Why you should care
Because Washington has its work cut out for it on the world stage.
OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS
American presidents can always expect a long list of international problems to land on their desk. It’s that way again this year, and even less predictable given the extraordinary nature of the current president and his unorthodox approach.
President Trump embarks on 2018 with a burden: a low level of trust around the world. Surveys conducted in 37 countries this year by Pew Research Center reflect how confidence in the American president declined from 64 percent at the end of the Obama administration to 22 percent under Trump. These international citizens most strongly disapprove of Trump’s withdrawal from major trade and climate agreements and his proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border.
Many organizations publish assessments of the coming year — the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, cites 30 potential crises in 2018. Frankly, many of these read like laundry lists, so rather than do that, I decided to delve into five especially consequential issues, acknowledging that an especially important one not singled out here — China — touches on all of them.
Tehran will be demanding Trump’s attention very early this year, and not just because of the protest demonstrations underway in Iran. Presidents must rule every 90 days on whether Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear capability in return for sanctions relief. Most of Trump’s advisers want to continue the agreement, but he and a few on his team are deeply skeptical of it.
In October, Trump tried to have it both ways: He refused to certify Iran’s compliance, stopping short of formal U.S. withdrawal, but threatened to trash it if Congress and American allies did not tighten the agreement before the next certification requirement. That has not happened, so Trump will be in a corner when a decision looms again in mid-January. Following through on his withdrawal threat would anger the other parties — Europe, Russia, China — and risk Iran pulling out and racing to build a bomb. The administration is probably already working on ways to finesse this for Trump.
Relations with Kim Jong-un will not get easier. Pyongyang’s last missile test showed significant progress toward an intercontinental missile, with test data suggesting it could carry to the U.S. a 1,000-kilogram payload, enough for a nuclear warhead. North Korea still needs tests on guidance systems and shielding against re-entry heat, but the North is racing closer to a nuclear capability that the Trump team says is unacceptable. The administration continues to say diplomacy is in the lead, backed up by threat of force and sanctions, but no diplomatic progress is yet visible. So in 2018, team Trump must choose between a potentially catastrophic military operation against the North or a combination of missile defense, negotiations and deterrence — flyovers, military exercises and such — all aimed at freezing, reducing or just managing Pyongyang’s nuclear weaponry.
This will remain high on Trump’s agenda because of its potential impact on American jobs and investment. In 2018, the commander in chief will face pressure to deliver on his campaign promise to be the consummate deal-maker.
Trump returned largely empty-handed from his Asia trip in November, during which none of the countries he visited showed interest in negotiating the bilateral trade deals Trump wants after pulling the United States out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Instead, the other 11 countries are pressing ahead without Washington, denying the U.S. the concessions it had negotiated in years of bargaining. This will also hinder Trump’s plans to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), because Mexico and Canada will close off some of the options through their membership in the TPP.
Trump’s trade posture also hurts him with America’s alliances, whose members are heavily committed to multilateral trade and climate agreements Trump dislikes.
Moscow and Trump’s mysterious relationship will be front and center most of the year. Nipping constantly at his heels will be the congressional and Special Counsel investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether any Americans colluded with Moscow. By repeating references to this as a “hoax,” Trump is opening himself to a charge of having done nothing to keep Russian hands out of the 2018 midterm elections.
At the same time, the administration cannot avoid working with Russia in Syria’s next phase and on North Korea, while also dealing with the unsettled status of Russia in Ukraine following Moscow’s 2014 seizure of territory there. The takeaway? There is little hope for an improved relationship with Russia in 2018.
The Middle East
The region will continue to defy any attempts by Trump to tame the forces unleashed seven years ago by the Arab Spring and its tragic aftermath. For starters, Trump’s announced intention to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where disputes rage over Israeli versus Palestinian sovereignty, has probably frozen any movement toward peace between these two. And even though the Syrian conflict may die down, with ISIS terrorists chased from major strongholds, the proxy war for regional dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue. Meanwhile, tensions are likely to grow between Iran-allied Hezbollah extremists and Israel (the two went to war in 2006, and Hezbollah has strengthened its position since then).
There are, of course, numerous other issues that could erupt: Venezuela, Sahel in Africa, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Somalia, terrorism, etc. But I am confident the five outlined above will matter most.
In sum, the national security challenges facing Trump as 2018 gets underway have only grown in danger and complexity since he took office. Reversing this trend will take more unity, discipline and focus in the administration than we saw in its first year.