Foreign policy issues, with enemies and allies, will follow Trump in 2020
President Trump knows he faces an election in 2020, but he seems less aware of the many foreign policy challenges coming his way, most likely pitching up at the White House before Americans go to the polls in November.
President Obama told Trump that North Korea would be his major world problem, a prediction that seems to have been prescient. North Korea is a hearty perennial of crises; it has bedeviled American presidents since Harry Truman. But Trump is the first to have suggested, despite evidence to the contrary, that he has solved it, boasting of his tacit agreement with Kim Jong Un for a moratorium on testing of longer-range missiles and nuclear devices as if this solved the problem. The moratorium, such as it is, came at a heavy price, with the president canceling joint military exercises with South Korea and ending the effort to isolate the North Korean regime.
In the meantime, North Korea has engaged in a vigorous development program, apparently unencumbered by any agreement between Trump and Kim, and now is on the cusp of fielding reliable long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. President Trump and his team should know that testing is just one aspect of weapons program development, and that all signs point to a robust — and even accelerating — North Korean weapons programs unless the issue is approached with more consistency, less banality, and much more honesty.
Another major challenge for Trump is China itself. That the North Koreans have, thus far, failed to follow through on their threat to send the United States a Christmas present — perhaps a test of a new-generation long-range missile — probably is related to Chinese diplomacy. The Chinese have made clear that their ability to affect North Korea’s behavior is far more limited than Washington punditry suggests. That said, they have had some success in one-off diplomatic efforts to tell the North Koreans not to do something, especially weapons tests. The Trump team should pursue this confluence of interests more openly and aggressively.
The overall U.S.-China relationship is indeed in trouble, but for an administration that seemingly cannot make a move without increasing America’s political divide, the one area where the Trump administration enjoys bipartisan support is in its get-tough policy toward China. That may change if Trump taps the tariff well too often and begins to affect politically sensitive segments of the U.S. economy. For its part, China has not thought through the implications of having simultaneously bad relations with many U.S. constituencies — Republicans, Democrats, the media, organized labor, business interests, think tanks and thought leaders of all persuasions.
The special challenge in 2020 will be China’s handling of Hong Kong, whose political turmoil seems to have no end and, for now, no real solution. It is a mutual challenge for the two countries — for China, in how it manages the problems and, for the U.S., in how it responds to China. President Trump needs to understand that the challenge of dealing with China did not start with him. He can deride his predecessors in office all he wants, starting with Richard Nixon’s opening to China, but all those presidents tended to find a way forward with China. They protected vital America’s interests and looked for patterns of cooperation that could create the basis for more of the same.
Loose talk about “decoupling” and confrontation is unlikely to make for a safer world in 2020 or beyond, and in both tone and substance, the Trump team needs to summon the respect and nuance that dealing with the world’s largest country deserves. China is not going away; nor is U.S. policy likely to affect its inner dynamics. It is worth recalling Mao Zedong’s words to Nixon: “I’ve only been able to change a few things around Beijing.”
Difficult as the issues are in East Asia, they pale in comparison with the policy complexities of the Middle East. The era of two-stop shopping with Saudi Arabia and Israel seems to be coming to an end, as the Saudi crown prince struggles and Israel readies itself for a third election in little more than a year.
President Trump will have to decide how he wants to handle Iran. The best outcome would be for a return to some form of the Iran nuclear deal, but for Trump to return to that sensible, albeit imperfect, arrangement would be to endure the unendurable. Perhaps he should take inspiration from his North American trade policy (“the world’s worst,” he insisted), and make small but useful improvements on the margin and market it as a whole new product.
In 2020, Afghanistan also is headed to a rendezvous with destiny, probably including some kind of accommodation with the Taliban. This is truly a nose-holding prospect, but the alternatives seem to be even harder to identity. The issue is not likely to be in abeyance through 2020. Trump already has ordered deep cuts in U.S. troop strength, a decision many Americans welcomed, but one that is likely to lengthen the odds of a peace agreement.
President Trump has correctly sensed the mood of his base and of many other Americans in condemning “forever wars.” But he should understand that there are more policy choices than just quick-fix military solutions and lengthy wars. He seems to have launched a forever war of his own on America’s professional diplomats at a time when he needs them the most. In Syria, the U.S. may want to pivot to some kind of dialogue, if not cooperation, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and begin to challenge the Russians for influence in Damascus and consolidate the gains against ISIS. But will he respect the work of the diplomats who engage on the issue?
In 2020, the Islamic State either will be reconstituted or will go into long-term hibernation. To a great extent, what comes to pass will depend on the effort America is willing to put forth. President Trump has effectively orphaned two major U.S. foreign policy classes, the neo-conservatives and their fellow travelers and the liberal interventionists, both of whom saw America’s destiny as tied to repeated interventions. He needs to replace them with realists and pragmatists and make clear that he has a direction to what he is doing.
In Europe, where the preponderance of America’s allies reside, Trump’s pugilism has been most in evidence, and his popularity the weakest. Napoleon once quipped that his greatest strength was that he had no allies. Trump should try to resist that temptation and understand that friends and allies can extend his reach, rather than constrain him. Ultimately, this may be his greatest challenge, ensuring that his “America first” agenda does not become “America alone.”
The coming year will be a tough one as these issues come home to roost. The president would do well to understand that it is better not to face them alone.
Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador including to South Korea in 2004-05. He served as the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs 2005-09 and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-08. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.
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