5 most important trends to watch in foreign policy in 2020

Getty Images

These five trends in U.S. foreign policy merit attention in 2020 because they are changing the nature of our relations abroad. They may also cause the next foreign policy crisis for the U.S., so watch for them to be an issue in the presidential election. 

While foreign policy issues have not drawn much attention in the campaign so far, expect the 2020 candidates to be tested when overseas developments suddenly grab headlines. Candidates who are not prepared to address the fallout from these trends should be careful — They are in danger of being caught flat footed while on the campaign trail, and not looking up to the challenge of Commander in Chief.

  1. Increasing instability in nations paralyzed by mass protests

During the last several months, we’ve seen a sudden increase in countries engulfed by spontaneous protest movements. What seems different about these movements is they are manifested in years of disappointment with lack of political rights and corruption, rather than being driven by issue specific grievances which more easily dissipate. Once underway, the demonstrations have raged out of control, choking daily life and challenging U.S. relations with the country.

Already this trend has taken down the government of Iraq where the situation could lead to the first new foreign policy crisis of 2020, as pro-Iranian protesters attacked our heavily fortified embassy in Baghdad this week. It has also taken down the governments of Sudan and Bolivia and may collapse several more.

Circumstances are similar to the Arab Spring, which at the beginning of this decade caused social upheaval, revolution and civil war. But unlike the Arab Spring, which was confined to dictatorships in the Middle East, this protest wave is sweeping across a diverse array of countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa.   

The growing unrest poses a challenge for the U.S. — and for the 2020 presidential candidates — because it involves countries where we have too much at stake to ignore, such as in Iraq and Lebanon. Also, they are in our hemisphere, like Chile, Peru and Bolivia, or are in countries adversarial to the U.S., as in the protest movements in Hong Kong and Iran. 

In general, the U.S. must find a way to engage diplomatically to encourage reform, but also to maximize stability. One or more of these countries could descend into a violent civil war in 2020, precipitating a new diplomatic crisis for the U.S.

In Hong Kong and Iran, protests are both a threat and an opportunity. Although we must tread carefully, it would be a mistake to miss the chance to make clear we support political rights and freedoms sought by the protesters.    

  1. Withdrawal of U.S. troops deployed to combat terrorism

A second trend is materializing as Donald Trump pursues his campaign promise to withdraw from overseas military engagements. Two months ago, he suddenly withdrew U.S. special forces in Northern Syria who were fighting ISIS.

However, Trump has actually been increasing the overall number of troops overseas. For instance, he deployed 14,000 more troops to the Middle East in October to Saudi Arabia to deter Iranian aggression. 

Trump will continue to shift troop deployments in 2020 by withdrawing them from countries where we have a counterterrorism mission, as in Syria, and moving them into countries where he perceives strategic benefit, like Saudi Arabia.

He has also made clear he wants to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2020, a move that’s risky if he fails first to secure a deal with the Taliban that prevents them from reneging on their agreement to abandon terrorism. Expect Trump to pull troops out of other hot spots where the focus is on training local forces to fight terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. 

This shift could have consequences. It took only a few years from when President Obama pulled our troops from Iraq to when ISIS attacked. Watch in 2020 for a resurgence in the Middle East of ISIS or of ISIS’ affiliate, Boko Haram, in Africa. 

  1. More sanctions

Trump has demonstrated a preference for using sanctions to discourage support for terrorism, punish adversaries, and disincentivize corruption abroad. A study shows the U.S. added 3,100 people and entities to the sanctions list in Trump’s first 3 years as president. This is nearly as much as the 3,484 that George W. Bush added in his entire eight years in office. Look for this trend to increase in 2020.

For instance, Trump is reportedly weighing new sanctions on Iran and North Korea. Moreover, in several countries where Trump is resisting new sanctions, Congress is moving forward with its own regime. Last month the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill with robust restrictions on Turkey that is also supported overwhelmingly by House members. Congress is also moving forward with tough new sanctions on Russia, even as Trump opposes them.

As the Trump administration and Congress enact new sanctions regimes, there will be a consequent strain on U.S. relations abroad, especially with countries not currently under sanctions, such as Turkey. In 2020, the increasing use of sanctions will create new tensions that will test U.S. diplomacy and increase compliance risk for businesses operating globally.

  1. Less support for democracy abroad

No other trend in foreign policy constitutes a sharper turn away from the doctrine of past U.S. presidents than Trump’s skepticism toward supporting democracy abroad. 

In 2019, Trump questioned whether the U.S. should honor NATO’s mutual defense agreement, pondering if it was worth it to defend a NATO member like Montenegro if it came under attack. Meanwhile, he has praised nationalists in Hungary and Poland who have moved those countries away from democracy, while at the same time he has embraced the leaders in Russia, Philippines and Turkey as they have tightened the grip on their populace.

This change in U.S. policy is particularly momentous because it is happening as the commitment to democracy globally is under a decade-long decline: According to Freedom House, “[b]etween 2005 and 2018, the share of ‘Not Free’ countries rose to 26 percent, while the share of ‘Free’ countries declined to 44 percent.”

In 2020, expect Trump to continue to demonstrate the U.S. does not support policies simply because they spread democracy.

If Trump lends support to the pro-democracy protesters in places like Hong Kong, Iran or Venezuela, it will be for reasons he deems in our national interest for other reasons, not to help advance the march toward freedom.

  1. Increase in trade disputes

Although protection of democracy does not galvanize Trump, trade imbalances do.

Nations where Trump feels he can leverage better deals will face U.S. animus, while countries with favorable trading relationships will continue to reap U.S. rewards.

As 2019 closes, we are nearing trade deals with Canada and Mexico and also China, but Trump has sparked new trade wars with unlikely targets in Argentina, Brazil, France and Japan. Argentina and Brazil were caught off guard last month when Trump suddenly threatened new tariffs on steel and aluminum from those countries — even though they had a 2018 deal to accept quotas on their materials shipped to the U.S. instead of tariffs. Japan, which expects new limited trade deals with the U.S. to go into effect imminently, still faces the possibility of Trump following through on threats to issue new U.S. tariffs on Japanese auto imports.

In 2020, expect the U.S. to initiate new trade disputes eclipsing our diplomatic initiatives and causing uncertainty for companies engaged in commerce in the nations involved.

These are the trends that will matter in 2020.

The presidential candidates vying for election in the fall must be prepared to discuss how the U.S. will maneuver through new and thorny challenges created by these trends.

David Tafuri is an international lawyer who served as the U.S. Department of State’s Rule of Law Coordinator for Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the height of the war in Iraq. He was also an outside foreign policy adviser to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. He appears frequently on CNN, FOX News, BBC and other networks. Follow him on Twitter @DavidTafuri.

Tags 2020 election China Donald Trump Foreign policy of Donald Trump Foreign policy of the United States Russia

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video