13 November 2016

The 8 Biggest Foreign Policy Challenges Facing Donald Trump

Donald Trump will become president at an uncertain time for international relations.

Here are the top eight foreign policy challenges the Trump administration will confront upon taking office.

As the Pentagon acknowledges, climate change presents a significant long-term national security threat. But it’s down here at number 8 because Trump and the Republican party disagree, making their response straightforward.

Almost the entire world thinks the international community should reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the likelihood of worst-case scenarios:
In November 2014, the US and China reached a bilateral agreement to reduce carbon emissions.
In December 2015, the world signed the Paris Agreement, setting voluntary carbon reduction targets and creating the Green Climate Fund to help poorer countries establish less carbon-intensive development paths.
And in October 2016, over 170 countries signed a binding agreement to cut hydroflourocarbons (HFCs), a coolant used in refrigerators and air conditioners that traps 1,000 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.

The president-elect calls global warming a Chinese hoax, and the Republican party platform rejects climate science, so the administration’s path forward is clear: renege on the deal with China, pull out of the Paris Agreement, and reverse Obama’s emission-reducing policies.

Trump already took a big step in this direction, appointing prominent climate skeptic Myron Ebell to run his EPA transition team.

The foreign policy aspect of this strategy isn’t particularly challenging.

Leading the world is hard, but abdicating global leadership is easy.

Opposition to trade, or at least to “bad” trade deals, was a staple of Trump’s campaign, and his supporters expect him to deliver.

Pulling out of NAFTA and other trade agreements would do little to bring higher paying/lower skill manufacturing jobs back to the United States.

However, protectionist measures would raise the cost of consumer goods and manufacturing inputs. Ensuing trade wars would harm the American economy and damage relations with Mexico, China, and others.

But Trump has an out.

Foreign countries, having watched the presidential campaign, might believe that Trump would start a mutually-harmful trade war. That gives him leverage. He can renegotiate the deals, potentially getting more favorable terms for American workers. Then he can tell his base that, thanks to him, America is now winning trade.

The Syrian civil war remains a festering hole in a strategically important region, drawing in surrounding powers and creating an ongoing migrant crisis for the Middle East and Europe.

The Obama administration said Syrian president Bashar al Assad must go, but did not take decisive action to remove him. Under Obama, the US supported some Syrian rebels and pursued a diplomatic settlement, hoping Russia would pressure Assad to step down.

By contrast, Trump says the US and Russia should work together to fight ISIS. However, Russia primarily aims to restore Assad’s sovereignty. And, during the campaign, Trump parroted the Syrian government’s talking point that it’s Assad or terrorists.

Bashar al-Assad

Therefore, the Trump administration will probably switch sides in Syria and support Assad. This is a more realpolitik strategy in which the United States backs a violent dictator as long as he can maintain order — a departure from Obama’s strategy, as well as George W. Bush’s democracy promotion.

For American security, the potential upside is that Assad may be the only actor, other that ISIS, capable of controlling territory throughout Syria. Diplomatic efforts to create a democratic transition have gone nowhere.

However, this comes with a large complication. Working with Russia and supporting Assad means acting in accordance with Iranian interests, against the interests of America’s Sunni Arab allies, namely Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as Israel.

Jihadist terrorism remains an active anti-American security threat. It’s a multifaceted challenge, and Trump inherits a multifaceted response developed by his two predecessors.

Degrade terrorist groups’ capacity by targeting their leaders
Al Qaeda is weaker than it was, but the group and its affiliates maintain a presence in Yemen, the Afghan-Pakistan border region, North Africa, Somalia, and South Asia. Meanwhile, ISIS and its affiliates are in Syria, Iraq, the Sinai, Libya, Nigeria and elsewhere.

Drone strikes and Special Operations raids kill or capture high-value members, such as strategists and bomb-makers. This reduces terrorist groups’ ability to plan and execute attacks, by removing valuable members and by forcing them to go to ground and reduce communication. However, it also creates backlash, aiding their recruitment.

Dislodge jihadists from territory they control
Controlling territory gives non-state actors a place to train and plan operations. Additionally, it can provide a magnet for recruits.

Arab and Kurdish forces, backed by US airpower and intelligence, are reclaiming territory from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The assault on Mosul is underway and Raqqa’s next. However, the United States will have to remain politically engaged to ensure the aftermath does not set the stage for an ISIS successor.

ISIS affiliates are active in Libya, Nigeria (Boko Haram) and Egypt’s Sinai desert.

The Egyptian and Nigerian governments are capable, and supporting them is probably the best strategy.

But Libya is a failed state. Targeted kill/capture missions can help disrupt ISIS operations, but cannot eliminate the group’s presence. Trump will have to decide if Libya warrants American ground forces in support of a potential government, or if occasional operations against suspected terrorists are sufficient.

Win the war of ideas
ISIS developed a sophisticated media operation, known as Al Hayat Media Center. They also maintain a large social media presence, despite efforts to shut it down.

Al Qaeda has been catching up, with drone-shot footage of fighting in Yemen — edited to look like a first-person-shooter video game — appearing in recruitment videos.

Countering jihadist groups requires reducing their appeal. This is especially important for the self-starter problem, in which sympathizers initiate attacks without direction from the group, such as in San Bernardino.

This one will be especially challenging for Trump, whose anti-Muslim comments have appeared in both ISIS and al Qaeda propaganda.

