World of crises, is­sues await Trump in 2019

North Ko­rea, China, Ye­men, Syria on list

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

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 Is­raeliPales­tinian 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 wild cards 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 na­tion­state 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 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 decades­old 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 cy­ber at­tack 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 Iran­backed 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.”


Pres­i­dent Trump faces many cru­cial world is­sues, in­clud­ing nu­clear diplo­macy, the with­drawal of U.S. sol­diers in Syria and Afghanistan and a peace ac­cord be­tween Is­rael and Pales­tine.

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