President Trump’s high-wire nuclear diplomacy with North Korea could collapse or achieve a major breakthrough. The same goes for contentious trade talks with China, Mr. Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan, an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and the administration’s nuclear brinkmanship with Iran.
To put it mildly, the administration has no shortage of foreign policy balls in the air heading into 2019, not to mention a slate of looming global question marks — from the fate of Brexit and upcoming Israeli elections to the prospect of an even more revanchist Russia and the threat of a resurgent Islamic State.
“In a word, vertigo will define the certain uncertainty of 2019,” according to a Center for Strategic International Studies analysis that described the list unknowns for the coming year as flatly “exhaustive.”
“Surprises and wildcards are to be expected in an overall disordered and increasingly multipolar global environment,” wrote Samuel Brannen, a senior fellow with the center’s Risk and Foresight Group, who suggested Mr. Trump’s undermanned national security team may face serious problems after two years of aggressive foreign policy moves.
“Senior vacancies across the Trump administration and response to past turmoil,” he wrote, “call into serious question how Washington will respond in a real crisis.”
But administration supporters say Mr. Trump has better prepared Washington than President Obama ever did to set a new U.S. agenda amid a shifting global order rife with unpredictable challenges.
Many conservatives, for instance, applaud the president’s “America First” doctrine demanding traditional allies do more for global security, while simultaneously reorienting U.S. strategic thinking away from “forever wars” with small terrorist groups and toward taking on major nation-state rivals such as China and Russia. Mr. Trump, they say, is rightfully reminding the world that the U.S. is its most powerful nation and has its own interests to defend.
“Whereas President Obama believes that a weaker America makes for a stronger world, President Trump believes that American exceptionalism compels the world to be better,” according to retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony J. Tata, a former deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“From muting the North Korean missile and nuclear threat, to mostly defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, to countering Russia by insisting that NATO member-nations pay their fair share to defend themselves, President Trump is hitting on all international relations cylinders,” Mr. Tata wrote in a commentary published this week by Fox News.
While establishment critics slammed Mr. Trump’s recent decision to withdraw all 2,000 American troops from Syria as dangerously premature, Mr. Tata called it “the perfect example of the Trump Doctrine at work.”
“Instead of staying too long and getting sucked into a long-term commitment, the president is removing our troops … so that we can husband our resources for other fights,” he wrote.
A new strategy
Such analysis dovetails with the administration’s year-old National Security Strategy, in which Mr. Trump broadly asserted that his administration is schooled in “the difficult lesson that when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void to the disadvantage of the United States.”
The strategy identified China and Russia, rather than terror groups like Islamic State or al Qaeda, as the top challengers of American influence and power in the coming decades. It also calls out as simply “false” the decades-old assumption of Washington’s foreign policy establishment that inclusion of such rivals in vast multilateral international institutions would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added meat to the strategy with a major speech recently in Brussels, where he lumped China with Iran as nations bent on “undermining the international order,” calling Mr. Trump was the first president with the courage to question whether the many U.S.-backed post-World War II institutions still serve the function of global stabilization and the promotion of freedom.
“If not, we must ask how we can right it,” Mr. Pompeo said. “This is what President Trump is doing. He is returning the United States to its traditional, central leadership role in the world.”
Setting aside the inevitable unexpected crises that can upend an administration’s agenda, Mr. Brannen said the coming year offered several near-certain tests for the “America first” agenda as Mr. Trump passes the midpoint of his first term in office. Among them:
• Intensifying U.S.-China tensions ahead of a March 1, 2019, deadline for a deal to end the bilateral trade war.
• Uncertainty in Europe fueled by Brexit, a debt crisis in Italy, angry populist protests in France and the lame-duck tenure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
• Potential trouble in the world’s emerging markets from Argentina to Zambia, as currency depreciations create a credit crunch and investment flight.
The Council on Foreign Relations added to the list by warning the administration to prepare for unexpected developments and potential conflicts ahead. As it annually does, the think tank ranked sources of potential conflict based on likelihood and their possible impact on U.S. national interests.
Among the top 10 potential threats for 2019: a disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure and networks; renewed tension on the Korean Peninsula if nuclear talks stall; a deepening economic crisis in Venezuela; armed confrontation over disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea; and a worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
The Belgium-based International Crisis Group, meanwhile, ranked the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led and U.S.-supported military coalition is battling Iran-backed proxies, atop its own list of conflicts that could deteriorate in the next 12 months.
“After more than four years of war and a Saudi-led siege, almost 16 million Yemenis face ‘severe acute food insecurity,’ according to the UN,” the Crisis Group wrote in a recent analysis. “That means one in two Yemenis doesn’t have enough to eat.”
The analysis expressed hope that “U.S. pressure to end the conflict could intensify in 2019,” but noted the Trump administration is likely to face challenges on a far broader scale.
“As the era of uncontested U.S. primacy fades, the international order has been thrown into turmoil,” wrote Crisis Group President Robert Malley, a former Obama administration policy chief. “More leaders are tempted more often to test limits, jostle for power, and seek to bolster their influence — or diminish that of their rivals — by meddling in foreign conflicts.”
The China question
It’s a reality most prevalent when examining the U.S.-China relationship.
“Although China does not want to usurp the United States’ position as the leader of a global order, its actual aim is nearly as consequential,” according to Oriana Skylar Mastro, a security studies professor at Georgetown University and visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“In the Indo-Pacific region, China wants complete dominance,” Ms. Skylar Mastro wrote recently in Foreign Affairs. “Globally, even though it is happy to leave the United States in the driver’s seat, it wants to be powerful enough to counter Washington when needed.”
How that will play out over the coming is a matter of debate.
“There is a limit to how powerful a country can get without directly challenging the incumbent power, and China is now reaching that point,” Ms. Skylar Mastro wrote. “History has shown that in the vast majority of cases in which a country was able to sustain its rise, the rising power ended up overtaking the dominant power, whether peacefully or through war.”
“That does not mean that the United States cannot buck the historical trend,” she added, but, “to remain dominant, Washington will have to change course. It will have to deepen, rather than lessen, its involvement in the liberal international order. It will have to double down on, rather than abandon, its commitment to American values. And perhaps most important, it will have to ensure that its leadership benefits others rather than pursue a strategy based on ‘America first.’”
But administration officials say that’s exactly what they’re already doing. Mr. Pompeo went out of his way to argue in Brussels that it’s simply off-the-mark to claim Mr. Trump is leaving America’s longstanding allies out in the cold.
“Under President Trump, we are not abandoning international leadership or our friends in the international system,” the secretary of state said.
The administration’s goal, Mr. Pompeo said, is to “reassert our sovereignty to reform the liberal international order,” not to break it up entirely. “We want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well. We aspire to make the international order serve our citizens.”