Trump denounced the nuclear deal on the campaign trail, but he (probably) isn’t stupid enough to rip it up.

Widespread multilateral sanctions brought Iran to the table. But if the United States unilaterally breaks the deal, that won’t get the UK, France and Germany, let alone Russia or China, to reimpose sanctions. On their own, American sanctions, which the US imposed following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, have done little besides signal disapproval.

Iran allowed IAEA inspections, which confirm that Iran sharply reduced its stockpiles of enriched uranium, reduced its ability to enrich more, and poured concrete into its one plutonium-producing reactor. Intelligence agencies agree: Iran is now further from being able to produce a nuclear weapon than it has been in many years.

Can we expect the president-elect to appreciate the above?

Reneging on the deal would prompt Iran to scramble for a bomb to deter America’s newfound hostility. That would leave two options: accept a nuclear Iran or go to war.

Though curbing Iranian nuclear development is the most important American foreign policy goal, and US-Iranian relations have thawed somewhat, the two countries remain adversaries.

Iran continues to compete with the US for influence in Iraq, supports Hezbollah and other groups the US identifies as terrorists, backs the Assad government in Syria, backs the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and threatens the interests of American allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.

But they’re cooperating with the United States against a common enemy, ISIS.

Foreign relations operate on many tracks. Much as the US and Soviet Union cooperated on arms control during the Cold War while opposing each other in other arenas, the United States can cooperate with Iran on areas of mutual interest while countering Iranian ambitions elsewhere.

However, Iran knows that it would be extremely difficult to rally the world to reinstate sanctions for anything other than an egregious, unprovoked violation. Therefore, the Iranians will probably push as far as they can in other areas, such as conducting ballistic missile tests in violation of a UN Security Council resolution, and supporting proxies throughout the Middle East.

The new administration will have to ensure intelligence agencies maintain close watch on Iran, and determine which Iranian actions can be tolerated and which require pushback.

This is a weird one.

Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and began assisting rebels in eastern Ukraine, many Americans treated Russia an adversary. This is especially true of Republicans, who criticized Obama as weak on Russia, often citing Mitt Romney’s claim that Russia is America’s greatest geopolitical threat.

By contrast, Trump expressed a desire to work with Russia, praised Putin, and scrubbed language about arming Ukraine from the Republican party platform. He cast doubt on whether America would honor its commitment to protect NATO allies, such as Latvia or Estonia, from Russian attack, and rejected the American intelligence community’s assessment that Russian operatives hacked the Democratic National Committee in an effort to influence the election.

For most items on this list, the Trump administration’s challenge is developing and executing strategies to achieve America’s goals. For this one, it’s figuring out what they are.

America’s biggest long-term geostrategic challenge is the rise of China. China is the only country with the potential to create an alternative to the American-led international order, and ensuring that China rises peacefully has been one of America’s prime goals since Richard Nixon’s historic visit.

To achieve this, the United States adopted a three-pronged strategy:
Welcome China into the international economy and increase bilateral trade, which encourages market reforms in China and creates economic interdependence.
Encourage an increased Chinese role in international institutions, such as the G20.
Maintain a significant military presence in the western Pacific, and strengthen overlapping alliance networks with Pacific Rim counties — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc. — while cultivating India as a balancing power.

The Bush administration normalized India as a nuclear power, and the Obama administration made the “pivot to Asia” a central foreign policy plank.

The pivot’s main achievement is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement between 12 Pacific Rim counties in Asia and the Americas. China is not included.

For the US, the economic effects (probably a small boost to GDP and small decrease in manufacturing employment) pale in comparison to the geopolitical benefits (tying Asian economies to the United States, rather than China).

Anti-trade and anti-Obama sentiment stalled TPP ratification in Congress. Failing to ratify would be consistent with Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and send a signal to Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and others that they should get closer to China instead.

China is asserting itself in the western Pacific, expanding territorial claims in the East China Sea (which could spark conflict with Japan or South Korea) and the South China Sea (which threatens Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines).

Meanwhile, American influence in southeast Asia suffered a blow in October when Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines, went to China and announced a military and economic “separation” from the United States.

The decision before the new administration is no less than reasserting American influence in East Asia and repairing relations with friends and allies frightened by Trump’s campaign rhetoric, or effectively ceding the region to China and hastening the transition to a multipolar international order.

Trump’s campaign created immense uncertainty.

For decades, the United States built a global order. Trump questioned, challenged, or dismissed many of the core foreign policy principles behind it.

When he discussed foreign policy, it was about money — America is losing trade deals, allies are ripping off the US by not spending enough on defense— rather than about power.

But the United States is not a for-profit corporation. Ambiguity may help in business negotiations, but in foreign affairs, clarity strengthens alliances and deters adversaries.

Will the United States remain the linchpin of NATO? Will it honor the alliance and protect eastern European countries against Russia?

Will the US continue supporting East Asian allies against China?

Will the US abdicate leadership of the non-proliferation regime and allow, or even encourage, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and others to acquire nuclear weapons?

Will the US maintain support for democracy and economic globalization?

Most importantly, does Trump aim for an “America first” foreign policy that defines US interests narrowly, in which anything that does not directly threaten American security is not our problem? Or does he believe the United States should continue to act as the leader of the global order?

He should address this immediately, and try to convince nervous allies and opportunistic adversaries that campaign nonsense was just that.

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