Experts Dial in on Middle East Policy and Trans-Atlantic Cooperation in a New American Presidency

WASHINGTON, DC (January 13, 2017) – On Thursday, January 12, the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, DC hosted a 30-minute conference call with European and American experts to discuss the future of the Middle East on the heels of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. Listeners dialed in from around the world to hear perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic.Ambassador James Jeffrey, a distinguished fellow at Washington Institute, shared an American perspective on the subject. Jeffrey served as the US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, as well as the deputy national security advisor. Christian Hanelt, a senior expert on Europe and the Middle East at the Bertelsmann Stiftung offered his views from the German perspective, drawing on his recent paper in the Newpolitik series. Finally, Christian Koch, director of the Gulf Research Institute Foundation in Geneva shared a perspective from the Gulf.

Jeffrey described the Middle East as the Trump administration’s “biggest and most immediate challenge.” He argued that the new U.S. president will immediately need to devise a strategy regarding the Iran nuclear agreement and bring back an “alliance of friends” in the region. Although Trump’s strategy in the Middle East is not yet clear, Jeffrey asserted that he is surrounded by a strong team.

Some leaders in the Gulf hope for a “recalibration” with the Trump administration, which could include a hard line with Iran.

According to Koch, the Gulf states have been disappointed by Barack Obama’s presidency and will not be sad to see him leave office on January 20. While most have adopted a “wait and see approach,” some leaders in the Gulf hope for a “recalibration” with the Trump administration, which could include a hard line with Iran.

Despite anxieties about Trump’s presidency, German policymakers hope to maintain the country’s multilateral approach to the region, according to Hanelt. He outlined Germany’s central foreign policy priorities in the region, including addressing the root causes of migration, the fight against terrorism, UN diplomatic efforts, support of Arab societies in transition, and preserving relations with Turkey and Israel.

Jeffrey noted that the United States has been “giving up its strategic role as guarantor of the security system in a major and important part of the world,” for the first time since World War II. All of the speakers agreed that increased European or Gulf involvement in the Middle East is no substitute for continued U.S. engagement. According to Hanelt, Europeans will take on more responsibility – particularly in places like war-torn Libya and with the training of Kurdish Peshmerga forces – but this will not be enough. Koch argued that although Trump may expect the Gulf states to take the lead, Gulf states are waiting on Trump to act as well. Multilateral engagement, including the U.S. is required.

Listeners had the chance to pose questions to the speakers, on topics ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to Russian engagement in the Middle East.

Samia Yakub is the Communications Director at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, DC