Nukes, drugs, and an enemies list: Reasons to be wary in 2019

As the White House and lawmakers knuckle down and get back to work after the holiday recess, they’ll encounter a number of foreign policy challenges as 2019 unfolds.

The list is formidable. These are just a few of them:

North Korea: Will Kim Jong Un completely denuclearize as promised in the June 12, 2018, summit with President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE? All indications are that North Korea will work hard to retain some nuclear weapons capability and to be accepted as a de facto nuclear weapons state, ideally with good relations with South Korea and the United States. Our challenge will be getting Kim to understand that the United States and international community will never accept North Korea as a nuclear state, despite the fact that the United States has normal relations with other rogue nuclear weapons states, such as Pakistan.  


It appears that Kim made the strategic decision to focus on North Korea’s weak economy — which means United Nations sanctions would have to be lifted and normal relations established with the United States, South Korea and the international community for access to financial institutions, trade and investment.

Currently, Kim knows this goal can be achieved only with denuclearization, which he knows means “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of his nuclear weapons and facilities. If we relent on this condition, and evince a willingness to accept an eventual freeze on the future production of nuclear weapons, rather than complete denuclearization, this is what North Korea will pursue, convinced that it will succeed.

China: The challenge will be to ensure there isn’t a new cold war, this time with China. There was an appreciable uptick in tension with China during 2018, with tariffs on $250 billion of imports from China and corresponding actions by Beijing on U.S. products in China. The imbalance of trade is emblematic of a bilateral relationship that includes a myriad of national security issues — such as China’s claim to sovereignty and its militarization of islands in the South China Sea, cyber crime and intellectual property theft, and restricting market access, to name just a few of the irritants that must be resolved.  

The irony is that the U.S.-China relationship, starting with Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform program in 1978, was at the core of China’s economic rise, with significant U.S. support and encouragement, to include China’s 2001 membership in the World Trade Organization. During that period, the United States and China cooperated on numerous national security issues, such as international terrorism and counter proliferation.

This type of cooperation is necessary in 2019, to address issues such as North Korea. But to do this well, cyber crime and the theft of intellectual property must stop, negotiations to resolve issues dealing with the South and East China Seas must be intensified, and greater transparency and cooperation on military, space and nuclear issues must be initiated, to ensure trust and confidence in this important relationship.


Russia: The challenge will be recognizing and countering Russian revanchism. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, support to separatists in Ukraine and military involvement in Syria are manifestations of a confident, assertive Russia. Certainly, the Baltic States and others are aware of this behavior and hopeful that the international community and the United States will help to prevent this type of Russian adventurism against them.

President Vladimir Putin’s public comments about Russia’s nuclear capabilities and claims that the United States can’t defend itself against Russia’s hypersonic weapons are part of Putin’s playbook to intimidate neighbors and display military prowess.

Equally of concern is Russia’s use of the internet and social media to disseminate disinformation abroad, as with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia historically has used this type of media manipulation, better known as “active measures,” as a form of political warfare against the United States and Western Europe.

Russia will be our greatest challenge.

Iran: Despite a United Nations Security Council resolution that requires Iran to refrain from test-launching ballistic missiles, Iran continues to launch nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that can target regional countries and Europe. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism, with its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) actively involved in Syria and Iraq, while terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah operate with impunity in Lebanon and other countries.  


For these and other reasons — sunset provisions that after 10 to 15 years, Iran could enrich uranium and conduct plutonium reprocessing at industrial-scale levels — the United States pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The challenge will be to get our European allies and partners to recognize the extant threat from Iran and to coordinate a strategy for effectively dealing with Iran.

Nuclear proliferation: The 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was established to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons technology, while promoting peaceful uses of nuclear energy and eventually achieving complete nuclear disarmament by the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China.

Now there are four additional nuclear states — Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea — all non-members of the NPT. If North Korea is permitted to retain a nuclear weapons capability, and if Iran eventually acquires nuclear weapons, an international nuclear arms race will become a reality.

In East Asia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia likely will seek nuclear weapons, as will Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the Middle East. If this happens, the likelihood of nuclear weapons or weapons technology proliferating to rogue states and terrorist organizations will intensify, with dire consequences for the world.

Drug trafficking: The amount of illicit drugs entering the United States has grown exponentially over the years, affecting especially the lives of our younger generation. As a nation, we must do better at aiding, assisting and compelling other countries to ensure that heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine do not enter the United States.

Greater effort to aid countries in Latin and Central America, Mexico, Afghanistan and Myanmar, to name a few, with crop eradication and substitution programs and better programs to detect and prevent these drugs from entering the United States, including through U.S. ports, is an imperative. Although much has been done to address this problem, more must be done, to include working with these countries to eliminate the organized criminal groups that profit from drug trafficking.

Ambassador Joseph R. DeTrani was the State Department’s special envoy for negotiations with North Korea from 2003 to 2006. He directed the National Counterproliferation Center in 2010 and was associate director of national intelligence. He served more than two decades with the CIA and as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. The views are the author’s and not those of any government department or agency.