Why you should care
Can a powder keg of international crises be avoided in the year ahead?
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
During the coming year, the calculus of major international players will be scrambled by uncertainty about what kind of America they will be dealing with after the U.S. election in November. Will it be President Donald Trump’s America First policy or, under a different president, will Washington return to a more traditional form of global engagement and leadership?
During the first three years of the Trump administration, countries have gradually become untethered from U.S. preferences or guidance and have begun to strike out on their own or in separate coalitions. After Trump in 2017 withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by Obama, the 11 other nations — ranging from Japan to Canada — a year ago signed their own accord. On climate change as well, other nations are not taking Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord as license to abandon it but are remaining in or developing their own policies.
Washington stepping away from such arenas means much more is rattling around loosely in international politics than during most of the years since World War II, when the U.S. usually anchored international agreements as a creator, host, negotiator or enforcer — or sometimes a combination of the four. For some countries prone to conflict — India and Pakistan, for example — this means less worry that the U.S. will try to step in when they risk provoking each other. For others, such as Russia, it means less concern about the U.S. restraining expansionist military or political impulses. And for still others — such as Turkey, Hungary, Saudi Arabia or the Philippines — no need to worry about American nagging as they slide toward autocratic rule.
As for Trump, count on him to have a very simple foreign policy formula between now and November: the potential effect of options on his election prospects. He will be tempted by proposals from adversaries that convey a sense of progress but are more about form than substance: a press conference, a communiqué or photo op that can be spun as great achievement. Countries such as China, North Korea, Iran and Russia are surely aware of this and will look for opportunities to exploit the president’s electoral anxiety and his obvious susceptibility to flattery.
Against this backdrop, what will be at stake in 2020 in key countries and on major issues? A common theme is likely to be stalemate, with most administration goals frustrated and major threats undiminished — and in some cases growing. Here are just a few examples …
North Korea. Trump’s hope for a denuclearized North Korea is pretty much dead with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, saying this week that he is no longer bound by his pledge to stop nuclear and missile work. He has resumed testing short-range missiles, and press reports, citing satellite images, say that he may be preparing to again test an intercontinental missile able to reach the United States. Doing what Kim wants — eliminating sanctions — would be an admission of defeat for Trump and offer no guarantee of better behavior by the North. Trump will be looking for a face-saving option, and Kim will be looking for bait — an offer that conveys a sense of progress while preserving nuclear and missile capability. The North will not in 2020 reveal the detailed inventory essential to all arms control accords.
Russia. Trump deserves credit for agreeing to send lethal weapons for Ukraine’s use in combating the Russian invasion, but beyond that, Russia can pretty much have its way with him — as he has shown time and again with his mysterious deference to Vladimir Putin. That, combined with the backdrop of Trump’s Ukraine-centered impeachment trial, means that no one will trust him to advance U.S. interests fairly with Moscow. Meanwhile, Putin will use this running room to strengthen Russia’s global position, in many cases moving easily into vacuums Trump creates. Russia’s global influence already exceeds anything it had achieved since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and it will further consolidate and strengthen this by the end of Trump’s first term.
China. Trump was right to challenge Chinese trade practices, but his announcement in early December of a narrow “phase one” trade deal with China summarizes perfectly the sort of outcome we might see in the coming year in many other arenas. The deal involves China agreeing to buy more U.S. agricultural products in return for a reduction of U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods. Looking to the election, he will spin this as a big success. However, it fails to close the U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods, Trump’s main goal (the overall deficit has risen from $544 billion to $691 billion since 2016). It also gives away tariff leverage he will need for phases two and three and leaves what one economist called a “fog of uncertainty” for the economy heading into 2020. I believe China will interpret this as a big win for Beijing and will try to leverage Trump’s election worries to gain added advantage.
The Middle East. U.S. influence in the Middle East is at its lowest point in decades. Russia, Iran and Turkey are the power players in Syria; Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement has set off a tit-for-tat cycle of violence manifest by this week’s violence in Iraq as Iraqis protest U.S. retaliation there for attacks on American facilities by Iranian-backed militia; Saudi Arabia, fearing no pressure from Washington, pays little heed to international condemnation of its killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; the long-ballyhooed Israeli-Palestinian U.S. peace plan is nowhere to be found. In short, the region is dry tinder for just about any spark of conflict 2020 produces.
Nuclear weapons. Putin seized political high ground in early December by offering to extend immediately and without preconditions the 2011 New Start Treaty, which caps U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads and bombs at 1,550 each (it is set to expire in 2021). Trump’s phone call with Putin this week may have included some mention of arms control, but the administration is reluctant to say yes on New Start renewal, arguing that new hypersonic weapons are not covered by the treaty and that China should be brought into any strategic arms agreement. This is another case of the administration letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just as it pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement hoping for a better one but ending up with none, it now risks loosening restrictions on the world’s most dangerous weapons in search of an accord that is likely to prove elusive in 2020.
In sum, the year ahead looks like a time of more than average danger for the United States, as domestic politics dominate the stage for an administration that has not shown it can cope with a major crisis. Our New Year’s wish should be that one of those does not come along.