by Russia took all major Syrian cities including Aleppo. Russia has been more than willing to invest its strategic resources since Russia regards Syria as pivotal in its regional and even global strategy, while the US does not consider Syria to be its top strategic priority.

Though Russia’s role should not be overestimated, its rise as a major player has already reshaped the regional geopolitical landscape, and will have profound implications in the region. Or to put it another way, the U.S. will not be the single most important geopolitical player in the region, and region will be shaped by geopolitical co-existence of Russia and the US It seems that President Trump does not wish to challenge Russia’s growing influence in the region.

This kind of structure might in some way benefit the region for peace and stability. Under this structure, US unilateralism in the region will be more or less contained and restricted. Though upholding the banner of democracy, humanitarianism and human rights, the US has actually proved to be a destructive actor in the region in the last decade by wars and by supporting oppositions. Though the US will further withdraw from the region, it always has impetus to militarily intervene into internal affairs of the region and regional countries, which will still be potential challenge to regional stability.

It’s true that Russia’s strategic behavior had always been questioned in the West, sometimes reasonably but some other times not reasonably. But in the Middle East, Russia, together with China, France and Germany, had been fiercely opposed to the Iraq war in 2003; Russia also stood strongly for respecting sovereignty of Libya and Syria.

However, uncertainties will remain since this new structure still features the active strategic presence of external powers, while the roles of regional actors are still secondary or even marginal. It is believed that regional peace and stability will not come unless regional players deal with regional affairs in a coordinated and cooperative way. If Russia’s role does not serve to promote constructive cooperation among regional actors, it will be detrimental to regional stability.

Some people talked that as a consequence of America’s withdrawal, China might fill in the vacuum, and replace America’s leadership. It is certainly not true. As mentioned above, Russia, not China, will enhance its strategic presence in the region. China could grow to be more important an actor in economic issues. China would also be a more important provider of security resources under the UN framework.

But unlike the US and Russia, China does not have interest in joining the geopolitical competition in the region. As President Xi Jinping said when visiting the Middle East in January 2016, China does not seek proxy relations in the region. China wants to build circles of friends with the Belt and Road Initiative.

All in all, with America further withdrawing during Trump’s presidency, the Middle East will have new geopolitical landscape with new complexity. It should be clear that China’s growing economic relations with the region should benefit the region, though it is still a question how soon and how much this relationship will enhance peace or stability.

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